BOOK REVIEW: Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way

Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way
John B. Nici
Rowman & Littlefield
Copyright 2015 by the author

Ask a hundred people what is the most famous or greatest work of art in the world, and ninety-nine of them will most likely say it’s the “Mona Lisa”. Ask them to explain why, and most of them will mumble something about the smile. Nothing about da Vinci’s technique or composition or anything else that one would usually expect to hear when discussing a masterpiece, just an opinion that they are no doubt parroting from someone else.

What is it that makes a famous work of art famous? Art historian John B. Nici has taken time out from teaching art history at Queens College in New York to delve into the matter. As often as not, Fame comes from things external to the artwork itself.

Each of the twenty chapters in the book looks at a specific piece of art. They are arranged chronologically, from the Great Sphinx to the Vietnam Memorial. It might discomfit the “globalists” and “diversity promoters”, but all of the works are from the Western canon. Nothing Asian or African. Well, it’s about fame, after all. And the most famous works in the world are “Western”. If you let that bother you, I say you deserve to be bothered. You might dispute the inclusion or absence of a work on his list (El Greco instead of Michaelangelo?); I suspect Nici went for a broader selection. Michaelangelo’s David and the Sistine Chapel ceiling do get mentioned in passing; perhaps their exclusion from the list is because there’s nothing interesting or relevant in their stories.

While Nici does go into the artistic merits of the works a bit, he focuses more on writing what could be called a “biography” of each. That’s a far more interesting approach for the casual art buff, and more relevant to his thesis. Promotion often plays a part; the “Nike of Samothrace” was just another statue until it was given a dramatic placement at the top of a grand staircase. Sale prices, the artist’s life, and even the occasional theft can boost the fame of a work.

It’s very well written, and filled with ideas and tidbits you can use to spice up your conversation and sound more erudite. The next time Andy Warhol comes up in conversation, remind people that he started out as a commercial illustrator and became a “crossover artist”. Then raise the question of whether commercial illustration can be considered worthy of discussion as Art. Muse on the fragility of fame, and tell how the Apollo Belvedere used to be the greatest work of sculpture in the world, and is now just a statue that you pass by on your way to something else.

The publishers have enriched the book with a set of full-color plates of all the works in question. Since it’s not likely that you will ever get to see all of them in person, this is a tremendous asset. One thing that would have helped but wasn’t included is a final chapter by Nici summarizing his thesis. He guides you through centuries of great art, and then pretty much leaves you to find your own way out of the museum. It would have been great to head for the coffee shop with him afterwards to continue the conversation.

Nonetheless, this is still a fine work. The question of what makes something famous – intrinsic value or circumstance – is one that can be applied to every field of endeavor.

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