The Masterpiece and the Genius

The Masterpiece and the Genius

“The fabulous development of the book, the printing, the labelling of the entire last archaeological period has filled our heads, has dazzled us. We are in a completely new situation: everything is known to us. Peoples, centuries, apogees, decadences. We even know the shape of the skull of the dinosaur’s contemporaries and by the facial angle the quality of the thoughts that must have agitated them. As soon as a problem arises, we can consider in a vertiginous investigation what all peoples and all centuries have done or would have done with it. The age of documentation is our age.

But the museum has made the arbitrary choice that we have just denounced; the museum must engrave on its pediment: “This is the most biased, the least convincing documentation of past eras; let it be said, and be careful!” Under these conditions, the truth is restored and we can alone move on to our programme, which is different. Then we want to do something other than imitate the weaknesses of some weak people of previous centuries; we want our culture to serve something and to push us toward betterment. Museums are a means of education for the most intelligent, just as the city of Rome is a fruitful education for those who have a profound knowledge of their trade.

The naked man does not wear an embroidered waistcoat; he wants to think. The naked man is a normally conditioned being, who has no need for rags. His mechanics are based on logic. He likes to understand the reason of things. It is with the reason of things that he enlightens himself. He has no prejudices. He doesn’t love fetishes. He’s not a collector, he’s not a museum curator. If he likes to learn, it’s to arm himself. He’s arming himself to attack the task at hand. If he likes to look around and behind him in time, it is to grasp the reason of things. And meeting harmony, this thing that is a creation of his mind, he receives a concussion that moves him, raises him, encourages him, gives him support in life.”

Source: Le Corbusier, L’Art Decoratif d’Aujourd’hui, Editions Crès, Paris 1925.

A genius and a masterpiece – if they exist – seem to live in absolute symbiosis with each other. They’re intrinsically linked. We can see this in Watch Picasso Make a Masterpiece, a five-minute fragment from the film The Mystery of Picasso by Henri-Georges Clouzot from 1956, when he films the painter at work, among others from behind a glass plate: work and painter are one. This is also the message of the book The Masterpiece, Jørn Utzon, A Secret Life by Philip Drew from 1999, which centers around the supposed masterpiece of the Sydney Opera House and the place it has in Utzon’s personal life, as two inseparable biographies. What is remarkable is that Drew still sees the Sydney Opera as a masterpiece, as he writes that it was “mired in parochial thinking” from the outset and “politics dictated strategic decisions about its design and construction.” Of course, this makes the struggle to achieve his goals even more heroic.

Daniel Boorstin would argue calling something a masterpiece is a non-event: just by calling something a masterpiece it becomes one. Equally, in The Image, a Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962), he argues that “the influence of Karl Marx, the rise of economic determinism, a growing knowledge of economic and social history, and an increased emphasis on social forces have made the individual leader [or hero, or genius, B.L.] less crucial. (…) He [of course a male] is replaced by the celebrity, as the human non-event, fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness. He is morally neutral. The product of no conspiracy, of no group promoting vice or emptiness, he is made by honest, industrious men of high professional ethics doing their job, “informing” and educating us. He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous. He is like the woman in an Elinor Glyn novel who describes another by saying, “She is like a figure in an Elinor Glyn novel.””

I don’t think I ever used the word Masterpiece (written with a capital M) in a text myself. Searching the word in the texts on my computer only produces one hit, in which it’s part of a quote. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to recognize outstanding works of architecture or in any other field, but the term masterpiece doesn’t seem very helpful, as it has changed its meaning too often and belongs to the kingdom of tropes. Originally meaning a piece in which a craftsman demonstrated his abilities to a guild, both in design and in the making, with the increase of serial production – be it after catalogues, as industrial production or as a mix of both – the meaning gradually shifted to a trope for a great and complex piece of art that in some way could be attributed to one person in a designing and coordinating role, maybe a genius. Gottfried Semper, in Wissenschaft, Industrie und Kunst (1851), and Le Corbusier, in L’Art Decoratif d’Aujourd’hui (1925), criticized the idea already a century ago. Semper’s critique of a first generation of industrially produced but traditionally decorated objects targeted the aptness of the design process to the new forms of production itself. Le Corbusier, in his particular polemic style, gave this criticism a moral and political charge. He criticized museums for collecting and presenting just exuberantly decorated masterpieces, instead of objects we could actually learn something from. Comparing images of emperors of the past with contemporary leaders, like the French president Gaston Doumergue and Lenin, he pointed out the simplicity of their clothes and attributes. “L’homme tout nu ne porte pas un gilet brodé.”(The naked man doesn’t wear an embroidered vest.)

Bart Lootsma is a historian, theoretician, critic and curator in the fields of architecture, design and the visual arts. He is Professor for Architectural Theory at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Innsbruck, where he also served as Dean and Head of the Institute for Architectural Theory and History. He was Guest Professor at among others the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna, the Academy of Visual Arts and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, the ETH Zürich and the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam/Rotterdam. He published numerous articles, several books and was an editor of different international magazines.