Mona Lisa Smile

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Friends often ask me about how art is made. Their biggest objection to criticism and the deification of certain works of art – the Mona Lisa was their most recent target – is the following: why is she such a big deal!

For someone that has spent the past five years grappling with literary criticism and the (often perverse and, yes, incomprehensible) twists and turns of theory, the answer to such a question is obvious, and is also paradoxically irreducible to a clarificatory sentence or two. This, I understand, defies its obvious nature. All I can say – ineloquently and possibly unhelpfully is this: it’s about form, about invention, about ambiguity; technique and history; the practical and the sublime at the same time. You look at it and know! And then you locate all the elements that contribute towards this instinctive reaction.

My friends will ask: but HOW do you know?

The biggest apprehension, as I perceive it, hidden within my friends’ questions is this: how do we know the Mona Lisa was not an accident?

There is a deep-set worry that we might be hailing something as the ultimate artistic masterpiece of all time when it might not be worth it. That the title, and its accompanying hype, is actually arbitrarily placed on said work. There appears to be no trust in the critic, or the tradition of criticism. Perhaps because criticism has placed itself at such a distance from the realworld that for the non-academic it takes up a position similar to the bridge at the right of the Gioconda: it is indistinguishable, it lies unrecognized and irrelevant in the background. An accountant friend whose own interpretation of the Mona Lisa caused roars of laughter at the table, kindly offered the following words of solace: ‘these people are trained in this craft. It is their profession. They are experts. We should listen to them.’ Validating aesthetic testimony, he is more than happy to follow the wisdom of those he considers to be better ‘trained’ in a particular field than he is. But art, democratically placed in the Louvre and reproduced online, on t-shirts, on bridges, with mustaches, in profane poses, will not be content with such reassurance.

Not everyone, apparently, can see why the Mona Lisa or other hyper-famous works of art, like Munch’s The Scream, are such a big deal. While trying to explain to ten people why I thought it was, I found myself faltering, unable to put my mental conviction into words. This ineffability was precisely the reason why they were not convinced by the unanimous, uncontested praise of da Vinci’s work! I mumbled something about perspective – about nuanced ambiguity.

That got me thinking: for something not to be an accident, do you absolutely require intent? What degree of control or predisposition does one need to prove purpose? Or at least a just attribution to the particular author or artist? The argument then turns on what seems to be a highly legalistic axis. Does the artist need to have a certain degree of requisite mens rea? Does she have to foresee – premeditate – what we, from a critical standpoint, see in the picture, or read in a work of literature? Is art really not worth the fuss if the artist does not possess a ‘guilty mind’?

The issue of authorial intent is one that has taken cosmic dimensions throughout centuries and I am not one to offer a definite answer to it. I tackle this age-old question not to break new ground, but to show how it ties together our non-academic impressions of authorship and ownership and by extension artistic or creative merit even today. If you follow the instructions on a poetry vending machine in Canada or at the Taipei poetry festival and key in a few words on a whim, can the best
poem in the world 
ever come out of it? Can a machine write a poem? Or is the process by which it ‘fills in the blanks’ not considered writing? The Taiwanese government culture website claims that the ‘Poem Vending Machine will assemble a person’s answers to random questions into his or her exclusively personal poem’. It’s also available online, if you can read Taiwanese or if you trust Google Translate with the task. But how ‘exclusively personal’ will this poem be? The machine acts as a substitute for Romantic genius, which is what in most minds is linked to the ‘exclusively personal’, the individual, the original, the attributable. It replaces it with what is in effect a predetermined set of possibilities. Is the intent put in the answers to the questions sufficient to prove creative intention? I would personally say no.

Then again, for some process does not matter as much as the end result. One of the biggest stories to come out of the music industry in the past couple of years was the authenticity of the image of Lana del Rey, nee Lizzie Grant. Does it matter that Lana del Rey’s image appears to have been artificially constructed by a genius team of marketing experts and brand-builders? Could you listen to ‘Video Games’ with the same wanderlust that you used to once you found out that Lana was not really the trailer park girl, hipster idol and ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ she poses as? The organicness of the Lana del Rey phenomenon was the major reason many of her fans ended up turning against her. As a Guardian article pointed out: ‘Her stage name was chosen by her management. Rather than being an outsider struggling for recognition, Del Rey is in fact the daughter of a millionaire father who has backed her career.’ For some, this breaks the magic. But should it?

Whatever your inclination, one thing is certain: asking why art, music or literature is such a big deal is never a derogatory question, no matter how dismissively it is posed. It is a question that keeps critics and artists alike on their toes and it is also a sign that a creative work has achieved at least part of what it set out to accomplish in the first place: trigger multiple reactions that are most often (frustratingly) settled in ambiguity.