What does it mean that I've never liked the "Mona Lisa" painting?

I saw an interesting article recently, “Why the Mona Lisa stands out”. Read it! The summary of the article is that research has shown that the “mere-exposure” psychological effect really matters in determining what gets popular or gets considered “great”, so that these evaluations are not based entirely on “intrinsic” merits.

One example used was the “Mona Lisa” painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

Somehow this painting became famous and praised widely. Everyone knows the “Mona Lisa”.

Yet, I’ve never liked it, and I’ve always been puzzled by its popularity.

Artistic quality or social pressure?

I have a confession to make: I didn’t like my seventh grade required “art” class in school. For whatever reason, I am not fundamentally drawn to the visual arts in general. My loves are music and literature. I don’t care particularly for painting, photography, or film. In fact, in my senior year in high school, I deliberately did not enroll in a course that was very popular among many seniors, and even considered to be the highlight of their high school experience. This course was called “Humanities” and apparently discussed not only literature, but art and music. I avoided it. I feared “art”.

Why did I fear art? Part of it was that I got the impression that I saw things differently from others and had trouble enjoying what others enjoyed. I could not tell whether I was simply artistically untrained and unperceptive, or whether there was some kind of social game going on where people decided to pretend to like something that made no sense to me.

I chose not to be an all-out cynic, so my default assumption was that I was defective, and therefore I might as well stay away. I chose not to assume that the emperor has no clothes.

One element of my being defective, obviously, was that I got nothing out of looking at the famous “Mona Lisa”. Nothing at all. I did not see anything remarkable, or experience some emotion. So it was interesting to me, and maybe a little vindicating, to learn just now that the “Mona Lisa” was once obscure and became famous largely because of a burglary!

Against cynicism

Nevertheless, I still stand against the cynicism that says there is no such thing as quality at all. Sure, what we consider “great” may be relative, or dependent on historical accidents, and every era always experiences rediscoveries of the once-forgotten, but actually, I don’t think art is just a silly game. I am in fact profoundly disappointed and disturbed by how many people I have encountered who adopt the ultimate cynical attitude, not only toward art, but to music, to food, to science, to life itself. Yes, there’s a sucker born every minute, but I think it takes more courage to choose to be vulnerable, and choose to sometimes maybe be a sucker, than to make oneself hard and pretend that everyone just has ill intentions and is actively conspiring to make fools of all of us.

It is possible that if only I had taken the “Humanities” course in high school, I would have better perception or taste. I don’t rule out this possibility, because by skipping “Humanities” I also missed a survey of Western classical music, and only came to truly discover and expand my love of it through taking a course in my first semester of freshman year in college, as well as making new friends who were huge music fans and shared recordings with me and took me to free concerts on campus. For whatever reason, perhaps simply temperament, there have almost never been art enthusiasts in my close social circles, people who might have aggressively encouraged me to expand my experiences of art. Never in my life has anyone come up to me and said, “hey, check out this painting” or “you should come to me and see this art show in town”.

Is it an accident what I like?

Despite my claim that I don’t care much for art, in fact, there has been some art that I have accidentally come across and found very beautiful and compelling. And they happen to be famous too. Coincidence?

For example, I don’t remember when I first saw the art of Vincent Van Gogh, but I immediately found his work deeply moving; it spoke to me. It just did. On the other hand, was I contaminated already because as a child I had come into a copy of Irving Stone’s novel “Lust for Life”? I didn’t really read the novel, but the planting of a name (and a lurid story) into my head must have bred familiarity.

For example, “Sunflowers” popped out at me the first time I saw it in a book:

More generally, if pressed, I would say I am drawn toward expressionist art, because it “pops out” and speaks boldly and directly, intensely reflecting some aspect of reality. That said, this kind of art also often makes me uncomfortable, so I don’t actively seek it out.

For example, Emil Nolde’s “The Prophet”:


I cannot be sure how influenced I am about what I “like” by popularity and name recognition. The one thing that is certain is that I still do not understand the appeal of the Mona Lisa painting!

Do you like the Mona Lisa or not? Do you feel your taste in art reflects some intrinsic quality you are perceiving, or do you suspect it is a matter of marketing and your upbringing or peers? Do you care?

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