The Mona Lisa: What's So Good About It?

Written by Monkey Woods

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

image for The Mona Lisa: What's So Good About It?
The Mona Lisa

Beauty: it's all in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? What you think is beautiful, might not have quite the same effect on someone else, and vice-versa. It's true, right?

Marmite is something else that divides us. Love it or hate it, that's what they say.

And art, a subject that is, to say the least, 'contentious', is in a similar vein. You either appreciate it, or you don't.

Probably the most famous painting ever, is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. It has been described as "the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, and the most parodied work of art in the world" (Wikipedia). Painted between 1503 and 1506, the work is synonymous with 'beauty', and thousands of people, every day, queue up at the Louvre in Paris to see it, and tell their friends they have.

But, what's so special about it? I mean, isn't it true that, until 1913, the Mona Lisa was just another painting? Isn't it only since we have been told that it's "the greatest work of art that was ever created", that we've all been referring to it as "the greatest work of art that was ever created"? Or, if people tell you it's so, it must be, right? Right?

What follows is a edit I've made of an original article by Ian Leslie in the May/June 2014 edition of The Economist.


"In 1993, a psychologist, James Cutting, visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to see Renoir’s picture of Parisians at play, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, considered one of the greatest works of impressionism. Instead, he found himself magnetically drawn to a painting in the next room: an enchanting, mysterious view of snow on Parisian rooftops. He had never seen it before, nor heard of its creator, Gustave Caillebotte.

That was what got him thinking:

How does a work of art come to be considered great?

The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great: of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation.

But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions - aren't some things that are 'great' just historical accidents?

Cutting, a professor at Cornell University wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league.

In a seminal 1968 experiment, people were shown a series of abstract shapes in rapid succession. Some shapes were repeated, but because they came and went so fast, the subjects didn’t notice. When asked which of these random shapes they found most pleasing, they chose ones that, unbeknown to them, had come around more than once. Even unconscious familiarity bred affection.

Back at Cornell, Cutting designed an experiment to test his hunch. Over a lecture course he regularly showed undergraduates works of impressionism for two seconds at a time. Some of the paintings were canonical, included in art-history books. Others were lesser known but of comparable quality. These were exposed four times as often. Afterwards, the students preferred them to the canonical works, while a control group of students liked the canonical ones best. Cutting’s students had grown to like those paintings more simply because they had seen them more.

The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions. Meanwhile, academics and critics created sophisticated justifications for its pre-eminence. After all, it’s not just the masses who tend to rate what they see more often more highly. As contemporary artists like Warhol and Damien Hirst have grasped, critical acclaim is deeply entwined with publicity.

“Scholars”, Cutting argues, “are no different from the public in the effects of mere exposure.”

A sociologist, Duncan Watts, calls the process “cumulative advantage”: once a thing becomes popular, it will tend to become more popular still. A few years ago, Watts, who is employed by Microsoft to study the dynamics of social networks, had a similar experience to Cutting in another Paris museum. After queuing to see the “Mona Lisa” in its climate-controlled bulletproof box at the Louvre, he came away puzzled: why was it considered so superior to the three other Leonardos in the previous chamber, to which nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention?

When Watts looked into the history of “the greatest painting of all time”, he discovered that, for most of its life, the “Mona Lisa” languished in relative obscurity. In the 1850s, Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for giants of Renaissance art like Titian and Raphael, whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the “Mona Lisa”. It was only in the 20th century that Leonardo’s portrait of his patron’s wife rocketed to the number-one spot.

What propelled it there wasn’t a scholarly re-evaluation, but a burglary.

In 1911 a maintenance worker at the Louvre walked out of the museum with the “Mona Lisa” hidden under his smock. Parisians were aghast at the theft of a painting to which, until then, they had paid little attention. When the museum reopened, people queued to see the gap where the “Mona Lisa” had once hung, in a way they had never done for the painting. The police were stumped. At one point, a terrified Pablo Picasso was called in for questioning, but the “Mona Lisa” wasn’t recovered until two years later when the thief, an Italian carpenter called Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The French public was electrified. The Italians hailed Peruggia as a patriot who wanted to return the painting home. Newspapers around the world repro­duced it, making it the first work of art to achieve global fame.

From then on, the “Mona Lisa” came to represent Western culture itself.

In 1919, when Marcel Duchamp wanted to perform a symbolic defacing of high art, he put a goatee on the “Mona Lisa”, which only reinforced its status in the popular mind as the epitome of great art (or as the critic Kenneth Clark later put it, “the supreme example of perfection”). Throughout the 20th century, musicians, advertisers and film-makers used the painting’s fame for their own purposes, while the painting, in Watts’s words, used them back. Peruggia failed to repatriate the “Mona Lisa”, but he succeeded in making it an icon.

Although many have tried, it does seem improbable that the painting’s unique status can be attributed entirely to the quality of its brushstrokes. It has been said that the subject’s eyes follow the viewer around the room. But as the painting’s biographer, Donald Sassoon, drily notes, “In reality the effect can be obtained from any portrait.” Duncan Watts proposes that the “Mona Lisa” is merely an extreme example of a general rule. Paintings, poems and pop songs are buoyed or sunk by random events or preferences that turn into waves of influence, rippling down the generations.

“Saying that cultural objects have value,” Brian Eno once wrote, “is like saying that telephones have conversations.” Nearly all the cultural objects we consume arrive wrapped in inherited opinion; our preferences are always, to some extent, someone else’s. Visitors to the “Mona Lisa” know they are about to visit the greatest work of art ever, and come away appropriately awed—or let down."

Now, shall we get started on Shakespeare?

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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