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No. 887:
What Is a Masterpiece?

Today, help me look for engineering masterpieces. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In Champaign, Illinois, the other day I found a book by art historian Kenneth Clark in the Blue Rock Bookstore. Clark asked, "What is a Masterpiece?" Later, when my host picked me up, I asked him, "What are the technological masterpieces? -- The clock, the violin?" He said, "Don't forget the internal combustion engine."

But something was wrong. Those are great classes of machines. For every Amati there are a thousand lesser violins; for every 8-cylinder Rolls-Royce, how many lawn-mower engines? We needed to be specific. I turned back to Clark.

Clark had hoped that, by defining the word masterpiece, he could drive "one more nail into the coffin of subjectivity." Now he admits that the judgment must be subjective. The best he can do is set some guidelines. He shows us great paintings, all different, and looks for related elements. Rembrandt's "Old Man in an Armchair" and Picasso's "Guernica" are both masterpieces by any subjective measure. They must have something in common!

So I ask the same thing of specific machines. The Douglas DC-3 airplane and the Golden Gate Bridge are surely engineering masterpieces. What do they hold in common?

Clark does an end-run on the question. There's so much human folly, he says: cruelty, ignorance, intolerance. In the face of that, the mark of the masterpiece is that it saves our confidence. It's work by a genius "who has been absorbed into the spirit of the time" -- someone who has made his individual experience universal. One way or another, a true masterpiece reveals our own potential for greatness.

When I was a child I watched the new DC-3s flying majestically overhead. They told me that I was viable -- that I also owned the germ of creative power they represented.

When he was four, my older son gazed across San Francisco Bay at that gossamer bridge and cried, "Golden Great Bridge!" That was more than a childish slip -- it was primal recognition.

That bridge is a work of genius that speaks our universal craving for beauty and connection. It expresses our love of lightness and buoyancy. Like the DC-3, it says things can function beautifully in a world where things so often do not.

A masterpiece is handiwork which, because it reflects what it is to be human in a particular age, is empowered to tell us what it is to be human in any age. The Eiffel Tower is as surely a masterpiece as Chartres Cathedral or the Taj Mahal. Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan as Watt perfected his steam engine. And those masterpieces both tell us that creative power just as surely rises up in you and me -- and that it still transforms the earth today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Clark, K., What is a Masterpiece?. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

James Watt filed the last of his primary set of Steam Engine Patents in 1784. Samuel Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan in 1797. He ended that remarkable poem with his eerie vision of the creative hero emerging out of his own imagination:

I would build a dome in air,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.