he word “masterpiece” ought by all rights to be under assault, since it is, in the current parlance of political correctness, gender-specific. Yet it continues to be used widely, albeit in ways that would puzzle art lovers of the past. I recently Googled “masterpiece,” curious to see how it had been used in the preceding month. It was, not surprisingly, employed to describe such various works as Haydn’s Creation, Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. But it was also applied to dozens of pop-music albums, among them the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Radiohead’s Kid A, and movies as dissimilar as Captain America: Civil War and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, as well as the Audi 8 automobile, Disneyland, Nintendo Game Boy, a 1959 hairdryer designed by Richard Sapper, and a four-hitter pitched by Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox.
In addition, I ran across the definition of “masterpiece” found in the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary: “Something made or done with great skill, esp. an artist’s greatest work.” This is the usage with which educated people over the age of 50 are most familiar. It implies that the artist in question is the sole creator of at least one work of high art that is thought to be of permanent interest. This usage is embodied far more often than not in the works chosen for inclusion in “Masterpiece,” a weekly Wall Street Journal column that has in the past year featured George Balanchine’s Serenade, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline—but also the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a 1967 record described by Allan Kozinn as “one of rock’s most enduring masterpieces, a rich-textured, dark-hued four-minute essay in musical and lyrical psychedelia that both captures and transcends its time.”
Nowadays, it seems, anything and everything can qualify as a masterpiece: a hit single, a theme park, even a video game. And while the artistic merits of some of these objets d’art can be defended, it is tempting to suggest that the word itself has become, like “fascist” and “racist,” devalued by indiscriminate usage to the point of vacuity. But most people still feel the need for such a word in everyday discourse, which suggests that the idea of the masterpiece has not yet been emptied of meaning. Its meaning, however, has shifted—and this shift is not merely a function of our increased willingness under the aspect of postmodernity to take the fruits of popular culture as seriously as we do high art.
Most under-50 art lovers take pop culture very seriously indeed. So they should, not merely because it is popular but because so much of it, especially in this country, is so good. It may well be that our popular art is on balance of higher quality than the “serious” art of the present moment. True or not, a case can certainly be made that the best popular art has long aspired to, and often attained, a degree of aesthetic and emotional seriousness that is comparable to all but the greatest works of high art. Anyone who doubts the merits of (say) a rock album like the Beatles’ Revolver, a movie like Chinatown, or a TV series like The Wire is simply not paying attention to them. Like the masterpieces of earlier eras, these works infuse familiar forms and materials with a creative energy that allows them to transcend their mundane origins. They are, in the poetic sense, elevated, and to experience them elevates us.
Yet they still differ from their predecessors in a way that is fundamental, not superficial. Nor am I referring to the fact that they are less ambitious, be it in their structure (no rock musician has ever successfully engaged with the problem of large-scale organically developed form) or their genre-bound subject matter (most of the best TV series of the past decade have been about crime). No, something else distinguishes these “masterpieces” from their high-art counterparts, something that is implicit in the very act of their creation—and is central to the nature of pop culture itself.
s the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary reminds us, the word “masterpiece” once referred to the single greatest work of a master. (The French equivalent, “chef d’oeuvre,” literally means “leading work.”) A master was an artist ranked among the outstanding figures in his medium, a creator of all-encompassing technical skill and, even more important, a uniquely personal, immediately recognizable creative vision. Today’s museumgoers have no trouble identifying the styles of Raphael or Rembrandt, even though both men maintained workshops in which some of “their” paintings were executed in part or whole by other hands. Long before the atelier system began to die out, the individuality of such artists was already acknowledged as central to their significance, and it became paramount once it was taken for granted that a truly great painting or sculpture would always be the unaided work of the artist who signed it.
When, in the 19th century, the novel emerged as the dominant form of literary narrative in the West, its practitioners emulated this model, as did composers of classical music. No one helped Tolstoy write War and Peace, any more than Beethoven used an orchestrator for his Fifth Symphony. Even in theater, by definition a collaborative art form, critics and audiences alike viewed the playwright (or, in opera, the composer) as chiefly responsible for the works for which he received principal credit.
