Fine art's cults of personality, or, "the Mona Lisa is the Paris Hilton of art"

I’m having a little crisis.
Long, musing, stream of consciousness.
A couple of weeks ago someone asked me something like “Are we going to talk at all about why some art is really famous? Like, the Mona Lisa?” And all I could answer (aside from how the western canon consists of the exceptional-for-its-time, not the typical, and hence Leo’s work shows new high Renaissance innovations like the 3/4 view, half length portrait and sfumato and an interest in internal psychological/ emotion states of the sitter yaddah yaddah) was that that picture in particular is famous because it’s famous. Like, you know, Paris Hilton. It’s the Paris Hilton of art.

(I was out of the country when Paris ‘happened’ and came back into the thick of it, thinking 'who are they talking about?" I still don’t know what she does for a living or why her name is known, and I gather I’m not alone in this.)

So. . . the western canon is a strange duck-- at least in art history, maybe lit and music people can pitch in some thoughts here. If I look through 5 different survey texts, especially in the section up to, say, 1950, they will in large part reproduce the same works. Some of these works are particularly notable for one reason or another-- Mike’s Pieta or Sistine ceiling, for example. I can say “this is why THIS one is important.” But a lot of the other stuff. . . why the Mona Lisa, rather than any of Leo’s other portraits in that format? Is it because it was in France early on when the academies started to call the shots? It’s in the Louvre and well known? It it a cycle of well-known leading to even more well-known?

So the academy/ canon is one issue. But then why does the ‘popular’ canon differ so much in other ways? Why does every university student coming in know Escher and Klimt and van Gogh and Bosch and Archimfuckingboldo (of all things), but none of them have heard of Masaccio?

But I almost feel like popular taste is starting unexpectedly to affect the canon: things that weren’t in our survey texts when I was a student have suddenly appeared in the more recent editions (I wonder what the thinking is in the textbook publishing business that’s feeding this trend?). What things? Klimt and Vienna Secession stuff. Symbolists. Art Nouveau. Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Bourgereau. I’m not saying these things are bad but it’s interesting in that they were popular-popular before they were added to this textbook-fed 1137 Canon that’s perpetuated. It’s like a trickle-up effect. I’ll look through the new edition and think, “what’s Maxfield Parrish doing here?! Wait, they replaced Jean Arp with Dali. . .”

So. . . why is what’s popular popular? Is this the basis of this?-- the popular canon is ‘what we like’ and the 'highbrow canon" is what’s putatively “important,” historically, and rarely the two shall meet? What about those things that are both? Does anyone really love the Mona Lisa in it’s own right, aesthetically, above other portraits of its ilk? Why are some of the highbrow canon works more famous than others? Why are people standing in line at the Louvre to see this thing, rather than anything else in the museum? Why van Gogh’s sunflowers? Is it the dorm-poster market creating taste?
(BTW, can we please have a visual art thread that doesn’t turn into a “bitch about ‘modern’ art”-fest? I know you hate Jackson Pollack and Damian Hirst and they’re all a bunch of scheming charlatans like your uncle Mike said. It’s not a new thought)

Have you read this article?

Belting, H. “The Fetish of Art in the Twentieth Century: The Case of the Mona Lisa.” Diogenes. no.183 (1998): 83-106.

Random musings back atcha (best I can do at the moment, kid is howling at my elbow):

Know what — I think it’s because only part of why any piece is famous has to do with actual visual qualities (which YOU said a while back yourself). And people’s ability to see does change, it has changed, it will continue to change. That’s kinda the beauty of the whole thing, when you think of it - of course The Public isn’t impressed by Impressionism anymore. BTDT.

The Canon has to change along with us.

Frankly, I’d be delighted if Maxfield Parrish replaced de Koonig, I wouldn’t use Woman 1, 2 or 3 to line my garbage. But that’s just me. :smiley:

There’s that saying “If it’s for ‘everyone’, then it’s not ‘art’” but I haven’t found that to be true. IME, selling my work to people, they are really good at spotting my very best efforts and turn their noses up at anything less. It’s a self-selecting audience in that if they didn’t have an interest in art, they wouldn’t be there looking at it — but, OTOH, few of them have mentioned any visual training. I’m really impressed by their aesthetic sense.
I also suspect that there are millions of examples of near-excellence that don’t rate a mention, even a footnote. And it’s just luck, those who do. That Sunday Morning show on CBS used to ferret out really good work, solid stuff, that you’d never have heard of.

Don’t know if this helps or hurts your crisis, but in architectural history the academy canon and the popular canon are pretty well in step I think.

I don’t know what work of literature is the Paris Hilton of Literature.

But I do know that “in the past” people put a lot of emphasis on Shakespeare, and Dickens and various other dead European(or English-speaking/writing) white guys.

In recent times, it has become important to cover works by non-dead people, on-European or non English Speaking/writing, non-white people, and female people.

And thus my AP English class read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, John Irving’s* A Prayer for Owen Meany* and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in addition to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, William Faulkner’s Light in August and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And more . . .

And there have been discussions about whether someone should have to take a course on Shakespeare in order to get a degree in English Literature. Many people say that it’s a good idea, but it’s impossible to read/study all the literature which has merit. I don’t think authors/works generally get thrown out of the canon of Great English Literature, but new works are frequently added.

(Did I mention I’m not an expert?)

I think that there are a few important ideas which you need to share with your class. Sturgeon’s Law-- 90% of anything is crap. We see a lot more of the modern crap than we do of the ancient crap. Ancient crap has not always been preserved. Also, there is some element of chance or luck in what gets made famous. And some of those paintings, while having techical merit, also have just become icons, and once they become icons, they stay famous/popular just because. And the Mona Lisa is one of those, so while you will study various other paintings, you don’t intend to spend much classtime on it, preferring to concentrate on other paintings.

