I have seen the Mona Lisa one time. I was in Paris with my parents, and we went to the Louvre and looked at it. It was fine. Everyone says it’s smaller than you imagine it will be, and that’s true, except that because you know the Mona Lisa is smaller than you imagined before you go in and see it, it ends up being roughly the size you imagined. You also have to stand kind of far away from it because it’s the most famous painting in the world and they don’t want anybody to mess it up, so it might actually be hard to tell whether it’s that small or if it’s just a combination of the frame and the distance tricking your eyes. Anyways, it’s definitely less fun to look at than this photo of Diddy standing next to the Mona Lisa, but it’s way more fun to look at than reading The Da Vinci Code, which is a bad book. The Mona Lisa is a perfectly fine work of art.
Yesterday, The New York Times published a piece by its art critic, Jason Farago, calling for the Mona Lisa to be removed from the museum. “The Louvre is being held hostage by the Kim Kardashian of 16th-century Italian portraiture: the handsome but only modestly interesting Lisa Gherardini,” Farago wrote, offering a dig on the painting’s subject that already tells you what he considers an insult. He continued: “Content in the 20th century to be merely famous, she has become, in this age of mass tourism and digital narcissism, a black hole of anti-art who has turned the museum inside out.”
Farago’s main issue with the Mona Lisa isn’t one of taste, though clearly he is not into the Mona Lisa in the same way that I, as a hip-hop obsessive, make it a principled point not to be too into the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” because it’s the main “classic rap song” that everyone knows about. Instead, his problem has to do with the way the painting is displayed, in a room that must be entered after passing through “a hideous, T.S.A.-style snake of retractable barriers that ends about 12 feet” from the painting itself. He added: “This is a gallery that makes the Spirit Airlines boarding process look like a model of efficiency, and offers about as much visual delight.”
The solution for all of these headaches, he proposes, is moving the Mona Lisa to its own dedicated space, in part so that people can take selfies with it (as an old person who looked at the painting nearly a decade ago, I cannot comment on whether this is a thing people actually do), and in part so that it stops distracting from all the other art in the Louvre.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I get where Farago is coming from. I hate popular things as much as the next person, and I am not exactly a big “being in crowds” kind of guy. But I do think that because Farago is so steeped in the art world, he has a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that the Mona Lisa plays at the museum, which is an important one. The Mona Lisa has to suck, and it has to specifically suck while being in the Louvre. That’s the thread holding this whole sweater together.
The point of looking at the Mona Lisa is not just looking at the image of the Mona Lisa. The point is the experience of looking at it in the Louvre, of waiting in line so that you can pass through a security checkpoint while being glared at by a surly yet aloof French docent, of realizing that you flew halfway across the world only to not be jammed into a room with a bunch of people from Minnesota and shit, and then, once you have navigated the security checkpoint and patiently waited for the Minnesotans to clear out of the way, actually looking at the Mona Lisa.
Once you’re actually face to face with it, you’re either underwhelmed because you’ve already seen it a million times on screens, or you really dig it, precisely for that same reason. Either way, you don’t get too long so sit with it because there’s probably someone behind you whose view you’re blocking. As it currently exists in the Louvre, the Mona Lisa is a reminder that the most hyped-up things in life are rarely as good or as breathtaking as you imagine they will be.
The second thing is that the Mona Lisa has to hang in the Louvre because that’s what subsidizes the rest of the art in the Louvre. Farago’s own piece notes that according to the museum itself, 80 percent of its visitors come there to look at the Mona Lisa. Get rid of the crowds and, well, you get rid of the crowds. The Mona Lisa is as famous as — if not more famous than — the museum it sits in, and as such, it serves as a bait and switch: you go to the Louvre to look at the Mona Lisa, and then once you’ve seen it, you end up wandering around the rest of the museum looking at other stuff that’s actually interesting.
The piece of art I remember most vividly from my visit is not the Mona Lisa, but instead a portrait in a hallway dedicated to the Dutch Masters, of a man staring at the viewer with a gaze so piercing that you barely notice his hand creeping over the painting’s false frame, almost into the real world. I don’t know who the artist was, and at this point I don’t even know if this was one painting or just an unintentional composite of a bunch of paintings I’ve seen over my life and have mentally placed in the Louvre because I associate it with seeing the crappy Mona Lisa and then being impressed by a bunch of other stuff. The Mona Lisa is not for art nerds, and I suspect that on the whole, the Louvre itself isn’t for art nerds either. It’s for the rest of us, and removing the painting that keeps this whole system for exposing good art to non-art people churning would be a disaster for what little sophistication we all have.