But then came Hollywood movies, commercial products manufactured not by individual artists but by teams of artisans whose members collaborate so closely that it is often difficult to the point of impossibility to ascribe principal creative credit to any one of them. Even in the case of a distinguished film like Chinatown, it can prove unexpectedly hard to say “whose” work it is. Roman Polanski directed Chinatown, but the project was conceived by Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay. At that point, though, Polanski cut and edited the script extensively and insisted over Towne’s objections that the film end tragically. In addition, Chinatown was scored by Jerry Goldsmith, whose brooding music is central to its total effect—and he was hired not by Polanski but by Robert Evans, the producer, who brought him in at the last minute after scrapping the original score. Who, then, is the “author” of Chinatown? No one, in the usual meaning of the word. It is the result of a collective process of creation, a masterpiece without a master.1
It makes sense that Hollywood, with its quasi-industrial methods of production, should have become the center of an industry devoted to mass-producing such products. American culture, after all, was—and still is—essentially popular. Not only is our high art shallowly rooted in the culture at large, but modernism, with its pronounced tendency to sacralize and hermeticize art of all kinds, alienated the baby boomers, many of whose parents, raised on the accessible middlebrow art of World War II and the postwar era, had once aspired to higher things. Not so their children, who mostly preferred the more immediately palatable fruits of pop culture. As a result, movies had by the ’60s supplanted the novel as the master narrative medium in American art, just as younger music lovers turned away from classical music to embrace rock-and-roll—a music created in the same way as are movies.
We are seeing a permanent diminishment of the place of the masterpiece in American culture—which may help to explain the extraordinary appeal of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton
One can see a similar process in TV series, which are written not by one person but by staffs of writers who work on individual episodes under the supervision of a “showrunner,” usually the same person who devised the original concept for the series and who typically writes the first and last episodes of each season. The Wire is credited to David Simon, its “creator” and executive producer, who came up with the idea for the series, wrote many of its episodes (usually in collaboration with other writers), and served as showrunner throughout its five-season run. But The Wire, though it bears Simon’s unmistakable imprint, is not “by” him in the same way that Angels in America is by Tony Kushner or Nighthawks is by Edward Hopper. It is, rather, a collectively created work of popular art—almost an assembly-line product.
here will the increasing cultural dominance of such collective forms of creation ultimately lead us?
It is important to keep in mind that novels and live theater were not killed off by the rise of movies and TV. They have simply reverted to their “normal” place in the culture, which at midcentury had been grossly inflated by the coming of what I have elsewhere called the “middlebrow moment” in American life. Even after that moment was over, first-rate novelists continued to find publishers, and first-rate playwrights are still able to get at least some of their work produced. And while fewer serious artists can now make a living doing what they do best, it is possible, at least for the moment, for certain of them to use pop culture to subsidize their highbrow activities. Tony Kushner pays the rent by writing films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and no one criticizes him for doing so, any more than William Faulkner was criticized for working on The Big Sleep.
Nevertheless, something is bound to be lost in a culture where the best-known art is created collectively for commercial purposes rather than being motivated solely by the individual artist’s own need for self-expression. For all their self-evident excellence, movies like Chinatown and Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films and cable-TV series like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Justified are all thrillers of one kind or another. To be sure, they use the familiar conventions of genre fiction to explore many other aspects of American life, but somebody almost always gets shot in the last reel, just as a pop song, no matter how well-crafted and emotionally moving it may be, is rarely ever more than four minutes long.
The very best modern American artists, by contrast, have not accepted the narrow restrictions imposed by pop culture. They go their own way—and do their own work. Not only are novels like Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, plays like Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, musical compositions like Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata, paintings like Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, ballets like Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, and buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater more expressively ambitious than their popular counterparts, but they were not conceived collectively. As a result, they reflect in every way the creative visions of their makers, whose styles are personal to a degree that no collectively made work of art can hope to rival. They are masterpieces in the purest sense of the word.
Man cannot and need not live by such masterpieces alone, so long as he never loses sight of what makes them masterly. But that is what seems to be happening under the aspect of group-made pop-culture art. Indeed, it is possible that we are seeing a permanent diminishment of the place of the masterpiece in American culture—which may help to explain the extraordinary appeal of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Not only did Miranda write the show’s music, lyrics, and book, but he is its star as well. Might it be that Hamilton has been so successful in part because it is not a collectively made work of art? For in the end, there can be no fully satisfying alternative to the unswervingly personal interior vision that is and will always be the mark of the masterpiece. If we are henceforth to do without such works, then we will surely be the lesser for it.
1 Certain film critics found this ambiguity so hard to accept that they developed the “auteur” theory of film, which contended—often in the face of incontestable evidence to the contrary—that the director was always the primary creative force in studio-system movies.