Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is a Masterpiece Anyway?

I love words. A particular word may pop up often in something I'm reading or something I'm watching on TV - or even in conversation. Then I start to chew on the word like a dog chews on a bone. If I chew long enough, I usually find that there's more to the word than I first thought. Sometimes I find that there's more to it than the dictionary has to say about it.

Take the word "masterpiece." A masterpiece is one of the very best of whatever it is. It is an example of unusual excellence. A masterpiece of any type - whether art, music, literature, or any other category - cannot exist without a value system. What a heavy metal rock star considers a masterpiece of music may have no value at all for me. In order for it to be a masterpiece to this rock star and other rock music fans, they must have a value system by which they judge music. There must be a reason why they consider this particular piece to be a masterpiece over and above other pieces.

This sparks some questions in my mind. Are there perhaps two kinds of masterpieces - general and specialized? A general masterpiece would be one that is immediately recognized by most of the general population. A specialized masterpiece would be one that can't be appreciated unless the viewer has a certain specialized education. Does this make sense? An engineer may design a superb industrial valve. He and his colleagues may consider it a masterpiece. I could stare at it all day and never see anything but - at best - an interesting-looking hunk of metal. If the engineer explains what this valve can do and suggests that it could somehow be of benefit to me, I may see it in a different light. I may develop a sincere appreciation for it, but I don't believe I would think of it as a masterpiece. It's just too specialized.

When I first laid eyes on Caravaggio's painting of Christ being taken down from the cross, I knew instantly that I was beholding a masterpiece. I will always remember exactly how I felt when this painting caught my attention at the Vatican exhibit at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. No one had to explain it to me. The apostle who stares out of that painting into the eyes of the observer, stared into the depths of my soul and said, "You see, he suffers this for you." This beautiful painting was huge. Am I exaggerating to say it was eight or ten feel tall and at least half that wide? I don't know - but it was big. Its figures seemed to come alive, and I was transported to the foot of the cross. I felt at least some of the sorrow, disappointment, and confusion those men and women felt as they cradled Christ's lifeless body.

After all is said and done, maybe a masterpiece is something that changes you in some way. The change may be small or it may be profound; but if the thing is a masterpiece, you will never be quite the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Quite profound and much pondering.