Qualities of a masterpiece

Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions

Qualities of a masterpiece

From John Nolan

Published before 2005


Dear Fred:

I have a feeling that the thread on the issue of "Qualifications of a masterpiece" has died on the list. I was encouraged that you showed interest in it and made contributions to the discussion. I knew you would, because I believe you think that it's an important issue to address. I hope you understand that the least of my intentions in the discussion was to give any impression that I don't appreciate the modern masters in the ateliers. To the contrary, I think, as you do, that they are by far the best artists living today. I think bringing in the factor of what makes artwork rise above the "best" or even "mediocre" of an age to become standards for the ages (i.e. masterpieces) may seem like it means the rest of what is produced in that age is no good. We all know that's not true.

I'm really intrigued by the question of what qualities go into the determination of a masterpiece. Is it possible that there are common threads? I very much value your thinking -- as well as many others on the list. I just wish serious consideration could take place amongst us with this issue whereby we could address, agree on and/or dismiss certain ideas.

My impression is that it starts with art that is accomplished in the skill and quality of its execution. Beyond that there is some meaningful expression in its content. Beyond that it takes the ideas and standards of the past and provides a new facet of artistic accomplishment in its style/approach. Beyond that a masterpiece communicates a transcendent truth -- whether it may be the simple still life which communicates something about the significance/beauty of the objects, or a portrait that communicates something profound about the sitter/humanity, or a landscape that communicates something about awesome variety and complexity of nature, or a history/narrative painting that communicates something profound about mankind/God. The applications are legion. It seems that this transcendent aspect is able to be "universal" in its appeal, going past distinctions of politics, religion, etc.

Brian seems to think that it's a useless endeavor. Do you agree? I really would like to know more of your thoughts. I know you're busy, so there is no hurry to respond. I just wanted to let you know some of my thoughts.

John