September 4, 2010

"I have no definitive definition of a masterpiece but, in my view, it is a work that permits diverse interpretations, indeed contradictions."

Ha ha. Get it? He (Laurent Le Bon, director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz) has to avoid tripping over his own concept. You can't have a "definitive definition" that is about diversity and contradictions. If you're into diversity and contradictions, how can you answer any of the questions that are asked?

And... "definitive definition" — isn't that a funny term? It should be a redundancy. If it's a definition at all, it should necessarily be definitive. If he can't give a definitive definition, he's not giving a definition at all, one would think. He's eschewing definition. He wants people to give diverse and contradictory meanings to the term used to name the show at his museum.

So... do you care what works of art get labeled "masterpiece"? If so, why and what would you put the label on?


Bender said...

Once again we confront the tyranny of relativism. It's not about "art," it's about the non-existence of objective truth. The greatest aspiration and virtue (being a masterpiece) is to mean whatever the hell anyone wants it to mean and, thereby, have no real meaning at all.

If it has a definitive meaning, if it has objective truth, then it is crap, but if it has no meaning, if the truth is relative, then it is great.

The only truth is that there is no truth. Yeah, we get it by now.

Synova said...

I think I'd probably agree with him. The difference between an masterpiece and something that is not a masterpiece is that the meaning is not clear, so one has to think about it.

Does anyone wonder what a Kincaid means? Do they? I saw a lot of really beautiful artwork last weekend. Most of it was kittens, dragons, and naked goddesses making lewd gestures. People stopped to admire a lot of wonderful pieces but if they looked very long it was generally to admire the skill or notice the fun details... That's a mouse portrait of who? Einstein? Look at the little details that make that mouse Einstein. Neat! Oh, look... those kittens are actually bondage kittens. Althouse would like the naked goddesses making a circle with the thumb and forefinger of one hand and poking the finger of their other hand through it.

So you know what? Beautiful stuff and extremely talented and skilled artists but no ambiguity of interpretation at all. None. Illustrations. Not that there is anything wrong with that. One of my volunteers was extremely excited to have won the auction for the bondage kittens. Where she's planning to hang that picture I have no clue. If I had *money* I might have gone for some of the jeweled dragons with butterfly or fairy wings pictures just because they are so pretty.

But there was other art there that was different. It was evocative but you weren't sure exactly about what. The naked lady was more of a suggestion... did she represent freedom or was she trapped, was she powerful or part of a larger whole that cared about her not at all?

Books are that way, too. The difference between a fantasy or space opera, even when firmly in either genre that is open to interpretation from one that has a clear agenda *is* the definition between something that is a lasting story and something that is a hack that will age ungracefully and quickly.

GMay said...

"So... do you care what works of art get labeled "masterpiece"?"

Nope, since I just don't get most modern art.

I think the most important criterion is the 'Test of Time', which pretty much rules out the vast majority of crap that the 20th century seems to have produced. If subsequent generations can't relate/understand/figure out some work without circuitous explanations/education

Which gets to the second question:

"If so, why and what would you put the label on?"

In addition to time, I'd say highly developed skill of some sort.

I'd rather watch Bob Ross crank out one of his little 20 minute jobs than modern or contemporary painting/sculpture/some photography, because while it may be fairly generic, I can relate to the finished product and admire the skill he shows.

Then again, I'm just a rube.

GMay said...

Ooops, didn't finish a sentence up there.

If subsequent generations can't relate/understand/figure out some work without circuitous explanations/education, then it may be good, but it wouldn't strike me as a masterpiece.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I have no definitive definition of a marriage but, in my view, it is a work that permits diverse interpretations, indeed contradictions.

Anonymous said...

The relativistic denial of absolute truth is an absolute truth.

Don't old Star Trek episodes end with someone in that endless loop?

Anonymous said...

And besides, AIDs creates a very broad diversity of bacteria in one's body.

I don't see people praising AIDs because it creates diversity.

lemondog said...

I suspect he is someone who cannot commit not only to a definitive definition of "masterpiece" but to life in general.

So... do you care what works of art get labeled "masterpiece"?

Yes. I know, for example, this sort of thing cannot possibly rise to the level of the currently questionable 99 'CENT' of Andreas Gursky's Cibachrome, but, yes.

The label 'masterpiece' will not necessarily make it any more appealing (to me) because of that label, but such label, I presume, would recognize the imagination, innovation, technique, skill, effort of the artist as well as the period in which the piece was created.

