Is there a new Michelangelo?

by on April 16, 2010 at 6:42 am in Education, History, The Arts | Permalink

Quite possibly, view it here, previously classified as Workshop of Francesco Granacci.  It is not a small work, dashed off in hours, it is a major painting, 29 by 82 inches.

No, I am not one of these people who thinks high art, or even "modern art," (or for that matter Jeff Koons) is a load of crap.  Still, I have a simple question.  Let's say it is by Michelangelo.  It's not that good.  Since no one used to call this painting a major masterpiece, and it is not being ascribed to "foul juvenalia" (it was painted right before the Sistine Chapel) does it not mean that Michelangelo wasn't as good a painter as we used to think?  Peaks matter but the average matters too (in the meantime, can we downgrade talent assessments on a purely stochastic basis?)

Here is the bottom line on our previous collective, "wisdom of crowds" judgment:

The Met bought the painting at Sotheby's London, along with a companion work attributed to Granacci, which depicts episodes in the life of the Baptist. "I think it's ironic that the Met paid $200,000 for the Granacci and $150,000 for the painting I attribute to Michelangelo," Fahy said.

My favorite bit is this one:

Keith Christiansen, who succeeded Fahy as chairman of the European paintings department and who is a prominent scholar on the Italian Renaissance, told me, "I think Everett has put forward the strongest argument that can be made for it."

Does that mean yes or no?

Christiansen smiled and said, "I don't do yes or no."

Hat tip goes to Kottke.

1 Cyrus April 16, 2010 at 7:03 am

An aphorism usually applied to poetry may apply here: Everyone writes bad poetry. What sets good poets apart is that sometimes they also write non-bad poetry.

2 liberalarts April 16, 2010 at 7:33 am

Concentrations of value creates fame, but fame also adds value, so the painting would obviously now sell for much, much more if it were to go back on the market. One can sort out creative work that leads to fame from work that is bolstered by the fame from better work by looking at the replication market. People will pay a lot of money to own a real if average Michelangelo, but they won’t pay $5 for a copy of that picture in the museum store. Same with famous musicians; people won’t buy or even copy for free mediocre or bad albums of famous musicians.

3 Nichlemn April 16, 2010 at 8:27 am

Sure we can downgrade “talent assessments”. Take it to its limit: the infinite monkey theorem. A computer that randomly generated text would never be considered “talented”, but it generated enough, perhaps it would write something considered great. If everything else was forgotten, the computer could erroneously be considered to have been talented. An artist is not nearly as crude, but surely spending more time gives more opportunities for inspiration. If I spent ten hours writing fifty jokes and then discarded forty-nine of them, that joke would likely be funnier than if I spent one hour writing five jokes and then discarded four of them. If I presented them under different aliases, you would probably say the latter is more talented when it was really just hard work.

So why don’t wouldn’t we care that much if we found a bunch of mediocre Michelangelo paintings? For one, our impression of an artist is not just their raw talent, we appreciate hard work as well. And finally, the fact that their peaks may have had a significant luck component simply may not be all that salient. We like people who produce great works, regardless of what factors were behind it.

4 Beans April 16, 2010 at 10:18 am

Given Michelangelo’s self-classification as a sculptor rather than a painter, I think we take the artist at his word.

5 MPS April 16, 2010 at 10:55 am

I’m sure Einstein wrote some unenlightening papers, and he certainly said some stupid things… does that mean Einstein isn’t as smart as we think?

I think, when gauging human accomplishments, you want to look at two aspects, which in academia correspond to “top cites” and “h index.” That is, you want to look at, just how good is this person’s very best work, and what is the quantity of work that roughly meets that standard.

6 Bellisaurius April 16, 2010 at 11:10 am

Hard to say about peaks versus averages. If one has a Classic work, I think they tend to be graded on how that Classic Work(s) compare against the other great works. If they have a body of great work, but not quite one that compares with the currently acknowledged “Works of The Ages” (as these things often change: Carravagio was not as highly acknowledged a century ago as he is today, for example), then the body and average starts to matter.

Then again, the art movement michaelangelo was a part of starting, mannerism, really doesn’t float my boat anyway, so is that a plus for being in the onrush of a new movement, or responsible for making so-so art (relatively speaking, of course)?

Although, beyond all the judging of this work on its merits, the significance of the find (assuming it’s correct) is that it more thoroughly completes our knowledge of michaelangelo, who is an acknowledged master of whom people are curious about, and will probably give us some insights on his other works. Even if it’s a lesser work, a couple of so-so paintings shouldn’t necessarily downgrade someone who otherwise has a decent sized body of solid work (Benefit of the doubt sort of thing- like a student who turns in a C paper amidst otherwise nearly publish-worthy other works).

7 Colin Glassey April 16, 2010 at 11:48 am

I looked at it on the Met’s web site and I agree that it is not a great work of art. Compared to the major scenes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel this painting is not in the same ballpark.

8 anonymous April 16, 2010 at 2:53 pm

We have no information about the circumstances under which this work was painted, but let’s speculate freely.

Maybe Michaelangelo wasn’t enthusiastic about it but was offered a very nice fee by a patron whom it would be tricky to refuse. Who knows, maybe that hypothetical wealthy patron fancied himself a creative type and dropped by the studio constantly to make “suggestions”. Maybe Michaelangelo just shrugged and phoned it in. Good for him.

Sometimes very talented actors take well-paying roles in crappy movies. Sometimes that subsidizes the labor-of-love roles they do in low-budget art films. Or maybe they just go, “You know what? That whole starving artist thing? Screw that.” (Michael Caine, famously, about On Deadly Ground: “I have not seen the film, but I hear it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it paid for, and it is superb.”)

9 Ed April 19, 2010 at 11:38 am

There are very good arguments that the painting is not by Michelangelo that raise other points than that the painting isn’t very good.

Also Michelangelo was not really a painter, he was a sculptor who painted the Sistine Chapel. Of course this is evidence against there being many undiscovered paintings by Michelangelo at all, regadeless of their quality.

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