What makes a creative work great? (Not necessarily successful). In Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Isaacson suggests that da Vinci was a man who intellectualized in the extreme. Oddly, despite his innate talent, Leonardo didn't seem to like to paint that much and would rarely finish a painting. And from my point of view, I see Leonardo's painting, his portraits in particular, as highly intellectualized images. Am I suggesting that the Mona Lisa, just to take one of his paintings, isn't a masterpiece? Not at all, but I do feel that the subject is more about the project of creating the perfect portrait, and not a straight likeness of the sitter. Having said that, it is a remarkable portrait as da Vinci uses every trick he knows to get the viewer to feel contact or a connection with the sitter. You can't help but get involved with the portrait. Would I want to live with it? No, I don't think so. On the other hand, Vincent van Gogh's emotions splash all over his paintings. Are his works better for it--they certainly draw the eye of the viewer. And at times, you can't help but be pulled into a world of color and form that elicit strong emotions. Both painters are clearly masters at projecting an image and yet their paths to creation are quite different.
The two ends of the spectrum that motivate and inform a creator, emotion and intellect, are neither opposed nor in tandem and yet they can yield substantial differences in how we see their work. And though there are other aspects to a creators repertoire, talent, composition, hard work and vision for example, the essential element of creating is informed by both emotion and intellect. A podcast I once listened to about the composer Maurice Ravel illustrates this idea. Ravel is said to have suffered from Aphasia, a disease that limits the ability to both remember and to formulate sentences--it can happen for myriad reasons--most often but not only from brain tumors, and the affects are substantive in hindering communication. Ravel's best known work, Bolero, was written when his Aphasia was nascent. The conclusion of the podcaster was that Ravel chose or even felt that he had to write differently, choosing repetition and crescendo to express himself--it is an emotionally driven work and a volte face to his earlier more studied and intellectual works.
The question that I posed about what makes a work great is, of course, unanswerable simply because for many, it is a subjective concept. Does it matter if something is great or merely pleasing? We like things for reasons that are both within and without understanding. And for a multitude of people to like something simultaneously is even more strange. (The madness of crowds?) What was it about the Beatles that caused such an uproar? Why is Picasso a household name in the art world and Georges Braque remembered to such a lesser extent even though they both were responsible for the founding of cubism? (He is a wonderful artist.) But talking about fame is far different than talking about a great work. A great work of art can be ignored for decades--think of the Eiffel Tower which wasn't ignored, it was reviled. And yet it is as much a symbol of Paris as the Arc de Triomphe and possibly even Notre Dame. (Of course, many will reject the suggestion that it is a work of art, but it most certainly is iconic.) Van Gogh, of course, went unnoticed for a long time as have many other painters. Greatness, it seems, is not about what the artist gives or where it comes from within them, it is for the public to grasp its essential message and connect with it. That is the mystery.