Looked at other photos of Andreas Gursky who seems to be fascinated with repetition, scale and line.

Anonymous said...

masterpiece = revelation

Bender said...

But there was other art there that was different. It was evocative but you weren't sure exactly about what.

What you are talking about Synova is mystery and transcendence, NOT relativism and ambiguity, that is, diverse and contradictory interpretation.

Unknown said...

My definition of "art" involves the mastery of the artist's medium. I was at the local Art Museum with my lady. My sciatica was playing up, and she got ahead of me. I caught up with her on a bench, admiring a large painting. She was somewhat taken aback when I said "it could just as well be his dropcloth." And it could. There was no way to tell from the image whether he had succeeded in creating the image he intended. There are so many of these cases, where we say, "our five year old could do that". Only, our five year old won't, because he's trying to master his medium.

dpoyesac said...

"If it's a definition at all, it should necessarily be definitive."

This is the kind of thing that sounds true, but just isn't. We use ostensive definitions all the time -- heck, we learn to speak and use language because because we, as a species, are pretty good at the 'I don't know what it is but I know it when I see it' game. (It may be bad way to legally define obscenity, but it is a basic part of human perceptual psychology.)

Remember: the opposite of post-modern relativism isn't objective reality; it's just more post-modern relativism that pretends to be objective. Keeping an open mind doesn't necessarily mean drinking the waters of the Fountain of All-Things-Are-Equal Relativism. It just means being humble and accepting that we aren't as smart as we think we are.

Amexpat said...

Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent
When I paint my masterpiece

Palladian said...

That which deserves to be called "art" must hover in an eternal "in-between" state, where the work's beauty, philosophy, and purpose remain unresolved. The essential mystery at the core of a masterpiece is never solved.

Great art is a question without a knowable answer, or an answer without a knowable question.

Synova said...

And that's different from moral ambiguity or the unambiguous message within art that demands moral ambiguity.

Unknown said...

Masterpiece, to a certain degree, is in the eye of the beholder. Often, the critical establishment decides what a given artist's masterpiece(s) may be, but us peons may have different ideas.

I think a masterpiece constitutes not only someone's all-around best work, but also is the best example of the artist's philosophy and technical capabilities.

Dagny said...


My sciatica was playing up, and she got ahead of me.

My sympathies on your sciatica. Been there, done that, no fun.

Try Aleve, it did me a lot of good.

Palladian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palladian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ricpic said...

A masterpiece is unambiguous. In execution and in meaning. The image is always striking and RIGHT. And a masterpiece is rare. Why? Because it is the unambiguous successful summation of something big, something central. So the ambition behind a masterpiece must be large and the dexterity of the artist must be commensurate to his ambition.

Velazquez -- Las Meninas

Velazquez -- The Surrender of Breda

Goya -- The Second of May 1808

Seurat -- Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte

Hopper -- Nighthawks

Palladian said...

I also believe that great art must address the issue of beauty in one way or another, either to present in itself an ideal of beauty, or to discourse upon the nature of beauty, or to dwell in beauty's shadow

"A masterpiece is unambiguous. In execution and in meaning. The image is always striking and RIGHT. And a masterpiece is rare. Why? Because it is the unambiguous successful summation of something big, something central."

Ambiguous is not a word I'd use, because it connotes indecision. But I do believe that great art is never "clear" in its purpose, meaning or even execution. You say that a masterpiece is "striking" and "right"... but what, if you had to define them, do those terms mean? You also use the ambiguous word "something" twice to describe what you claim is definitive in a masterpiece.

Instead of using the post-modernist buzz-word "ambiguity", I prefer to call this quality of great art either "central mystery", as I mentioned, or "ineffable". In art we seek transformative experience, just as we do in religion. I don't think this is coincidental.

Palladian said...

Oh, and speaking of masterpieces... You can even own one for the meagrest handful of shekels!

ricpic said...

A painting of a vase of flowers cannot be a masterpiece. It can be beautiful. It can be charming. It can even be "ineffable." But it can't be a masterpiece. Subject too small. Subject not central to our condition, the human condition. The "central mystery" of a vase of flowers is not enough of a mystery, even when delivered by the artist, to make it a masterpiece! Five hundred years of flower painting and no flower painting masterpiece. Sensitive as all get out but no masterpiece in you, flower painter. And no capacity for masterpiece evaluation in the super sensitive flower painting aficionado either.

