Phi Beta Cons

What is a Masterpiece?

Recently Mark Bauerlein posted on a new paper from the Modern Language Association that calls for renewed emphasis on the careful reading of masterpieces and great works in the study of literature. After aiding in the destruction of literary study in our time, the MLA recognizes that it had better do something to preserve its own reason for existence, perhaps. I have not yet read the paper, but I am curious about its definition of masterpiece or great work. If it is going to mean pretty much all the favorites of the multicultural canon, such as those by Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan, I don’t think the paper will move us very far from the present state of things.

A good place to begin to gain a renewed sense of what “masterpiece” means would be Kenneth Clark’s essay “What Is a Masterpiece.” Clark is writing about the visual arts, but many of his ideas could be applied to literature as well. 

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