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What is a Work of Art?

What is a Work of Art?

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will define the concepts of art and work of art.

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Tutorial

Exploring the role of the masterpiece in the western conception of art.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about defining what a work of art is. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain how the Western concept of the artist has contributed to the idea of the masterpiece, explain why something is not a masterpiece, and compare and contrast, by definition, an artifact with a work of art.

Key terms as always are listed in yellow, and they'll be listed in yellow throughout the lesson. The first key term today is Work of Art, an object that has been designed for its aesthetic appeal or an object that has come to be appreciated as a work of art. Artifact is an object made by a human being, in particular an object of historical or cultural interest. A Masterpiece is a work of outstanding skill or artistry. Originality is the idea that a work of art is the result of an artist's unique vision and not of outside influences, such as other works of art. And on a side note, originality is closely related to the ideas of genius and masterpiece.

The big idea is the common theme or thread that runs throughout the lesson. Today's big idea is that a masterpiece is more than just an artifact. It is a work of art and has contributed to the Western concept of art, which is that every work of art is either a masterpiece or a step toward becoming a masterpiece. Well, for Western scholars the masterpiece is the culmination of an artist's oeuvre. For the artists we're going to study, their oeuvre is a collection of masterpieces or the works that are stepping stones toward becoming masterpieces. And again, and this is important, the artists of the caliber that we're studying either create masterpieces or create works that are stepping stones toward becoming masterpieces.

Here's some masterpiece examples. I chose three artists, Peter Paul Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, and I chose two that were familiar, likely familiar that you've probably seen before, and one that you're probably not as familiar with. And that one is this painting by Peter Paul Rubens titled Descent from the Cross, yes, Descent from the Cross.

Peter Paul Rubens was a Baroque painter who was highly regarded in his ability to evoke a sense of movement and drama in his paintings. He was also well regarded in his ability to paint human anatomy. So if you take a look at the color scheme, you're immediately drawn to the center, the body of Christ as it's being removed from the cross. And speaking of anatomy, if you look closely, you can see how he renders the body in a very corpse-like manner. It looks like a dead body. So the reason that this is considered a masterpiece is it because it encompasses a lot of the characteristics that have come to be associated with Peter Paul Rubens.

Now, this next painting you've probably never seen. I'm kidding. This is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, probably the most famous painting ever and considered one of da Vinci's masterpieces for a number of reasons, one of which is his ability to represent a lifelike quality in this subject's face and hands. He's accurately reproducing the appearance of human skin. The skin looks like it glows almost.

Da Vinci was a scientist as well as an artist. And his interest in the natural world, I feel, strongly correlates to his experimentation of natural phenomenon in his work. A good example is this painting which uses a landscape as the backdrop which was, first of all, unusual for the time. And secondly, what he does with that landscape, he uses or plays around with aerial perspective which is where objects that are further away appear less clear.

This last piece is the Pieta by Michelangelo, widely regarded as one of his finest sculptures and, in my opinion, one of my favorite sculptures by any artist. This example, like the other examples, strongly exhibit the genius characteristics that were associated with Michelangelo, his grasp of classical ideals, his use of understanding perspective and proportion from the viewpoint of the observer, and his skill in general as sculpture are all very evident in this example. It's still hard for me even after all this time imagining someone actually creating this out of a block of stone. It's pretty amazing.

Now, the following are examples of works of art that would not be considered masterpieces. So they don't exhibit the kind of qualities we've come to expect from these particular artists. The first example is from Leonardo da Vinci. This is a chalk sketch. And don't worry about titles today. And like the other examples I'm going to show you, they're all excellent works were in their own right if for no other reason than they are produced by artists of historical significance. But they wouldn't be considered masterpieces in their own right, rather stepping stones toward becoming masterpieces.

Here's another example of a sketch, this one by Michelangelo. And finally a sketch by Peter Paul Rubens. Again, works of art but not quite masterpieces. So tying it all together we have these three different key vocabulary words. First one is artifacts, and this is a large category of objects, simply put, anything created by a human being that is of significance. So that's quite a bit. Within that is this subcategory of artwork.

So all artwork are artifacts, but not all artifacts are artwork, if you can kind of follow that logic. So painting, like the Mona Lisa, and a stapler would both fit within the category of artifacts. But only the Mona Lisa would count as an example of artwork unless it's an absolutely amazing stapler. OK, a subset within artwork, then, are masterpieces. And these are an even smaller set, again, following the logic like I showed you before. All masterpieces are artwork, but not all artwork are masterpieces. It's a very small subcategory of artwork, which itself is a small subcategory of artifacts.

So let's take a look again at our objectives to see what we've learned. Now that you've seen the lesson are you able to identify and define today's key terms, explain how the Western concept of the artist has contributed to the idea of the masterpiece, explain why something is not a masterpiece, compare and contrast an artifact with a work of art? And compare and contrast by definition means just use the definition to compare and contrast.

The big idea or the common thread or theme that runs throughout this lesson is that a masterpiece is more than just an artifact. It is a work of art and has contributed to the Western concept of art, which is that every work of art is either a masterpiece or a step toward becoming a masterpiece. I'd like to thank you for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

What is a Work of Art?


Citations:

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Originality

    The idea that a work of art is the result of an artist's unique vision and not of outside influences, such as other works of art.

  • Masterpiece

    A work of outstanding skill or artistry.

  • Artifact

    An object made by a human being, in particular an object of historical or cultural interest.

  • Work of Art

    An object that has been designed for its aesthetic appeal, or an object that has come to be appreciated as a work of art.