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What Makes Great Art Great?


You may have taken the "highlights" tour of a large art museum and stopped at all the stations to look at the masterpieces of the collection. Then you may have glanced around each gallery to see other impressive works of art and wondered why they are not on the masterpiece master list. So, what are the criteria for great art as opposed to good art? What makes great art great?
Technical mastery is one measure. La Giaconda, the Mona Lisa of Leonardo Da Vinci reveals the hand of a genius with its perfect proportions, luminous skin tones, and the gossamer veil hanging in front of the sitter's face. The virtuosity of hand and eye that come out of years of study, patience and diligence can create great art of classical proportions, perspective, color coordination, and subject matter. These works can affect us through their beauty. There are, nevertheless, examples of great art that go even further and do more than represent the methodology.
When a work of art is great it will remove the line between artist and viewer and between subject matter and viewer. It seeks universal themes, and thereby embraces all of humanity. In fact, it alludes to the full breadth of experience - human, the natural world, and the spiritual. It reflects on the world and yet it a life of its own, as art is on another plane than reality. Great artists can depict simple compositions or dialog but imply great complexity, or they can take overbearing complexity and reduce to stark simplicity. Waiting for Godot, with its non-existent set and deceivingly terse language is a case in point. 
The Family of Felipe IV, called Las Meninas by Velázquez (1656) is also such a work. The focus seems to be Margarita, daughter of Felipe IV, surrounded by servants and family in Madrid's Alcázar Palace. Behind her the duenna Marcela de Ulloa converses with the quartermaster, José Nieto, who is in the doorway. The King and Queen, Maria de Austria, are reflected in the mirror in back. The artist paints a portrait while he and the foreground figures gaze directly out at the viewer. Velázquez makes the spectator the model. The canvas is blocked from the spectator's view, save for the reflection of the King and Queen in the rear mirror. Yet it is we who stand in for the royals. We are looking and looked at. And Nieto, who is in the doorway at rear, seems to be framed like one of the paintings in the picture hall. The artist's painstaking control of view and perspective are not only about the question of subjects but subjectivity itself. This is a work about the substantial and the metaphysical.
Art of the highest magnitude is not without conflict; it addresses turmoil but seeks to resolve it. In China the literati sought in art to resolve opposites, passage from chaos to harmony, and from the many the creation of the one.
The disturbed mind of the maestro, Hieronymus Bosch, produced The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504), a triptych. The passage of creation of Earth to that of Man, followed by sin and ending in Hell is seemingly a bleak vision of mankind's predilection for condemning himself.  On the interior left panel is The Garden of Eden with The Tree of Knowledge. The middle panel is the eponymous Garden of Earthly Delights, where Man descends into sin. On the right is Hell, where Satan is represented as a bird eating a man, and sinners are appropriately tormented for their sins (a woman defecating coins is guilty of avarice, for example).
Bosch's vision is not completely dark. As in a medieval morality play, he offers the choice of virtue to his audience. While he does not impart it in the panels, his public would be aware that return to Paradise would be through reform of character and belief in Christ. He offers hope to balance death and ascent to Heaven as an alternative to descent to Hell.
Robert Campin's Mérode Altarpiece also abounds in symbolism. Meyer Schapiro contends in "Muscipula Diaboli, 'The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece'" that the mousetrap Joseph fabricates is a metaphor for Christ, who used his flesh to ensnare the Devil. In the middle Annunciation panel a tiny child bearing a cross descends toward the Virgin on light beams, a symbol of the incarnation to come, says Schapiro. The passage of light through a window was a medieval symbol of the miraculous insemination and birth (pg. 2). The Virgin as weaver and Joseph as carpenter underscore the virtue of these humble crafts and the humility and moral dignity of the holy family (pg. 6). Death, as many have said, is symbolized by the extinguished candle. As critics have stated, the use of objects from everyday life make it accessible, and the masterwork uses objects from the material world to symbolize spiritual ideas. Mérode marries the empirical world with the transcendent as art can do.
Art of the highest caliber addresses all emotions but also seeks the highest human feelings of love, peace, and harmony. There has never been a Utopia. Art cannot reify one but can reach toward its ideal. It reflects the better angels of our natures and advances the good; it can never be destructive.
But changing us for the better has some caveats. The best creations cannot be for consumption but must be for reflection. It is true that Renaissance artists in the Italian states produced nudes for the private chambers of noblemen (and probably clergy). While they were intended to be pornographic then, they have since been reinterpreted as images of idealistic female beauty. Andy Warhol reproduced the image of the Campbell soup can not as commodified image but to mock the art market.
In most cases cultures that have been mainly military or commercial have given the world far less great art than cultures based on humanistic values. The Romans were more copyists of Greek sculpture than original practitioners, although they were great architects, as the work of Vitruvius proves. Nonetheless, the bulk of their work was about power. The statue of Augustus is in proportion and striking in allusion and detail, but it was made to sway the public into believing Caesar Augustus had a legitimate claim to the throne. It is not a masterpiece for that reason.
The treasure pieces must be genuine and must not advance political or social causes unless they intend the benefit of all human life. Totalitarian art, such as Nazi or Stalinist, is always kitsch. The films of Leni Riefenstahl are considered great art, but they are based on the false perception that the German people are superior to all others; therefore they are based on a lie, a lie that would perpetrate great evil. Triumph of the Will, The Blue Light, and Olympiad will never stand along side Grand Illusion, a film with pathos against war and hope for humanity. Riefenstahl's films are technically and stylistically brilliant but are not masterpieces.
On the other hand Constructivism, though very often openly using propaganda, is among the greatest of art movements. This is because its practitioners believed that artists would stand with engineers and scientists in generating the material goods necessary for making a better world for all people. They didn't believe in art for art's sake, says Aaron Scharf in Concepts of Modern Art, but in socially useful forms (pg. 162). Stalinist agitprop was about so-called heroic workers building a new society, but it was really about furthering Soviet Stalinist power and forcing workers to conform to that vision.
Great art can only be great if it rings true and can only do that if it comes from the soul of the artist, from that basic human sense of goodness found in all people. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony surely has disturbing and fractious passages, yet the master works through them to fulfill the longing for completion in the "Bells are Ringing" movement. The greatest art recognizes our darker sides but knows that it must lead us to somewhere greater.
Stuart Kurtz
March 4, 2011
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