How To Tell A Masterpiece


Not long ago while viewing the Société Anonyme: Modernism for America show at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Ron Padgett stood before a painting and said something favorable, which in turn prompted me to ask, “What makes this a good painting?” Now mind you, I was asking a man who has viewed thousands of paintings and whose hunger for the visual only seems to grow. Ron replied (or so I approximately recall), “I could point out all sorts of reasons, technical or aesthetic, that make this is a good painting, but to do so would just limit your experience. You just know a good painting when you see it, and no single aspect makes it so.” And I did just know, without trying to pinpoint exactly which combination of elements made it stand out from rest on that wall.

This conversation reminded me of one with another friend, noted a few posts ago, who, in an ongoing basis, tried to explain singularity to me. To poorly paraphrase one particular discussion (sorry again, Isa), Isabella ‘defined’ what makes a masterpiece: its singularity. Basically, the singularity of a literary work is something people recognize but can’t define (though critics may try) — and it’s what makes it last; people continue to recognize and return to it over time.

Anyway, these little stories are leading to an excerpt from Bruns’ book, but I was sidetracked checking out Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry today at a local bookstore. In an essay called, “The Question of Originality,” she asks, “A question, then, is how does a poet enfold into language the singularity that marks each living creature and object of the world and also those works of art we most admire?” Yes, how, dear public?

Later, Hirshfield quotes Picasso, from which I excerpt for the frivolity of it, “Nobody drew up a program of action, and though our friends the poets followed our efforts attentively, they never dictated to us. … The painter passes through states of fullness and emptying. That is the whole secret of art.”

But even better, her full Walt Whitman quote, “The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is.” Ha!

And now for la piece de resistance, one that resists the recipes, we encounter a kind of pointing at of singularity, including one revealing footnote, to wrap the above notes together, however loosely, direct from Gerald L. Bruns’ book, On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy – A Guide for the Unruly:

“In Intimations of Postmodernity, the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman says that what postmodernists know is that we are all of us inhabitants of complex systems. A complex system, unlike logical, mechanical, or cybernetic systems, is temporal, not so much in time as made of it. This means that it is turbulent and unpredictable in its workings and effects (structured, as they say, like the weather). A complex system is not governed by factors of any statistical significance, which is why a single imperceptible event can produce massive changes in the system. It follows that a complex system cannot be described by laws, rules, paradigms, causal chains, deep structures, or even a five-foot shelf of canonical narratives. It is beneath the reach of universal norms and so it forces us to apply what Hans Blumenberg calls the principium rationiis insufficientis: the principle of insufficient reason–which is, however, not the absence of reason but rather, given the lack of self-evidence in a finite situation, a reliance on practical experience, discussion, improvisation, and the capacity for midstream corrections. In certain philosophical circles this is called ‘pragmatism’; in others, ‘ anarchism’ (meaning–the way I mean it in this book — not an embrace of chaos, but a search for alternatives to principles and rules [an-arche], on the belief that what matters is absolutely singular and irreducible to concepts, categories, and assigned models of behavior).” 8 [emphasis mine]

Footnote #8 — On singularity, see Gilles Deleuze, Logique du sens (Paris: Editions du Minuit, 1969), p. 67 (The Logique of Sense, trans. Constantin V. Boundas [New York: Columbia University Press, 1990], p. 52): “The singularity belongs to another dimension than that of denotation, manifestation, or signification. It is essentially pre-individual, non-personal, and a-conceptual. It is quite indifferent to the individual and the collective, the personal and the impersonal, the particular and the general–and to their oppositions. Singularity is neutral.” For a slightly different view, where the singular is not an isolate and is also a person, see Jean-Luc Nancy, Etre singulier pluriel (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1996), pp. 1 – 131 (Being Singular Plural [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000], pp. 1 – 100). The notion of the singular can be traced to Emmanuel Levinas’s conception of ethical alterity, where the other is irreducible to the same, that is, refractory to categories. …


4 Responses to “How To Tell A Masterpiece”

  1. derek Says:
    April 5th, 2007 at 10:39 am eseems a lot of poems (maybe paintings too) are organic, & isolating a certain aspect that illuminates the quality may irrevocably diminish one’s appreciation of the work. or something. i think so anyway.
  2. Jim K. Says:
    April 5th, 2007 at 7:19 pm eMany things [early] post-modern tend to demonstrate the inability of
    static modernist analysis to really model or predict what’s going on.
    But there is a late post-modernism, built on the intense
    (if difficult to completely grasp) theory of Deleuze. Manuel Delanda
    bases most of his stuff on Deleuze, and is my best bet for a way forward
    to a constructive post-modernism. The patterns in the semi-chaos,
    the meshworks instead of old stratification, intensive processes causing
    the articulation of instances, here and now. I’ve enjoyed working with
    that a lot in art. Now…how that might might play out in poetry..
    ..that I haven’t figured out yet.
    But one common theme in constructively moving from modern to post-modern:
    static needs to be replaced by dynamic imagination, and simplified surroundings
    need to be replaced by thinking of everything moving together with everything
    else….an ‘environmental’ view, in the much broader sense of environmental.
    Relationships as environmental, etc.. Things as verb-based, not noun-based:
    properties that are not static. Semi-random writing might be an analog of one
    intensive method: jumping from perspective to perspective, even while those
    perspectives are reacting to each other and changing. Not sure..
  3. Sam Rasnake Says:
    April 5th, 2007 at 8:52 pm eNine Gates is one of the most impacting studies that I’ve read. Very helpful. I like this Hirshfield quote from “Poetry and the Mind of Indirection”: “Art, by its very existence, undoes the idea that there can be only one description of the real, some single and simple truth on whose surface we may thoughtlessly walk. The intelligence that simmers in stories, paintings, and poems warns us: if the mind of art cannot entirely be trusted, nor can the ground.”

    Thanks for the post Amy.

  4. Robert Says:
    April 9th, 2007 at 5:24 am e“irreducible to concepts, categories, and assigned models of behavior” – one of the better distinctions between prose and poetry I’ve heard in awhile.

DADA Education Entertainment Painting Philosophy Poetry Prose

AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: