When I first saw the Mona Lisa, a friend and I shuffled through a cluster of tourists on a crisp winter afternoon in the Louvre. We snapped photos, and we gazed at the painting as well as we could from behind the barriers that held us more than a body's length away, peering through the thick layer of glass at the 2.5-foot-tall painting.
Then, not to agitate the dozens of spectators waiting in line behind us, we scuttled off. The whole ordeal took probably 60 seconds, not counting the many minutes we had already spent waiting in line. Of the things I’ve crossed off my bucket list, I’ll admit it wasn’t the most thrilling. But it was significant nonetheless.
Now the Mona Lisa, as an international destination for eager tourists, is under attack. The New York Times’ art critic Jason Farago argued this week, “It’s Time to Take Down the Mona Lisa.” Why? “The Mona Lisa is a security hazard, an educational obstacle, and not even a satisfying bucket-list item.” Adding insult to injury, Farago declares the enigmatic lady “the Kim Kardashian of 16th-century Italian portraiture.”
Some 30,000 people see the Mona Lisa each day, jamming up the museum’s traffic in impossibly long lines just to spend moments with the famous painting. According to the Louvre, 80% of visitors come for the Mona Lisa, and each one spends an average of 3 to 4 minutes with the painting, while they spend only 50 seconds looking at it.
Farago argues that it’s not only a crowd generator, it's also an educational obstacle: “If curators think that they are inspiring the next generation of art lovers, they are in fact doing the opposite. People come out of obligation, and leave discouraged.” He’s right that viewing the slight masterpiece is not the most satisfying experience, but that doesn't mean it's not valuable.
The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most recognizable piece of art in history. Seeing it at the Louvre, albeit through a layer of glass, has immeasurable value for curious viewers from all over the world.
When I visited the Louvre, viewing the Mona Lisa was one of my least memorable experiences. But it played a very large role in getting me there in the first place. Each year, the Mona Lisa draws in millions of spectators who will also have the opportunity to view more than 35,000 other works of art.
The Louvre boasts several other paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, including his famous St. John the Baptist and the Virgin of the Rocks.
Come for the Mona Lisa. Stay for the rest of the great art.
Farago, complaining that the Mona Lisa is a gross, commercialized spectacle, proposes turning it into more of a gross, commercialized spectacle by placing it in a building of its own: “Let Samsung or another electronics company install ultra-hi-res cameras around the Gioconda. Let visitors strike a pose on the moving walkways, and then download their cutest selfies with the Leonardo under glass.”
To assume that viewers only want to see the Mona Lisa to check off some vulgar wish list comes off as snobbish, if not classist. Separating the Mona Lisa from the rest of the Louvre in its own Instagramable stop will further brand it as a spectacle, not a piece of art. There, people might be content to snap a photo and move on to the Eiffel Tower.
Instead, while the Mona Lisa rests in the Louvre, visitors must weave their way through the museum, enjoying the opportunity to study countless other paintings along the way.