What makes a masterpiece?

That’s the intriguing question I pondered all afternoon.

A colleague and I went to see The Louvre and the Masterpiece at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts today.

The exhibit was mounted by several curators from the Louvre, with the stated goal of exploring “why some artworks are masterpieces, while others are runners-up.”

I found that this philosophical backdrop greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the small—but surprisingly representative—exhibit.

There was no question that Antoine-Louis Baryé’s Lion with Serpent is a masterpiece. My friend commented that you could practically feel the soul of the lion coming through that bronze.

Ditto for Vermeer’s The Astronomer. For me, the man in that painting is still alive, bathed in sunlight, leaning forward in his chair.

To my surprise, though, I pondered whether Leonardo da Vinci’s beautiful Drapery Study was truly a masterpiece. It didn’t communicate anything to me beyond the artist’s extraordinary skill.

I was left wondering: If a drawing is devoid of emotion, is it still art? And what can be said of forgeries? Are they any less beautiful (or valuable) because they were created to defraud? Is a sculpture any less inspiring because it was made by a madman?

In the end, the exhibit didn’t answer any of these questions. But it did frame my appreciation of art in an entirely new light.

The Louvre and the Masterpiece is on display through January 10, 2010.

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