In 1936, Gertrude Stein was invited to England to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge. She prepared two talks for the occasion, one of which was called “What Are Master-Pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them.” 1 Like all of her theoretical pronouncements, this text is a bravura combination of speculative audacity, adroit playfulness, and flagrant self-promotion. It is, in other words, a miniature attempt to produce her own version of precisely that class of object whose extreme rarity the lecture’s title asserts. However few the number of genuine masterpieces, Stein is not only certain that they exist and are worth striving to create, but, more interestingly, she is equally sure that her audience shares the same convictions for reasons wholly independent of any particular works she might invoke. Indeed, her lecture scarcely bothers to mention, let alone analyze, any specific examples at all—apart, of course, from her own writings, along with passing glances at Hamlet and Robinson Crusoe. To Stein, the features of individual masterpieces are almost incidental compared to the overwhelming significance of the category as such.
Paradoxically, though, in spite of Stein’s near hypostatization of the masterpiece, she deliberately avoids drawing on the rhetoric of the sublime when defining it, relying instead on the unemphatic, homespun verb “to make.” No word occurs more frequently in Stein’s writings, or resonates with more obvious [End Page 1] authorial self-identification. Even in the charged context of defining of the masterpiece, she depends wholly on the notions of deliberate intention and repeated labor suggested by the workmanlike concept of making. For all their self-evident and timeless authority, masterpieces are not the result of some transcendent revelation or supra-rational inspiration; masterpieces are made, rarely and against extraordinary odds, but, like other, more ordinary works of human days and hands, they must nonetheless be made. Through this insistence, Stein enables us to hear, behind its post-Enlightenment, idealist sublimation, something of the term’s more prosaic history.
Unlike most of our critical vocabulary that emerged from a subtly nuanced Graeco-Latin philosophical and aesthetic discourse, the word “masterpiece” is entirely medieval in origin and first appeared in the context of regulatory legislation governing artisanal activity. 2 The exercise of a profession during the Middle Ages necessitated admission to a guild or corporation, confirmed by the candidate’s recognition as a master, usually through the production of a chef d’oeuvre or Meisterstück that had to conform to strictly defined criteria and was subject to an official examination by the senior members of a guild. Such a requirement is mentioned for the first time in Etienne Boileau’s Livre de métier, which is datable between 1261 and 1271 and contains the statutes governing the corporations in the city of Paris. As the record amply demonstrates, “the most striking feature of the Medieval institution of Masterpiece-making was its wholly artisanal purpose. Masterpieces were executed not just by goldsmiths and tapestry weavers, where a certain ‘artistic’ quality might be assumed, but also apothecaries, carpenters, rope-makers, barbers, locksmiths, tailors, and cooks” (M, 5). 3 My favorite example of such officially mandated masterpiece making, one that a dedicated connoisseur of the dinner table like Gertrude Stein surely would have applauded, is the following list of dishes required of a candidate for master chef in 1576 in Calais:
a turkey in rum and vanilla sauce, three partridges in a pâté, a milk-fed kid roasted on a spit, a boar with lard, a tart with jellied filling decorated with fleurs-de-lys of different colors, a basket made with candied sticks interlaced and variously colored, a lion carved in jellied cream, an imitation bunch of grapes made of jelly and an almond tart[M, 5–6].
Stein, of course, is not the only modernist who would have found such a list imaginatively compelling. To a remarkable extent, the modernists were fascinated by catalogues and lists of every description, and when they incorporated lengthy inventories into their own texts, it was not just because doing so was the easiest way to signal an affinity between their...