the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Masterpieces and Social Change

Posted by gninja on January 11, 2008

There’s an interesting post over at the Design Observer on Ernst Bettler. In brief:

In the late 1950s, Bettler was asked to design a series of posters to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfäfferli+Huber. Aware of reports that P+H had been involved in testing prisoners in German concentration camps less than 15 years before, he hesitated, and then decided to accept the commission. “I had the feeling I could do some real damage,” he said later.

And indeed he did. He created four posters featuring dramatic, angular black and white portraits juxtaposed with sans serif typography. Alone, each poster was an elegant example of international style design. Together, however, a different message emerged, for it turned out the abstract compositions in the posters contained hidden letters…Hung side by side on the streets, they spelled out N-A-Z-I. A public outcry followed, and within six weeks the company was ruined.

The ‘A’ portion of the campaign:


The post goes on to explain that Bettler’s legend was more myth than fact, as discovered by Andy Crewdson. Nevertheless, it brings up a good topic for discussion.

Regardless of the era in which it was created, I always ask myself to what extent the art I’m studying or researching at any given time was formative or symptomatic. Am I researching art as document or generative force? The answer is rarely one or the other, and the extent to which it is either varies from work to work. But the following question is an important one to ask: as agents of social change, how effective are”masterpieces”? I don’t mean art in general, but specifically those works we refer to as masterpieces. The term itself is a complicated one to define. But, no matter which definition one uses, a masterpiece is in some respect (if not primarily) unique. According to the Grove Dictionary of Art:

Term with three main meanings, successively of diminishing precision: (a) a test-piece of work submitted to a craft organization as qualification for entry as a master (e.g. ‘Hans submitted his masterpiece to the guild in 1473’); (b) a work considered an artist’s best and/or most representatively central (e.g. ‘Hans’s masterpiece is surely the Passion cycle in Berlin’); (c) simply a work considered very good and/or canonical, either absolutely (‘Hans’s Passion cycle is a masterpiece’) or in some particular respect (‘a masterpiece of colour’)… A further complication of definition is that the various western European synonyms—particularly the French chef d’oeuvre, Italian capolavoro, German Meisterstück and Hauptwerk—have had different histories and still have different nuances.

Considering I teach a course entitled “Masterpieces of Western Art”, I think I should explore the term in depth at some later point. For now, though, I’m addressing meanings 2 and 3 as they relate to social change.

My question is: if an object is unique, what are the means by which it can create a reaction large, important, active enough that it causes social change? What has to happen? Does it have to exist in a society where reproduction (photographic, digital, analogue) and dissemination are possible and common? Does it have to participate in the daily life of the community (e.g. the very visible Parthenon)? Does only one person–albeit an influential one–have to see the piece?

We (as in art historians) look at masterpieces so often and assume they resonate, and I wonder how these unique works intersect with the daily concerns of the people who see them. Perhaps, more than any other objects we observe, it is the masterpieces that are symptomatic and emblematic; and the art and everything else that comprises visual culture (Visual Culture? I don’t know if “we” capitalize it yet) that’s formative. Maybe what we use to define a masterpiece is its encapsulation of definitive and culturally-specific values. Values that are worked out and reinforced in art that is far less masterful and far more ordinary.

I really need to read Walter Cahn’s book already.

So, is (graphic) design a more effective agent of social change than a masterpiece? I have no idea. It’s not really a question meant as googlefight material. My point is that I would like to know how a masterpiece–something with an original circulation far narrower than that of a national ad campaign or popular font–can supersede its literal singularity to become something formative and galvanizing.

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