Who Decides What Is a Masterpiece?

An argument against the gatekeepers.

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, The Experts, 1837. Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 24 1/4 in.
H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, 1929. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A masterpiece. A masterpiece? A masterpiece! Does it exist? Who says? Can I say? Do I have the right to say? Who knows?

I questioned artists from the Art Students League and from around the country relentlessly to find out how they define a master and a masterpiece.

Modern master: Someone who has created something new or different. Traditional master: Someone who has perfected his or her chosen craft and creates something from that state of perfection. Like Michelangelo.

Under the modern definition falls Andy Warhol, Van Gogh, or even Damien Hirst.

But Hirst would be eliminated because his work is not tempered by time. So add to the definition that a master or masterpiece has to be tempered by time. Warhol has had only approximately forty years since he changed the art world by creating pop art, which made the Campbell’s Soup can design “high art” and opened the door to the evolution of conceptual art.

From his explosion onto the art scene, Warhol has danced on the tongues and in and out of the mouths of critics, who call him a genius and the father of pop art. It has grown to the point that, in recent years, critics have pushed him out of their mouths and brains and onto the genius/master tightrope where mere mortals reach immortality.

But can the critics, academics, and museum royalty really make someone immortal, a master, or a genius? Are we all just influenced by the keepers of the gate? No, no, no, that can’t be true.

I looked for further guidance from the definition, and I found that a masterpiece is a thing made or done with masterly skill or the greatest work of a person or group. So under this umbrella, anyone could make a masterpiece. Anyone at the Art Students League on any given Tuesday night could suddenly create a masterpiece. But a masterpiece is always connected to a master. And how is a master “certified?”

In classical fine arts training in Europe, a master was determined early in his career, where he was reviewed by a masters review board of the day, which either gave him the stamp of approval or told him to go back to the drawing board or canvas. But in the modern world, and more importantly in modern art, there is no masters review board that artists can appeal to. Its modern equivalent is the New York Times review or ARTNews, which can herald this one or that one as the new thing or the old real thing. But these critics are no masters themselves. The critics are certified by their editors and in turn influence anyone who reads their review.

Today the word “master” or “masterpiece” has really lost its meaning because it is not based on anything tangible in the modern world. It becomes just a pretty word that has lost its original meaning. Anyone can say a piece of art is a masterpiece as long as they are connected to the art elite, and then the piece is stamped as a masterpiece even if it is not.

I think art is a personal experience that cannot be labeled by the keeper of the gate, and no one can touch your soul like a painting or print that moves you. That is what should determine if it is a masterpiece or not.

 This article appeared in the Fall 2003 print issue of LINEA. Stephanie Chisholm is an artist living in New York City.

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