After tirelessly walking through nooks and spaces of the magnificent labyrinth that is the Louvre Museum and asking for directions from one too many workers, we finally find her – and she is far from being alone. Hundreds of people belonging to diverse races gather in one big hall guarding this singular piece of artwork, vying, pushing to see the Mona Lisa and take a picture of her or with her. My dad, who could not fathom the reason for the madness looked at me and asked, “But what’s so special about the Mona Lisa?” And for the first time, I really wasn’t sure.
I pushed my way through the crowd to get a closer enough look (and snapshot) of the Mona Lisa and got to the front row only to realize that there is an unjust boundary between us and her. The wide demarcation between the small painting and its hundreds of viewers, tell us that we can look, but we would never be close enough. Talk about traveling across continents to see a live match only to still watch it from a screen in the stadium.
The thing is, I really can’t remember what is was that made me so obsessed with the idea of visiting the Louvre. It could have been because of its name as the biggest art gallery in the world, but it could also have been because the superstar duo, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, shot their Delphic video of Apesh*t there. All I knew was that the moment I was sure I was going to be in Paris, I knew that I was going to visit the Louvre and I was going to see the Mona Lisa. Again, why her? Why does one single painting in a Museum having over 380,000 objects, displaying 35,000 works of art from probably every part of the entire living and dead world, seem so important to even non-art fanatics like me? What makes the painting of a mystery woman float our bubbles so much?
You don’t need to be a student of history or an artist to know that Leonardo da Vinci was a god of his time. From his contribution to the invention of the helicopter, the parachute, the submarine, the armoured tank, and so on; to his ground-breaking work in military engineering which spurred the invention of different forms of weaponry to, probably what he is known the most for, his artistic prowess. Way ahead of his time, his art was revolutionary. Some of his most popular works include the Last Supper was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Lady with an Ermine which has been said to be the painting of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Duke of Milan, the Baptism of Christ which is a personal favourite, and of course, the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa. With most of his works oil on wooden panels, Leonardo’s exciting artistic methods were well ahead of his time.
But in assessing the importance of the Mona Lisa, there are multiple things to consider, some because of his art and others go well beyond the efficacy of his artistic prowess. For one, there is the fact that the Mona Lisa was one of the first paintings having the closest semblance to real life. There is also the later uncovered truth that the painting carries secret codes, some of which were part of Da Vinci’s code. There are letters and numbers hidden behind her left eye and the right eye is said to contain the letters LV (or the number 72), both of which are not visible to the human eye and have to be viewed under a microscope. There is also the mystery that comes with the woman in the painting. Some historians believe that Da Vinci was homosexual and in fact, painted himself as a woman. Some say it is his mother, and others simply call her Lisa Gherardini. However, none of these really explain the madness or fuss so much because you would only know this if you spent hours watching documentaries, carried out a level of detailed research, or studied art history at some point.
A more recent reason for the hype that is closer to the truth, is the fact that its theft in 1911 created a wide media buzz across the world. The painting was stolen by an Italian criminal known as Vincenzo Perugia who worked at the Louvre for a period. The theft which was as simple as going to the gallery in the white smock which was the uniform for all employees and swiftly snatching the painting from its frame, was the biggest scandal of the world at that time. The painting remained missing until two years later when the thief tried to get a reward for it because he apparently believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon (It was actually given to him when he was the King of France) and wanted to return it to its home in Italy. This scandal was what brought the work into public knowledge.
The Mona Lisa is art. But what makes the Mona Lisa special for most people across the world isn’t the artistic story of the painting. It is the buzz. We just want to see it because we’ve heard about it.
Art means many things to many people. It conjures a myriads of emotions and there are no limits to its subjectivity. Some simply do not get it. Others see it as an elitist perk that only comes with ostentatious wealth like golfing or eating caviar. For the art lovers, it is an open book you can read and find meaning in. One open to different interpretations – like the bible. To the artist, it is a form of expression – at least that’s the general idea. And just as one cannot attain spirituality without religion, you cannot get to art without craft.
The definition of what passes as art constantly morphs based on changing tastes, trends, and the emotions of both the artists and the generation in which it was created in a given race, culture, community, or country. Modern artists can be found expressing themselves and making statements about what art is in comparison to say, Renaissance artists, pretty much debunking past ideals. Yet, the underlying question is “What makes art, Art?” Why is one piece of craft deemed art, and the other a mere handwork of little value? What makes an abstract painting, an abstract painting and another a random combination of weird shapes?
