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My magnum opus

Shania O'Brien has something to say about about the concept of great works.

Art by Claire Ollivain.

I am full of so many wants. Too many to prioritise; and so they all feel desperate. Most of all, I always thought I wanted to write. But that wasn’t enough; I wanted everything I wrote to be better than the last. I wanted it to be more intellectual, more engaging, more professional. These expectations were a given, because what is the point of doing anything if I know I have created something better in the past? That, of course, is the worst thought I have ever had. It stifled my growth, prevented me from writing for months, kept me from doing something I believed I enjoyed so much because there was no chance of it being perfect.

The concept of the magnum opus, the masterpiece, dates back to the seventeenth century. It is considered to be a creative’s greatest work, the best thing they will ever produce. This status is bestowed upon said piece of work based on critical acclaim and appeal to the masses. There are many archetypal masterpieces: Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

In a way, those artists are immortalised in their respective great works, defined forever in relation to a sculpture, a painting, a novel. In alchemy, the ultimate goal is known as the magnum opus. It is the process of using prima materia to create the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life. The concept is used as a model for the individuation process and as a device in art and literature. The aim is to attain self-realization, communion with divinity, and spiritual immortality. Or, better verbalised by Donna Tartt in The Secret History, to live forever.

The term has been misused so often recently that the gravity of it is almost lost. I see people tweeting about a TikTok being their magnum opus, posting about a loaf of baked bread being their magnum opus, boasting about a 3D-printed frog being their magnum opus. My first thought was: who are you to decide this is your great work? I just accepted that it was commonplace to have someone else determine what the best thing I ever do will be. I was so focused on ticking off imaginary boxes, waiting to be seen, wanting to be recognised. My second thought was: who am I to decide you can do better?

My creative process is a strange one. The pressure to create is ever-present, clinging to me like acrylic paint on a white t-shirt. But writing is never as easy as finding something I am interested in and putting it on paper; I have to obsess, find out everything anyone could ever know about it, fill at least three pages of my creative journal with possible points a future me would make, wait for a sign from the universe. Days, weeks, months pass. The only questions I ask myself during this are: is it better? Is it worth it? Is this the best you can do? Idea after idea came to me, begging, blossoming, beseeching. I have abandoned hundreds of stories because I thought of something better, hundreds of concepts I didn’t bother enough to develop because I saw something slightly similar, hundreds of drawings left unfinished because I couldn’t get the perspective right.

There are more things we create than art. Forming relationships with other people, and building a healthy one with myself will always be the thing I am most proud of. There are so many nuances of creation, of bringing things into existence, and most of them have nothing to do with museum displays and bestseller lists. 
My magnum opus will never be something I write, or draw, or paint, because neither of those things is the best I have to offer. I am not, nor will I ever be, the sum of art I produce to entertain other people. The concept of being worth what you can offer is a neoliberal idea that shouldn’t have any place in the world of art. The only reason I write, the only reason I am able to write is because of the people around me. I need to let go of my magnum opus, and come to terms with the fact that truly great things aren’t quantifiable. I don’t need to be prodigious, better, more. I don’t need to concede agency over my work and let other people decide what is most valuable. The relationships I have chosen are the best of me.

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