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Picasso and the Concept of the Masterpiece

Arthur C. Danto, Jonathan Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Columbia University, and art critic, The Nation. In this lecture recorded on September 19, 1993, at the National Gallery of Art, Arthur C. Danto assesses early works in Pablo Picasso's (1881-973) career as a starting point for considering the concept of the masterpiece. The understandable but obsessive tendency of Picasso scholarship has been to treat even his simplest works as evidence that his cognitive powers had almost mythic dimensions. Danto argues that much of Picasso's early work became part of history only retrospectively because he became a great artist- mythic a priori. An artist makes certain choices in materials when he believes himself to be embarking on a masterpiece. By investing in a large-scale canvas, its lining, and other expensive materials for a painting, an artist demonstrates the meaning this particular work intended to have relative to his other works so far. It is a conservation gesture-not part of the internal or aesthetic meaning of the work, but a declaration of achievement and hope. Citing Picasso's rose period work Family of Saltimbanques (1905), in the Gallery's collection, and the African-influenced period work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Danto considers the meaning of a masterpiece in an artist's life in terms of the language of beginnings and endings. One works up to a masterpiece, which defines a period of endeavor, and after that the artist may change direction entirely.