7/3/16: What Makes A Masterpiece?

Anyone who considers themselves an artist- whether a singer, painter, poet, writer, sculptor, photographer, designer, or otherwise- has to discover what differentiates great art from average art. As creators, we must study the masterpieces past and present to inform our own artistic journey; every artist, no matter how revolutionary, can point to other works that influenced and informed their own style. We are shaped by our predecessors, our most valuable teachers.

I am primarily interested in creative writing, but I desperately want to understand the mark of great work in many domains of art: visual, musical, poetic, and photographic. To this end, I scour the Arts, Books, Fiction, and Fashion sections of the New Yorker and the New York Times, hungry to comprehend what makes art great.

In years past, I have struggled, along with many others, to see the difference between great modern art and amateur attempts at modern art. Two years ago I visited the Modern Museum of Art in New York City, and I walked away feeling less than impressed; couldn’t I too create a wall of monochrome green canvases? Couldn’t I also paint the “@” sign on the wall and call it monumental? It occurred to me that the only thing separating great art from average art was the repute of the artist in question. I reasoned that once a person reaches a certain artistic standing, they can call anything they do to a canvas or a wall or a box of paper clips “art” and sell it for substantial sums. As if their hands were the surrogate hands of God, and whatever their hands rendered was worthy of purchase and admiration.

In recent months and weeks I have been trying to overcome this seemingly juvenile, unenlightened view of modern art in favor of a true artistic understanding. I regret to say that, after hours and hours reading and browsing art from the most selective newspapers and journals, I still can’t pick out a great work from a mediocre one. All green canvases look like green canvases to me. That’s not to say I don’t have a deep appreciation for certain pieces of modern art. I could stand captivated for minutes on end in front of Salvador Dalí’s work, for example. I simply have my preferences; certain pieces capture my attention and others don’t.

For a time, I considered myself a failure as an emerging artist for not seeing the complexity and depth of all artwork considered masterful. I assumed that the greatest writers and artists in the world had a sixth sense that I did not. How could I be a true creator myself if I did not appreciate everything considered great in the art world?

And then I realized something, reading a book on the writing life called Still Writing by Dani Shapiro: critics give mixed reviews. Critics have different tastes. Not all “great” works of writing and art are beloved by all high-profile critics, and not all reviews of “great” works are positive. That I didn’t embrace this fact sooner is rather silly, but after years of being made to think that certain books and artworks are objectively masterpieces, I thought there was a formula for the “objective masterpiece” that caused works to be universally revered by critics. Not so.

Around the same time, I read an article about a different book analyzing the origin and science of human preferences and tastes. The author examined just about every study conducted about human preferences in relation to genes, childhood, gender, race, ethnicity, hometown, etc., but could not find a reliable trend between identifiers and preferences. There is no formulaic coffee-lover, no gene to guarantee a love of dogs as opposed to cats. The science of preference is chaotic, infinitely faceted, and inexplicable.

With these two truths in mind, I have decided to approach art a different way. Instead of using the canonical opinion of what art is “great” and what art is not, I will simply listen, observe, and read each piece and see how it affects me personally. If I think it is beautiful, then for me it is so. If I think it is muddled and unintelligible, dull and boring, then for me it is so. This is how I will shape my own artistic visions, projects, and preferences. Not by absorbing the positive critiques in the New Yorker.

I hope that this approach to art, and especially writing, will leave me with a stronger personal foundation for writing my own pieces and creating my own art. I want to be inspired by the things I truly like, not the things I believe I should like. I believe this is the only way to keep the artistic fire lit.

And, in the future, I must remember: to hell with the critics. They have personal preferences, too. If I can affect others, make them experience beauty, emotion, and keep them up at night, then I have succeeded, regardless of whether or not I have created a “masterpiece”.

7 thoughts on “7/3/16: What Makes A Masterpiece?

  1. I absolutely agree with your concluding thoughts. Being true to yourself while creating seems a “must” to me. One of the things I’d like so much to experience more often is just loving the process of creation without attachment to the outcome or to what other people are gonna think. As I heard in an interview of Brené Brown about creativity, we can define a shortlist of people whose feedback really matter and keep it in our wallet. There are two conditions to be on the list: only people who are themselves in the arena risking being vulnerable to create something, and at the same time they love us because of our imperfections. Well… so far that list is empty for me… so I believe it can only become a very short list for anyone ;p… so yes! to hell with the critics! :p

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    1. Thank you! And your comment about loving the process rather than focusing on the reception/acclaim is so relevant to me as well. Often I find myself writing and daydreaming about publication and critical acclaim, which often stunts the writing process altogether. I write with so much more fluency and enjoyment when I am doing so for the intrinsic pleasure of the artistic process rather than to achieve external approval or praise. Thank you for commenting!

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  2. I couldn’t agree more with your closing thoughts! I am someone who struggles to voice my opinion on even the smallest of things and if I do, then I feel the need to justify myself. However, realising that we ALL have personal preferences that are outside of our control has led me to realise that we are entitled to a few irrational and unjustifiable opinions and preferences. Within reason of course 🙂
    I hope you’re having a good summer so far and I can’t wait to read more of your posts xx

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    1. Thank you! That is another very important life lesson- we don’t always have to justify our opinions. I am constantly, constantly trying to analyze why I do things so that I can explain my actions and behaviors to other people. But we don’t always have to; sometimes just saying “it doesn’t make sense to me” is enough. You might enjoy this article if you’re interested in the neuroscience behind this: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/18/opinion/why-you-dont-know-your-own-mind.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share. I thought it was wonderful and it blew my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh that article sounds suite interesting!! I’ll be sure to read it! Thank you so much for the recommendation!

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  3. Hey Avery! I just finished reading the article you recommended and it was absolutely mind blowing! Thank you so much for the recommendation!!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! It not only blew my ind, but it made so much sense to me. I have time and time again had the feeling that my “reasons” for acting a certain way don’t always make perfect sense… good to know it’s not just me!

      Liked by 1 person

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