Where Is Today's Michelangelo?

And how to produce epic artists

One person is responsible for all of this.

Perhaps one artist in a generation creates a work that takes its place on the list of true classics. But there’s one man who almost single-handedly created that list.

From the Pietá to the Sistine Chapel, the Last Judgment and David, the beauty of Michelangelo’s work never fails to awe and amaze.

But why, 500 years later, haven’t we seen another like him?

Here are 3 reasons why we haven’t — and how we can return to a culture that fosters the growth of epic artists…

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Throwaway Culture

Michelangelo didn’t even consider himself a painter…

The Renaissance reawakened the classical roots of art. Inspired by sculptures that had already lasted for millennia, Renaissance patrons commissioned buildings to last the ages, and paintings to pass down their story to future generations.

In other words, these commissions were intended to document the patron’s mark on history. They were made to last. 

Not only that, but many pieces of art were connected to rich traditions that already stood upon centuries. For example, when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel, he wasn’t just adorning a sitting room. The Sistine Chapel is where the Roman Catholic Church elects its popes. 

In other words, Michelangelo was being asked to contribute to the most important function of one of the world’s most influential and long-standing institutions. So when he picked up his paintbrush, Michelangelo knew he was making a piece of history. 

Contemporary art, on the other hand, lacks this long-term vision. Today’s art is typically divorced from the context of tradition, and rarely seeks to outlast its creator. 

As a counterpoint to the Sistine Chapel, consider a room of comparable importance to the modern world: the United Nations General Assembly Hall. This is where world leaders meet to make decisions that touch the lives of almost everyone on earth. Yet a glance will reveal that it lacks the permanence and dignity of the Sistine Chapel.

Instead of marble, the General Assembly Hall boasts thin wood paneling and carpeted floors. And the art, which consists of two house-sized abstract murals, comprises squiggly shapes and cartoonish colors. The murals are respectively dubbed “Bugs Bunny” and “Scrambled Eggs.”

President Truman dubbed it “Scrambled Eggs” in 1952, and the name stuck…

If today’s most prominent international organization doesn’t value timeless art, it’s not surprising that it’s nowhere to be found in modern culture.

Nor is it a surprise that these conditions suffocate the vision of future Michelangelos who might otherwise have emerged.

Consumerism

The Renaissance wasn’t just the rebirth of high art. It was the birth of the discipline of analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting that art.

It seems strange to us today, but before the Renaissance, painting was considered an applied art, something decorative yet primarily functional. Luminary critics such as Lorenzo Ghiberti changed this when they approached painting with the same critical perspective that they brought to sculpture. In his Commentaries, Ghiberti situated artists’ work in the context of their lives, mapped the trajectory of their careers, and traced artists’ influence on one another. In other words, he made art criticism an art in itself. 

This growing discipline of art interpretation pushed painters to a new level of self-awareness. With a crowd of eager critics looking over their shoulders, painters pushed themselves to new heights of drama and insight. Patrons commissioned increasingly ambitious works that allowed masters like Michelangelo and Raphael to find the extremities of their talent. And while this highly cultured form of art wasn’t integrated into the lives of common people, it was often available to them in churches and other pilgrimage sites — so still accessible and inspirational.

Fast forward 500 years and you’ll find a different artistic landscape. Art is no longer considered something precious to lift your soul and inspire your mind. Even great art is commercialized: you can now buy the David on a t-shirt for pennies on Amazon, download the Sistine Chapel as an iPhone background, or add the Mona Lisa to your cart with a click. 

The democratization of art has its cultural benefits. However, there’s no doubt that reducing art to a consumable good denigrates our ability to see beauty as a transformative force. It certainly undermines our appreciation of art as a channel of that force.

While the Renaissance pushed artists to create works that would move millions to tears, today’s consumer culture demands art that thousands will purchase. 

If Michelangelo had been born today, would he have had the opportunity to develop history-changing projects like the Pieta? Would anyone be interested in funding works that demand days, weeks, or even years to create? 

Or would the would-be Michelangelo have to focus on t-shirt art with enough mass appeal to sell online and pay the bills?

The Decline of Humanism

Within the fertile ground of the Renaissance, one of the factors that nourished great art was the emergent philosophy of humanism. Its explosive confidence in human nature fuelled artists’ passion. Art was created to draw the human spirit upward to ever-greater spiritual heights, moral awareness, and earthly achievement.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment at which Renaissance humanism shifted towards postmodern cynicism. By the postwar period, though, art was telling a very different story. 

Two world wars forced humanity to confront its dark side, causing many to mistrust human nature. New schools of art responded to this experience: brutalism, which steamrolled over the uniqueness of human nature, and cubism, which expressed the trauma and fracturedness of modern life. 

If Michelangelo was born in the last hundred years, would he have had the optimistic faith in humanity required to unfold its story across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Would he have seen the glory of man that he sought to unveil in the David, or perceived the human capacity for compassionate suffering that inspired the Pietá?

Before we can recover the ability to create epic art, we must first rediscover a reason to make it.

From Renaissance Man to Modern Man

The Pietá (1499), cut from a single marble block by a 24-year-old

The Renaissance was more than an awakening of creativity, rationality, and cultural self-awareness that illuminated the Western world. It was the ideal context for dozens of artists, Michelangelo included, to extend their talent to the utmost degree. 

In contrast, a culture starved of deep convictions will be shallow soil for great artists to grow. 

It’s a cyclical problem: without a culture that values art, beautiful art won’t appear. And without beautiful art, we won’t know how to value it. 

Before you despair, though, consider this: Michelangelo’s David gets more visitors than the United Nations every year. Vatican City, while theoretically less relevant than the UN to today’s secular society, gets five times as many visitors. As the world’s most visited painting, the Mona Lisa sees 10 million beauty-seeking pilgrims every year.

Though this is only one metric, it nonetheless tells a story: modern man isn’t so different from Renaissance man after all. The human heart still seeks beauty, mystery, and insight. Even if we can’t find it in contemporary culture, we’ll keep reaching back into the riches of the past to nourish our spirits.

While it may take a while to recover, the spirit of beauty is too integral to human life to ever die completely.

Art of the Week

While we often admire Michelangelo for his uplifting marble work, much of his opus revolves around a lesser-known theme: death. 

Michelangelo first poured out his struggles with mortality into a collection of sonnets. Then, at age 67, he painted The Last Judgment, the Sistine Chapel altarpiece that meditates on judgment after death. While it would be over twenty more years before the artist himself died, he was already considered old — and the loss of many of his friends only brought the reality of death closer.

The Dying Slave, Michelangelo (c.1516)

Michelangelo’s Dying Slave is one example of a piece he produced that meditates on death. Originally composed to adorn the tomb of Pope Julius II, it captures the moment death finally grips a young man. 

The figure’s posture is relaxed, as in the moment of surrendering to sleep. While it seems that the hand on his chest was struggling against his bonds, the fight has gone out of it. The slave is relaxing into his constraints.

Michelangelo’s characteristic genius makes marble flow like water, and this statue is no exception. In Dying Slave, the sinuous shape makes the solid stone look like it’s about to dissolve, creating a tense dynamic between stillness and movement.

Though the statue wasn’t included in the final design of Pope Julius II’s tomb, it still prompts unsettling questions about death and our life in the present:

Is the comfort of life pulling me into a living death?

Have I surrendered to the bonds of spiritual slavery?

Could the things that seem rock-solid to me dissolve in a moment?

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