DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
Melville’s Moby Dick. Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Kubrick’s 2001. Lynch’s… anything. The Godfather. Goodfellas. Alien.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Queen’s A Night at the Opera. The Beatles. Prince. The Stones.
Whether you love them or not, they’re considered by many to be masterpieces of art, literature, cinema, and music. Their commonality? Each is a relic of a bygone era.
The “masterpiece” is a familiar term, leaving one to wonder if its overuse in everyday culture has factored into its decline. Its conceptual meaning is no longer revered or pedestaled, having been shoved into our daily lexicon. It’s mantra is as ubiquitous as flossing our teeth.
“I challenge you to make your life a masterpiece.” - Tony Robbins
“…today’s masterpiece is tomorrow’s birdcage lining.” -Anthony Marra
“Harry Potter… was a seven book masterpiece.” - Tomi Adeyemi
I’m not here to make enemies with anyone that lists their Hogwarts house in their Instagram profile. And, no offense to Ms. Rowling. That wand spoiler in the final book... major kudos. Rather, culling the technological masterpiece known the Internet amasses this definition:
A masterpiece is suggestive and emotive with profound intellectual value; its prominence in a given area results in permanence, or continued appeal throughout time. It demonstrates a sense of beauty and a wide appeal. In the confines of a masterpiece, we’re apt to forget the artist and become absorbed by the work. At its heart is the word master - the maker of the art, the book, the music, we consider the person at the top of their skillset.
That's a lot to unbox.
While most of the definition is self-explanatory, there is a specific implication of a learned craft, circling back into our former argument that 10,000 hours of repeat exercise alone does not a master make. Rather, the focus is on how those training hours are spent: intentional and focused craft improvement are key. Not to mention that there was, and still is to an arguably lesser degree, a time of trained apprentices.
The Era of the Armchair Expert
We see apprenticeships in many art areas today. Tattoo artists are one group that come to mind. Photographers, too. I’d argue that any formal educational programs are akin to the same concept. The workshop, the course, seminar, bachelor of arts degree, master of fine arts degree, etc.
It’s the concept of focused training that we’re momentarily revisiting… which is interesting in the time of the armchair expert. Where these two concepts intersect seem to be the point at which our masters, and perhaps our masterpieces, decline.
Is it harder to find the masters in the era of the armchair experts?
Do the masters find it harder to break through among billion hits of returned Internet searches?
Is our attention divided among too many pathways... pulled in too many directions, so we don’t have enough time to consider one thing before the next “big thing” comes along? Are we too busy with clicking on “viral” links or floating a chart-topper to the surface simply because of social popularity to focus on true mastery?
Has our culture attention deficit crippled the masterpiece era?
We have too many answers at our fingertips for the driving forces of cultural mystery and intrigue to build momentum behind an art brand. Immediate search capability leaves us satisfied and onto the next.
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page once owned Aleister Crowley’s Loch Ness castle. Crowley dabbled in black magic. Rumors swirled about Page’s satanic involvement at the time, later debunked by the smallness of the Internet. But, did it boost record sales in the 70s and 80s? Highly likely.
Kiss managed to keep their identities a secret until they decided to unmask themselves on MTV in 1983. One of the best online quotes about this says, “Would be impossible in the modern world.”
How long can Banksy hold out for?
Twilight of the Gods, a book by Steven Hyden, discusses death of classic rock. Consider Pink Floyd, The Who, and Iron Maiden. Why aren‘t we producing these stage gods now, with careers spanning decades, selling out arenas with reunion tours, and creating music that changes entire generations?
If you wanted to know why Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was banned pre-web access, you had to go by word of mouth... or find a copy and read it. Now, there's no reading necessary. A quick Google search reveals the reasons for the ban: language, sexuality and, I quote, "issues of morality." Oh my.
It all seems to point to the same concept. Does debunking a mystery remove the masterpiece aspect? Does ease of access make us care less? Did the advent of immediate search ability diminish intellectual value?
The only thing I can do now is remain hopeful that I’m not the first to ask this question over the ages. I can patiently wait for our generation’s masterpieces to turn up, as only time has the ability uncover. I can be an optimist and love the Internet for granting me the access to write and deliver this blog.
Maybe, after all, it’s Carl Sandburg that got it right: “A book is never a masterpiece. It becomes one.”
There's got to be a masterpiece among us.
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