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A SURVEY OF OVER-RATED ITEMS, NO. 2:
THE MONA LISA

by Papa Redcloud

Mona Lisa

As a service to humanity I am continuing my list of objects and experiences that are over-rated. I shall persist in sharing with you the fruits of my research and analysis. The items on this list all have some quality--had they no merit at all they surely would never have become over-rated. What characterizes the truly over-rated icon is that its reputation is all out of proportion to the enjoyment, satisfaction, or benefit that can be, or commonly is, derived from it.

Supposedly the Mona Lisa is the greatest picture ever painted. But who really likes that painting? A closeup head-shot of a dumpy dame with an insipid does-she-or-doesnít-she smirk on her face. Itís hard not to dislike the image, which has become a hideous cultural icon, beloved of advertisers, not unlike the ubiquitous homely visages of George Washington (q.v.) and Charlie Chaplinís tramp (q.v.). Would you want it either of those pusses staring at you from your wall? And, if you did, what would that say about you?

Admittedly the image that stands for the Mona Lisa in books, magazines, and television is not the real thing. Any connoisseur (q.v.) will explain to us that experiencing the masterpiece in the flesh, so to speak, it an entirely different experience than being exposed to a reproduction. Well and good, but how many people have actually seen Leonardoís storied portrait? If what makes the Mona Lisa so good is something that we are unlikely ever to see, is not its quality more of a rumor than a fact? And are we not chumps for believing that something is the best in the World of Art (q.v.) when we can only get that information second or third-hand?

Unlike music, in which every decent performance of a masterpiece gives us a first-hand glimpse at the work, in fine art there is generally only one true item. If you want to see an artwork as it is supposed to be seen you need to travel (q.v.) around the world, often seeking permission from private collectors. We cannot afford to own highly-rated real art ourselves, and if we could and did own such items we would, of course, hate ourselves. Since all true fine art is one of a kind, to own art is to be a miser, a hoarder, a "dog in the manger." So the only place for art is in a public museum.

Iíve been to museums. They are pleasant enough places to while away some time, especially to see some obscure but unexpectedly pleasing landscape in company with your best friend, under the distant supervision of a ratty young museum guard in a uniform two sizes too big wearing a wrinkled dark tie stained with cafeteria soup. But put "a masterpiece" on display and the crowds will descend in such numbers that oneís view of the painting will be fleeting, distant, and obstructed. And all it takes is one sweaty tourist of the type that disdains the modern miracle of deodorant (not q.v.) and one comes away from the Prado, the Met, or the Louvre with this distinct impression: it stinks!

Ah, but that smile! Or whatever it is! Does not mouth on the Mona Lisa have a divinely ambiguous expression on her face? I have two answers to that question. First, ambiguity and uncertainty are frequently the resort of incompetent artists. Just consider the story "The Lady and the Tiger." In that the hero has to choose between two doors: behind one is his love and happiness, behind the other is gruesome death. The story ends just before his fate is revealed. The reader, one supposes, must choose for him or herself. Now everyone knows that "The Lady and the Tiger" is not a masterpiece. It is the literary antecedent of Choose Your Own Adventure. Only you donít really get to have the adventure--unless you sit down and write it yourself. So much for ambiguity.

Point two. Every aspiring artist knows that of all things that go into a portrait, the mouth is the hardest to draw. Get the yap wrong and one might as well start over. Could it not be that the mouth on the Mona Lisa is a botch? Da Vinci was trying to get some other effect, didnít quite capture it, fussed around a lot, and what resulted was something neither fish nor fowl? Or, to cut the guy a little slack--he did invent wonderful flying machines (q.v.) after all!--the original of the Mona Lisa may have been so repulsive that Leonardo had to resort to all sorts of artistic compromises in order to retain his artistic integrity while, at the same time, not pissing off the rich model.

The kingpins of the world of art, as well as that of music, are over-rated. We might as well go on with the Impressionists (q.v.). Who has heard of anything else besides Impressionists? When we go to the art museum we always go to see the Impressionists, hoping that the canvases themselves will reveal whatever it was that gave these items the cachet that they are said to possess. Our Monet (q.v.) prints at home appear to be murky messes, so we hope that in person we will be able to find that essence, that je ne sais quoi that will send us to the museum gift shop for yet another print. Sometimes we find it, most often we do not. In general Manet (q.v.) is tasteless, Monet out-of-focus, Renoir (q.v.) saccharine, and Van Gogh (q.v.) trite. I donít care if I never see Starry Night (q.v.) ever again.

The main problem with paintings like the Mona Lisa and artistic movements like the Impressionists is that their excessive celebrity depresses our knowledge of, access to, and consequently our ability to value pieces of much greater value. Those of us who arenít artists or critics often say, "I donít know much about art, but I know what I like." Would that were true! Let the scales fall from our eyes. Then let us go to visit museums, galleries, and private collections. At the end of this quest let us say what we truly like and not just salivate at the price tags that have become attached to paintings like the Mona Lisa.