When Does a Work of Art Become a ‘Masterpiece’?

January 14, 2022
6 min read

The dictionary definition of a masterpiece is “a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship”. However, as we well know, art in all its forms is very subjective and although we can most probably all agree that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is worth a visit, have you ever tried asking a mother her thoughts on her child’s first scribble? The work, most-probably framed and boasting a prime spot on the living room wall, will surely be a masterpiece in her eyes. Similarly, when in 1917 Marcel Duchamp – a French artist at the forefront of conceptual art – submitted a porcelain urinal (yes, really!) entitled Fountain for an exhibition, the idea of art as demonstrating mastery of a craft was turned on its head. Duchamp’s goal was to engage with his audience in a thought-provoking way without having to satisfy the aesthetic status quo. Though at the time they refused to exhibit the work, Fountain later became an icon of 20th century art, and coined the concept of the “readymade”; ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art and requiring no workmanship at all. This leads us to question: how does one define what is a “masterpiece”? And who decides what is?

The history of the word

Starting in late 13th century France, artisans from all fields of work would have to produce a “chef d’oeuvre” (from the French chief of work) in order to prove their competence in the eyes of a guild[1]. Once granted, this stamp of approval would give them the right to take on apprentices, which in turn was crucial to growing their workshops and accepting more commissions. In its original use of the word, “masterpieces” were therefore used simply to demonstrate mastery of a specific craft (in 21st century terms it could be considered the equivalent of a PhD).

Sixteenth century Europe, and particularly the Italian Renaissance period, brought a change to this definition, as guilds started putting more emphasis on virtuosity: masterpieces now needed to show not only mastery of a craft, but extraordinary mastery. The term itself started to be used solely for the noblest art forms (i.e. painting and sculpture), and took on connotations of exceptional superiority, and in some Christian cultures was even associated with the divine. The meaning of the word continued to evolve to signify the highlight of an artist’s career; his magnum opus[2] and most valuable contribution to the art world.

Michelangelo, Creazione di Adamo, Sistine Chapel, c. 1512, Vatican Museum, Rome

As well as being extraordinary in its mastery of a specific craft or technique, the masterpiece also had to set itself apart from its genre in some way. In this sense, its nature became paradoxical as it simultaneously stands for the best of a specific genre, while also being celebrated for its uniqueness.[3] Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a work recognised by all as an archetypal masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance draws about 15,000 visitors a day to Paris’ Louvre Museum, making it the world’s most visited artwork and arguably the greatest masterpiece of all time. In objective terms, it is a self-portrait of a woman, which conforms to all the expectations within this category for the time. However, when examining the work compared to another very similar one executed by one of Da Vinci’s main assistants, there does seem to be a certain je ne sais quoi that makes Da Vinci’s work defy expectation, feel innovative, mysterious, magical and entirely unique.

From left: Leonardo da Vinci (workshop) Mona Lisa (1502–1506, Prado, Madrid); Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa (c. 1503–1506)

Another feature that masterpieces have taken on over the centuries is an assumed universality – that they transcend age, geographic and cultural boundaries and are recognized as such by all. Therefore, the word “masterpiece” is also used as a way of validating work and of saying that its value is not a matter of opinion: it adds a layer of universality to art which is meant to bring people together in a common acceptance that certain works are timeless, and of undeniable importance to us as well as future generations. 

So…who decides?

Since the definition of a masterpiece has and continues to shift, who has the power to decide what is one? Initially, that responsibility laid with the guilds and academies who enforced the rules, after which the field of art history took over. The man often considered as Art History’s founder is Giorgio Vasari, author of The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550), which aimed to “distinguish the better from the good, and the best from the better”[4]. This book was extremely influential in establishing a canon of artists of that time, and in promoting the work of certain artists, while others fell into oblivion. Since then, museums and cultural institutions play a crucial role in deciding what needs to be preserved and protected by sanctifying the works they display on their walls. As non-profit making, permanent Institutions owned by the nations in which they operate, public museums are open to all for a primarily educational purpose. The works they home act as material evidence of our past and our present.

Working hand in hand with the museums and cultural institutions are the tastemakers for the artworld – the galleries who represent them, the auction houses that help put a transparent value on works that could be considered priceless, the critics who write about artists and exhibitions and the collectors (such as you, particle owner!) who acquire works and/or donate them to museums, or in many cases start their own private foundations. Banksy for instance, the world-renowned graffiti artist celebrated around the globe and author of Particle’s first acquisition is in no small part responsible for a complete reassessment of how street art is viewed, accepted and understood. Once relegated to subway trains and abandoned buildings, street art has emerged as a key medium for political commentary on current events. The validation of his genius by institutions, major collectors, auction houses, the art market and the general public have helped other street artists to emerge as key players in the global art market – this impact has been named the ‘Banksy effect’.”[5]

Banksy, Girl With Balloon. Original mural on Waterloo Bridge, South Bank, 2004 

The concept of a masterpiece is of course a man-made construct, but it is an extremely useful and important one. It’s the balance against which we decide what we want to keep as a trace of our time on this planet. While they were originally intended to demonstrate skill and competence, the masterpieces of today are much less about how well artists obey a certain set of rules and much more about engaging with the ideas and systems currently shaping our world.

[1] A medieval association of craftsmen and merchants, who often had considerable power
[2] Latin for “great work”, a word commonly used from the late 1700 to describe an artist’s career highlight
[3] Sgourev, Stoyan V., and Niek Althuizen. “Is It a Masterpiece? Social Construction and Objective Constraint in the Evaluation of Excellence.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 4, 2017, pp. 289–309
[4] Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, G. Bell & Sons, London, 1914, p. 302.
[5] Gallery, Maddox. “The Banksy Effect: How Banksy Legitimised Street Art.” Maddox Gallery, Aug. 2020.

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