For the past two weeks, loads of international attention has been focused on City of Tonawanda resident Martin Kober, the owner of a 16th century painting that may be by Michelangelo.
Though scholars may never reach a consensus about whether the painting is the work of the master who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and chiseled the statue of David, our desperate need for an immediate verdict and price-tag has set the tone of the conversation so far.
But for William E. Wallace, a prominent scholar and expert on Michelangelo's life and works, the question is beside the point. During the Renaissance, consumers of art were well aware that artists of Michelangelo's monumental stature employed many assistants and artists who were capable of executing versions of their sketches. That's why so many sculpted and painted copies of his original "pieta" sketch (now in the collection of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum) exist.
"He actually sponsored some of these people and probably encouraged the making of these objects," said Wallace, who examined Kober's painting in 2005 and thinks it is unlikely Michelangelo painted it himself. "Everybody should, and did, think of them as 'Michelangelos.' "
But that was then.
These days, the need to attribute the precise origin of such a painting seems to overwhelm the discussion of its artistic merit, or even the singularly remarkable fact that a 16th century painting from Michelangelo's time and place remained in a rural home in Western New York for so long.
Beyond all that, there is an important lesson embedded in Michelangelo's "modern" approach to artistic authorship that can help us get a better grasp on a good deal of contemporary art. A week ago in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a mammoth wall drawing by the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, the artist's final museum commission before his death in 2007, was unveiled to the public.
LeWitt, not unlike Michelangelo, employed many gifted artists in his studio, who then were charged with executing versions of the master's designs. The resulting works -- like the scribble drawing at the Albright-Knox -- are considered "LeWitts" even though the originator's hand never touched them.
For his swan song, LeWitt's concept was to create an enveloping series of shaded tubes on the four walls surrounding the gallery's staircase. The work, which took a team of 16 artists 54 days to complete, is impressive for its sheer scope and ambition. (Though at first glance, at least to me, it lacked the reductive beauty so compelling in much of the artist's earlier work.)
There are still a great many people outside of the art establishment who dismiss this concept of art as intrinsically deceptive, second-hand profiteering. In the case of an artist like Damien Hirst, they're not far off the mark. But it might help some to appreciate work by the singular talents of Andy Warhol, LeWitt and others to know that the workshop approach to artistic creation is nothing new.
Even for a universally recognized master like Michelangelo, the concept was the thing.
"Think about the great painters over the ages who had enormous salons with multiple assistants who would execute [paintings]," said Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox. "When you acquire a work by Sol LeWitt or Felix Gonzalez Torres, you're buying the concept of the artwork that can be re-created through a series of different specs, the way architects build a house."
In that sense, the great Italian master was in essence a "contemporary" artist, dealing with the ideas of his time, employing the tools of his environment and pushing his own artistic boundaries as he went. Twenty-first century artists operate in precisely the same realm with different ideas. The line between the great art of the past and the challenging art of the present is not as broken or difficult to follow as many believe.
Quite the contrary. The idea of what art can be has expanded and fractured into a million sub-genres of expression. It's fair to say that more interesting and worthwhile art is being created today than at any point in history.
And there's no reason that we shouldn't be able to lump Michelangelo, Rubens, Ruscha and LeWitt into the same artistic box.