Phil 314 said...

You can even own one for the meagrest handful of shekels!

Shameless commerce!!

Did you get any stimulus money?

Phil 314 said...

Maybe what the author was really saying was:

Masterpiece? Don't ask me.

lemondog said...

re: vase of flowers, Subject not central to our condition

Not necessarily

lemondog said...

And this vase of flowers is exquisite, brilliant and fills me with dread

ALP said...

Masterpiece = I am looking at something so visually arresting, beautiful, and sublime - that my mind is clear. Clearer than it could ever be if I tried to clear it on my own.

That's what I can't stand about most modern art in general - it seeks to make you "think". It needs to be explained, defended, and analyzed to death. In the words of the wise Peter Griffin: "It insists upon itself."

I don't want some artist to tell me what to think. I want an artist to help me "just be" for a minute or so.

Bender said...

Well, I suppose at some point we ought to provide a definition -- a definitive definition even. And we really don't need to go very far because the term defines itself.

A "masterpiece" is a piece that is worthy of being done by a master of the craft.

And, what do you know, that is the historical derivation of the term as well.

"Originally, the term masterpiece referred to a piece of work produced by an apprentice or journeyman aspiring to become a master craftsman in the old European guild system. His fitness to qualify for guild membership was judged partially by the Masterpiece, and if he was successful, it was retained by the guild."

A masterpiece is more than merely one's magnum opus, it is something which is necessarily judged by others as being of a superior quality. In art, this would include not only the aesthetics of the piece, but the intangible, transcendent quality, which leads one to conclude that it rises above and beyond the mundane and profane.

By that standard, most modern "art," which can just as easily be made by a chimpanzee with a paint brush (or one throwing his own excrement on canvas), is not and can never be a "masterpiece."

AST said...

Why don't you have a tag for postmodernism? That's what this nonsense is all about. It puts Madonna's oeuvre on the same level as the Sistine Chapel.

The purpose of criticism as an intellectual endeavor is to explore what it is about art, literature, etc. that makes it worth experiencing. He contributes nothing toward such understanding.

wv: expendsm - suggesting a new term for what comes after postmodernism: expendism.

traditionalguy said...

The Ten Best all time Ten Best lists is still a tad bit subjective. The best answer maybe to require a continually administered polygraph testing of all critics.But that takes away the mystery of blurred definitions being in use among human units of massed of chemical molecules...or whatever Hawking called us.

chickelit said...

I associate "Masterpiece" with "Theater" because I watched a lot of PBS as a kid.

ken in tx said...

When people talk in such abstractions as this, I ask for examples. If they can’t provide them, I know they are talking nonsense. On modern art, BTW, I read that Jackson Pollack and one of his buddies—I don’t remember his name—used to laugh themselves silly that art patrons were willing to pay money for the crap they were producing. Modern art is a con game.

Palladian said...

"Modern art is a con game."

God, you people are tiresome.

yashu said...

Synova & Palladian OTM (on the mark) here.

Polyvalence, mystery, ineffability… Irreducible to any (even any authorially self-proclaimed) message/ idea… An intimation of the sublime. To be a masterpiece, for me, there has to be a sense of the work's *inexhaustibility*… you can return to it again & again, and each encounter affords more (or renewed) layers, facets, questions, shades of experience & meaning… at different moments or different decades of your life.

And *experience* is key here. It's what I'm trying to get at by saying the masterpiece is not reducible to its message(s) or idea(s). Compare: a simplistic allegory/ parable, most political/ propaganda art, a lot of so-called conceptual art, etc. Once you "get" the moral or idea or meaning or message-- like getting the answer to a riddle, or reading the caption to an illustration-- the art itself is disposable or secondary to its "point." Masterpieces can indeed be conceptual, political, allegorical, ideological, propagandistic… but they are not exhausted by and not reducible to their "caption." There has to be something there that resists, transcends, problematizes, exceeds its own articulatable "meaning." I think talk of "contradictions" is also getting at this.

I think of Aristotle (and all those philosophers after him) trying to define the work of tragedy. Catharsis, the experience of fear & pity and all that.