Slight hijack, I guess, but seeing this thread reminded me of the current Pit threads about whether Cafe Society is too low-brow … and one of the reasons that it tends to the low-brow might be because with threads like this, I feel like I want to participate but only after more research. I have the urge to find the most current Gardner’s and compare it to the 9th edition I had from school, and the 3rd edition that I picked up somewhere because it was interesting (and presently in storage 400 miles away), plus look at my Janson’s, which I think was the 5th edition that was used as the “official” survey at my college. Which all seems like it would take a very long time, and so I feel woefully underprepared for this conversation.

But if musing stream of consciousness is okay, my gut is that a lot is driven by the market – I’m a capitalist at heart, really – and I think it would be a great research project to look at what flagship museums chose to promote as the cornerstones of their collections in their marketing materials and giftshop selections. Is there any other reason why William the Hippopotamus is famous, other than the Met taking him up as a mascot? Sure, he is adorable, but there are plenty of other fetching animal sculptures in their Egyptian collection, but they went with William.

Some of the other artists mentioned in the OP strike me as sharing a quality of easy identification. Escher, certainly, without any study you can identify the “Escher” look, likewise for Klimpt. Dali is interesting because there is so much that “looks like” Dali, but there’s plenty of Dali that doesn’t have the Dali look, it’s easy to surprise people with a non-Dali Dali because there are such strong expectations that any given Dali is going to look a certain way. (anyone who can parse that sentence deserves an award). Masaccio doesn’t have that, great as he is. Most people need a little more education (or have the luck to have a much better than average natural eye) to pick Masaccio out of a lineup with say, Lippi or Masolino. The payoff for a new art viewer probably has more punch with the former rather than the later, and that’s a good thing – when you’re new to something, you probably like to feel like you’re making some progress.

So I think the numbers there would work out, because the set of people who have some interest in/exposure to art is always going to be bigger than the subset of people who had some interest in/exposure to art and liked it enough to get more.

I’m not really sure where I was going with that. It doesn’t really help at all with the Mona Lisa, because I think that one is just out of the ballpark. Oh, right, I think my hypothesis is that art that stands out draws in the casual viewer, and that museums play on that to promote their institutions (they couldn’t possibly sustain themselves on art scholars), and in the process cements those artworks in the popular culture.

Oh, I will also add that the “stand out” ability no doubt changes with time. The Average Joe on the street at the time could most likely see enormous, glaring differences between Masolino, Lippi, et al … in part because the amount of art, and variation in style, was limited by his geography and his pre- Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (seriously, is there any art conversation where you can’t work in that essay?) time in history.

Ha, no there’s not.
Excuse me. My aura hurts. . .

I’ve started to wonder how much of ‘which Whistler to reproduce in the text’ has to do with copyright fees? Seeing a lot more of art in American collections and less in French collections. . .

As they should, IMHO, since one of the functions of an art history survey course is to acquaint students with the current canon. You can embroider around the edges and swap out a painting while retaining the artist, of course, and the canon will indeed change over time. They should know it however (if only so that they have something to criticize).

As to how popular gets that way: there is an interesting statistical exercise I have seen referenced which asks a very large number of people a question they are not expected to know the answer to (what is Carol Wilson’s address, what is the chemical composition of purple liquid). At a large enough population, the average answer will be about correct (because maybe some people know Carol or are chemists or people are shrewd at guessing–Main Street, plant juice = sugars).

Perhaps similarly, people overall like Klimt’s Kiss: some “expert”(an illustrator or publisher) had to pick it out first to bring it to the public’s attention, but it went over well and got used more for that reason.

Which isn’t so dumb. The Kiss isn’t that bad an “average” choice by the public. On the other hand, while plenty of people buy Thomas Kincaid paintings, the general public’s opinion overall is actually scorn. Again, not so wrong IMHO. There are some members of the public who know a bit about art, some who know a bit about design, some who know that for-cash art should be treated skeptically before being approved, some who like balance, color, and at an average over large numbers of opinions the public may sometimes get it about right.

Similarly, there is popular love for Harry Potter right now, and popular scorn for Paris Hilton and the reality shows that everyone watches in order to mock. The public may turn out to be wrong, very wrong, in a sustained way in many cases, but it seems to me that this law of large numbers of opinions sometimes applies.

Now that I’ve read the Foucault’s Pendulum thread, I have the example I was looking for to contrast with Harry Potter–the DaVinci Code. Yes, it was wildly popular, but there were many and loud voices scorning it, and giving reasons too. Harry I think has a much better chance at longevity because the people who dislike it don’t–how can I say this properly?–don’t really really hate it or don’t hate it for really good reasons–they may dislike it because they think other more worthy things are being ignored or because Rowling needed an editor but they aren’t calling it cheap, manipulative, shallow the way part of the public went after DaVinci Code.

Note also that there will be people who hate Harry in just this way and have good reasons for liking the DaVinci Code–but they are the outliers in the current statistically average pop culture assessment, I think.

a couple of thoughts:

  • Music is even more fleeting than art. You cite students knowing Klimt, etc. but not Masaccio; how many people know 10% of the influences of any music they are listening to now?

  • Capitalism is of course a huge force: I recall watching a program on Strad violins; they mention that there were many Cremona/That era makers that were considered in Strad’s class, but a British auction house or dealer (can’t recall) influenced the market by featuring Strad’s as the ne plus ultra.

  • Some art translates better over time - bolder, simpler abstracts are more open to interpretation; classical, religious and representational art were likely to contain meetings available mainly to the folks at the time, who would know the backstory of the person or the setting better than us.

all I got for now…