Jorge Luis Borges once said that English is an ideal language for description, but of course, even English sometimes falls down on the job.
For example, I have never encountered an English word for the feeling of being alone in the woods, but German has one. English has no word for the optical illusion of the path of light that the moon’s reflection makes on the sea sometimes. English has no word that specifically means to look worse after a haircut.
English also doesn’t have a word that describes the best piece of work someone has ever done.
I know what you’re thinking– it’s right there, it’s the title of this post– but “masterpiece” doesn’t mean “best work”. In fact, a masterpiece is the capstone project that graduates of the apprenticeship system must complete in order to demonstrate their technique and become artisans, or masters, in their own right. It’s more akin to “doctoral dissertation” or even “application portfolio” than to “best work”.
It’s not “magnum opus”, either, for two snide reasons and one good one. First, it’s Latin, not English; second, it’s a phrase, not a word; but finally and most importantly, a magnum opus is a work on a large scale, and the scope or size of a project is orthogonal to its merit relative to the artist’s corpus. Pièce de résistance is closer in meaning to “best piece of work in a corpus”, but still a phrase, and French.
Sometimes the magnum opus is the best work– many people would agree that the immense Guernica is Picasso’s best, and also largest, and also grandest-scale work. Of course, J.R.R. Tolkein’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, is also arguably the best and grandest-scale of his fiction writings.
Other times, as in nature, the larger fruit is swollen with plain water and therefore is bland by comparison with its smaller, sweeter-tasting cousin.
Five Best Works that are Notably Small
- “In the Patio No IV” (1948) by Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe is famous for macroscopic flowers, yonic abstracts, bright colors, and still life arrangements of animal bone, but in her later years, she turned to minimalistic landscapes and architectural works. This one is my favorite– the subtle gradation of light and shadow in this piece, the bold framing, and the fluidity of the boundaries of adobe and sand make this painting seem so much bigger than its relatively small canvas and extremely limited color palette. Georgia didn’t have to peer into showy flowers or dress found objects or mix up a striking poppy red in order to make this, her best work– it’s just a corner of a plain little courtyard with a bit of sunlight in it.
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck. This is an amazing little allegory, beautifully written, with all the warmth and humanity Steinbeck attempted to infuse into The Grapes of Wrath. His other little gem of a novella, Of Mice and Men, is also far better than his monstrous, lurching novels, but, like them, is prone to a slight condescension in tone. Steinbeck writes tragedies, yes, but when he has more than a few concise chapters to work with, he gets a bit heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. The Pearl has a very moving climax and peripeteia, and there’s just enough storyline preceding it to make the inevitability of the tragic end apparent. Any more than that gives dear old John too much time to feel superior to his characters (the poor damned fools!) or his readers (if only you knew how inevitable is their demise!).
- “The Minister’s Black Veil”, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. How does someone achieve fame and fortune writing standard novels when his obvious calling is the short story? Not many people have read this little piece, but it is haunting. Like Steinbeck, when Hawthorne is forced to be succinct he stops writing so much about his own feelings. Gone are the long, guilt-ridden asides about how horrible Nathaniel’s Puritan forebears were to their heterodox neighbors! Unencumbered by the affectations of the romantic novel and its laughable ideas about gender and youth, this little story reads like a distillate of Hawthorne’s longer works.
- Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Although Leoncavallo wrote at least 10 grand operas, only the shortest one has survived to be performed by modern companies. His longer works, although many were very successful when newly-written, largely center on the same themes: nomadic troupes, theater, love, jealousy, and resulting murder. Pagliacci is perhaps remarkable simply for being an Italian opera in which the characters are concise (rather than repeating themselves over and over again for greater musical interest, as in The Marriage of Figaro), although Leoncavallo usually resists the temptation for repetition. Zingari is about the same length as Pagliacci, and centers on the same theme (an unfaithful wife is murdered by her husband) but lacks the dramatic intricacies of the clown play-within-a-play.
- Dark Star by John Carpenter. The shortest of his feature-length films at a petite 68-71 minutes, this trapped-in-space black comedy is also Carpenter’s best. Horrifying and absurdly comedic, Dark Star also explores the nature of theology/philosophy, anomic isolation, stoicism, and dependence on technology. Unlike Carpenter’s longer, more conventional black comedies (They Live, Big Trouble in Little China), it is a cleverly wrought story that relies on some interesting complexities of human philosophy. Unlike Carpenter’s longer horror films (Halloween, The Fog), it is a complete Aristotlean tragedy. In the original film festival version, the special effects are minimal, and there is no superhuman or supernatural force to bootstrap the plot, which is therefore pruned by realism to produce superior fruit.
But what would be a good English word for the best piece in an artist’s corpus?
Words like “classic”, “model”, and “standard” would not apply to an artist’s best work unless it was typical of the rest of their corpus in theme or, in addition to a work being that artist’s best, it was also a particularly fine piece in its genre as a whole.
Words like “cream”, “gem”, “jewel”, “flower”, and “prize” aren’t exclusive enough– a good artist could produce many gems, or all of their works could be said to be “jewels of modern sculpture”, so that doesn’t help us denote their best work.
Words like “perfection” and “showpiece” denote something that is particularly worthy in a global sense, and wouldn’t apply to an example that was the best work of a particular artist but still not very good compared to the rest of the entries in the field, and “showpiece” in particular isn’t appropriate to a lesser-known, posthumously published, or closet work.
We could try making a compound word out of “master work”– a work obviously characteristic of a master– but again, that wouldn’t apply to the best example of an artist who simply wasn’t very good. The similar “masterstroke” additionally doesn’t seem to stand on its own, being mostly used for achievements or actions instead of physical objects or products. Something can be “a masterstroke of international negotiation” but you can’t be enraptured over a painting and say “It’s a real masterstroke.”
“Paramount” might be appropriate, especially with its connotations of singularity, but it’s the wrong part of speech, and “paramount work” is hardly superior to “best work”.
Is “best work” the best English can do for this concept?