Walter Benjamin’s much-discussed and still controversial essay, “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction,” first published in 1936, made what now seems like a common sense statement–namely, when an artwork can be viewed in multiple ways, from photographs to prints, the original from which these reproductions are created ceases to have much meaning. In other words, its “aura” is diminished by a flood of reproductions and camera shots. The cultural distance we have traveled in the eighty-two years since Benjamin published his paper–from an age of cumbersome cameras loaded with film to one where selfies and snapchats are as effortless as breathing–is nearly incomprehensible. So, what might Benjamin think about the fate of mechanical reproductions if he were still with us (he died in 1940)?
No Picture Matters More Than Beyonce and Jay-Z Posing In Front of The Mona Lisa”
Scott Reyburn, in a recent New York Times piece, tries to answer that question, although he, strangely enough, never references Benjamin, preferring to defer to his disciple, John Berger, instead. He begins his essay, which is focused on Da Vinci’s famous (and infamous) painting of the Mona Lisa, with a little anecdote. “The young couple moved to the front of the crowd to look at the painting. After a few seconds, the woman turned around, smiled into her cellphone and took some selfies. Next, she handed her device to her husband, who took more formal shots of her in front of the work. The two then posed arm in arm for selfies together, turned to have a last brief look at the painting–and moved away.” Contained in this little story is the evolution of Benjamin’s vision. Today, the Mona Lisa (the original one that hangs in the Louvre) has become a background for selfies. What better way to inform the world that you have been to Paris than to feature yourself prominently in the foreground of a selfie with the lady with the enigmatic smile in the background? This of course was nearly an impossible task when flash photography was forbidden in art museums. Smartphones have solved this dilemma. As Reyburn notes, “In the presence of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience.” Needless to say, we don’t have to visit the Louvre to capture these moments. Spending just a few moments with PhotoShop can produce some pretty convincing “proof” that we have traveled to the Louvre when we have never venture outside our living rooms.
Perhaps nothing dramatizes this fact of modern life better than Buzzfeed’s coverage of the day that Jay-Z, Beyonce, and their daughter Blue Ivy, visited the Louvre and posed in front of the Mona Lisa. According to Buzzfeed’s article “No Picture Matters More Than Beyonce And Jay-Z Posing In Front Of The Mona Lisa,” this posing session resulted in what “might very well be the best picture of our generation. Or any generation.” What more can we say? I guess iconic photographs like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Woman” pale in comparison with Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Blue Ivy’s family portrait featuring a tiny Mona Lisa in the background. Welcome to the new age of self indulgence. Wonder if Da Vinci would be using Snapchat to create his masterpieces were he still alive?
Mona Lisa has, in this age of “mechanical reproduction,” become a fixture of pop culture. My humanities classes spend at least one class period examining masterpieces like Rick Meyerowitz’s “Mona Gorilla” National Lampoon cover, and countless incarnations of Mona as Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Marge Simpson, and “Catalisa” (yes, it’s Mona Lisa with a cat face and paws). In a similar vein, we view alternate versions of Da Vinci’s equally famous painting of The Last Supper–you guessed it, table settings with Star Wars and Marvel Universe characters, and a tableaux featuring Elvis and other no-longer-with-us celebrities. Oh, the joys of popular culture. Wonder if Walter Benjamin would be delighted or appalled if he were still here to witness all these artistic alterations?
If you are inclined to do some more reflection about how and why the Mona Lisa has become such a cultural touchstone, I suggest you read Donald Sassoon’s fascinating book, BECOMING MONA LISA: THE MAKING OF A GLOBAL ICON (2001). And you should chck out Benjamin’s and John Berger’s book of essays, WAYS OF SEEING, that is used as a touchstone for Reyburn’s observations.
See you next week with more forays into the convoluted universe of pop culture.