The first and probably the most logical answer, is that it is what the artist makes of it. The artist is after all the god of his or her creative expression. The artist births life on an empty canvass and much like our Creator, sets the image in place. But the flaws surrounding this are numerous. Does the artist sculpt or paint with the idea that he or she wants to create art? Or is it a free expedition with a destination that surprises the artist as much as his audience. Also, because we know that the paintings hung in galleries like the Louvre are completely different from those we draw in our jotters when we’re trying to survive boring meetings, is it simply about the value of the art piece?
If it is the value, is this value as a result of the skill or techniques of the artist? Probably not, because even skill is subjective in the art world. An artist could draw coloured lines and the image is placed in a gallery while another draws a very vivid image of his friend and it is sold for soup money on his street. It too cannot be the monetary value attached to it because demand and supply? One of Thomas Mann’s theory of postmodernism puts this into context. It explains that an artist cannot successfully critique the art market through art because the moment his or her art is recognized by the market, he or she has entered the said market. They would thus keep trying to “give the people what they want.” In other words, when an artist comes up with a masterpiece which is open to interpretation and validation of his audience, it is only a matter of time before he starts creating what he feels his audience wants as opposed to following his true artistic direction. This level of sell out is what we currently face in many other art spaces like music or even writing.
This takes us strongly to the people.
The first reason for art being seen as a function of what the people think is the story the piece tells at a glance. The emotion it conveys. That emotion isn’t, however, defined by the artist but the perception of his or her audience. It is about how they connect, engage, interact, and appreciate it. If you do think it is the artist, then what if the artist in fact had no meaning behind it? Would the audience then be made to force relevance on it based on the importance the art gallery has placed on it or because of its price? It would also only be a matter of time before the audience is given the chore of forcing meaning on it based on the belief that there has to be more to it. The story is to art, what lyrics are to music. Consequently, just as a song can be good even with poor lyrics because of its other elements, a painting can be good without the necessity of a story. It just needs to be visually appealing.
The very fact that the story that has been carefully woven into an art piece by the artist might be completely different from the story an average viewer sees, creates a dilemma between the artist and his audience. It means the artist can come up with what he considers a masterpiece and the whole world would find it irrelevant, while he could also splatter paint and have the whole world gush at it. Also, the audience can have a completely opposite perception of what the piece of art means than what the artist intended. Relying on the validation of his audience could force the artist to stop creating what he wants and start creating what he believes the people want, and this takes away the objectivity of his creative expression as well.
However, more concrete proof that the people define art can be found in the 1967 essay, “Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. His idea is that the author, in this case the artist, has no sovereignty over his art. Rather, they belong to the reader who interprets them. Here, the intentions of the author are deemed irrelevant because his work cannot be an exact replica of his intentions as he has no complete control of the outcome. Which pretty much says, only God can create with such complete autonomy.
In assessing the relevance or importance of any form of art, there is no gainsaying the fact that it would always be more than the painting itself. Every piece of art has its own interpretation that can be broadened with context and this context for the painting of a dead artist like Leonardo da Vinci, can only be gotten through research. Yet, the Mona Lisa hangs in bedrooms of people who do not even know who Leonardo da Vinci is as well as people who cannot see the ‘spectacular’ in the painting.
It is for this reason that I would take it a step further at least for a painting as important as the Mona Lisa. While it is beyond the artist, it is also beyond people’s interpretation of it. It is a combination of group think, media, and branding. Group think on the basis of conformity, where everybody or a group of people hold on to a single basic view. Media, because how else would we know about a painting in Paris while in Nigeria, and branding because of the final form given to it. This is what takes it from being a regular art work drawn by a college student to one drawn by an artist (who could in fact be the same person as the college student.)
For example, the statue of liberty is an amazing piece of art but it wasn’t made common as art. It was made as a symbol of freedom. The Mona Lisa, however, was made common as art. “Popular as Art.” An acceptable norm of what art should be that the world kept latching on to. I kept seeing fake versions of it sold on streets, kept hearing about the name, and eventually grew up into wanting to see the real thing. Hence, it isn’t about the interpretation of it or the context or the message and codes behind it (remember that we cannot even see it close enough to witness its wonders), neither is it about how important Leonardo Da Vinci is. It is because many people have seen it in far too many places for it to be remembered not just as an image like the national flag, but as an image that is generally regarded as art.