Another way to put this, which may sound corny-- the masterpiece affords one a kind of "spiritual" experience or transformation. (A "passion," Latin passio.) I mean "spiritual" in the largest sense-- not necessarily religious or divine at all. But what one might call one's soul or (more neutrally) self undergoes an experience that recalls one to one's fragile humanity, mortality, this particular moment of space/time/history (this particular balmy night in late summer in the year 2010), the mystery of others, whatever. And it doesn't have to do that by means of "ideas": the experience of "beauty" or sensory pleasure in itself (in color, form, melody, rhythm, etc.) can do that. Or the experience of laughter, the pleasures of humor & wit (there are comedic masterpieces, I think).

But for me, to be a masterpiece, that pleasure (aesthetic, sensory, etc.) has to be so great that there is a tinge of pain or poignancy (or what Barthes calls a 'punctum', something that punctures or pierces me) in it. There has to be something bittersweet, something complex (even in the most minimalist work)-- like the taste of wine, or Scotch (as opposed to sugar water). Or something that gives me a kind of vertigo, something that unsettles me, even if I couldn't say what it is. Something uncanny. And the experience is not restricted to so-called "high" art-- plenty of works of so-called "popular" culture attain this status for me.

Also: at once of its time, and timeless (or better, what Nietzsche call "untimely").

And yes, to be a canonical artistic masterpiece, I would (normally… I wouldn't discount the possibility of exceptions, though I can't think of any offhand) expect it to meet very high standards of technical excellence (techne = craft, meaning the creator is a master of his/ her craft, even if he/she disregards or breaks the so-called "rules"). But what we're talking about here isn't what makes a good or great work of art, but something much more elusive-- the "masterpiece." I agree that ultimately "History" (what successive generations of bitter, inspired, corrupt, idealistic, passionate, cynical, blinded, visionary, eternally fluctuating critical controversy & consensus deem "masterpieces") is as good a judge (which is to say, far from infallible) as we can have.

Bryan Townsend said...

Some great observations here. I'm a musician and a number of years ago I got into a debate about whether there were any musical masterworks any more. The idea of the essential relativism of music is rather contradicted by the practice of musicians and composers. A great deal--most--of what you do every day is to winnow out the good from the bad. As Schoenberg said to a composition student, pointing to the eraser on his pencil, "this end is more important than the other end." The idea of deprecating the idea of there being masterworks is part of the general avant-garde agenda of also deprecating all traditional elements in favor of transgressive ones: atonality instead of tonality and so on. But time and audiences make their own choices. In the long run, we will still be listening to the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier and the Beethoven piano sonatas long after we have stopped listening to the Stockhausen Klavierstuecke. Oh, wait, that's already happened.

This quote from the article is revealing:

"Once upon a time, a masterpiece was a creation that met rigid standards of artistry and craftsmanship. These days, the term usually refers to the best work of an artist's career or an example of outstanding creativity or skill, but there's little agreement on the meaning and relevance of the term, particularly in modern and contemporary art."

That phrase "rigid standards" is an attempt to beg the question of course, as we all know that rigid is bad. There is nothing rigid about masterworks. Every single fugue in Bach's Well-Tempered is great because it does not follow a rigid plan, but is rather a flourishing and exploration of creative possibilities. The same with the Beethoven sonatas. Not a one follows a textbook sonata form.

There is certainly mystery about masterworks, though.

Robert Cook said...

"On modern art, BTW, I read that Jackson Pollack and one of his buddies—I don’t remember his name—used to laugh themselves silly that art patrons were willing to pay money for the crap they were producing."

I'm afraid you've been misinformed.

Pollack and his peers took their work very seriously and did not consider it in the least to be meretricious or fraudulent.

Moreover, many of them, Pollack included, did not reap huge fortunes from their efforts, or did so only at ages where they probably were close to qualifying for Social Security.

There's always been just as much bad representational art as there has been bad abstraction, and I don't mean by that representational work that is unskilled. Skill is the the mastery of means, but it does not guarantee depth of conception or expression, as can be seen in the fairies and dragons described by Synova in her post--(I assume she was in attendance at a Science Fiction Convention, a milieu to which I am not a stranger)--or in many of the supremely skilled academic drawings and painting of the French Academy or of the contemporary atelier movement.
These works may demonstrate great skill, but many--not all--are more akin to taxidermy than art.

On the contrary, there is art made by inspired amateurs who lack mastery of means yet whose works are mysterious, ineffable and beautiful, (e.g., Henri Rousseau).

I like both representational art and abstraction, but bad art as well as good may be found everywhere among the multifarious schools of artmaking.