Art and Cliché

My musing on high art and popular culture earlier in my trip came to a new twist as I visited the Louvre. I just couldn’t help but wonder: Can art be too popular? When does art turn from a form of aesthetics into a subject of parody? Will mass popularity reduce an objet d’art into a cultural cliché?

Here’s what prompted my query:


Even more fascinating is this view twenty feet away:


And in comparison, here’s another gallery in the Louvre displaying lesser known works:



When does art become a cliché?  In our case, the Mona Lisa…

When you see her in comics, or paint-by-number sets in dollar stores, or morph into Alfred E. Neuman on Mad Magazine’s cover, or into Monica Lewinsky on the New Yorker, or find her on The Far Side Gallery, or in The Simpsons, or a Pantene commercial showing off her revitalized curly hair, or when you find 450 parodies of her image on a single website. According to an image tracking source, the Mona Lisa is the most used and abused image in advertising.

I know, other artists had created altered versions of Mona Lisa from early on. Eugene Bataille (Sapeck) painted her smoking a pipe, Marcel Duchamp added a moustache and goatee, Salvadore Dali fused himself into her image.

Poor girl, she didn’t even know what hit her, or how her one time, private sitting for da Vinci had generated so many imaginative renditions centuries down the road, as people are still using, or abusing, her image for private gains. She should have bargained for residual payments.

Are we more comfortable now that the barrier of ‘high art’ has been broken?  Are we enjoying the legacy and freedom the Dada Movement and the Surrealists had claimed for us?  I must declare outright, I’m not particularly a fan of the Mona Lisa, but I’m just a bit annoyed seeing other similar misuse, like Michelangelo’s David in boxers, or Venus de Milo wearing sunglasses.

Other vulnerable examples are not hard to find. Think of this magnificent piece of painting in the Sistine Chapel… another easy target for cliché and parody:

Or this self portrait of a tormented soul:


Or take these beginning haunting notes from a brilliant symphony, they have become an expression of suspense not much deeper than the tune in Final Jeopardy:


The opening chorus of this masterpiece has now been reduced to a punctuation mark in our vernacular, an exclamation used for scenarios from finding your lost keys to losing 10 pounds:

Isn’t the advertising industry supposed to be the flagship of creativity?  And, when it comes to the creative process, aren’t we supposed to flee from clichés and produce fresh expressions? Isn’t originality a goal to strive for anymore? Or, has parody become the new genre and proof of ingenuity in our time?

And I’m just too tired to go into all the zombie and vampire versions of Jane Austen’s novels…

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “Art and Cliché”

  1. I looked at your images around the Mona Lisa with interest. When I was at the Louvre in 1992, there was a wimpy movable rope about five feet from the painting with a demure sign requesting that flash photos not be taken. Didn’t seem to faze the tourists who crowded in, cameras snapping away with flash.

    As for parodies and advertising re-purposing… well, I agree with your sentiments.

    I remember seeing the Mona Lisa years ago and we could get up close, but of course, I was just looking over people’s shoulders. They allow no-flash photography in the Louvre. But no camera at all at the Musée d’Orsay, probably my favourite.
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing.



  2. Isn’t it sad? And even we succumb to it. We know no other way to do things now, it seems.

    The above pictures are testament to the fact that those people weren’t there to truly appreciate art but to take advantage of the opportunity to say that they’ve been there, done that.


    Even though one has the pure intention to appreciate the aesthetics of the Mona Lisa, it is impossible to do so. How can you look at a painting 30″x21″ from twenty feet away!

    As I visited Arles in Provence, I began to appreciate how one can avoid turning art into a cliché. As I visited and followed the steps of Van Gogh, and read his poignant letters to his brother Theo, I began to understand more about the artist as a person, and appreciated his torments and struggles a bit more. I think some sort of empathy and respect for the artist could prevent the abuse and misuse of his works.



  3. It occurs to me that poor Mona Lisa has suffered the same fate as Paris Hilton – she’s become famous for being famous. I was reading about her over at the wiki for a quick refresh, and discovered that when the painting was stolen in 1911, they first thought it was being photographed – for marketing purposes! So there’s been a long history of using the image in ways Leonardo couldn’t have conceived.

    When I read your comment – Isn’t the advertising industry supposed to be the flagship of creativity? – the first thing I thought was, “no, they’re supposed to sell things”. And I suppose we hardly can blame them for using what’s familiar and redolent of “high class” references to entice their audience.

    On the other hand, looking at the photo of the crowd I wonder – perhaps there’s someone there who will leave thinking, “Who is this Leonardo? Why did he paint her? What else did he paint?”
    That would be nice.


    Advertisers are supposed to think of creative, new ways to sell things, or else nobody would pay any attention to them. But of course, come to think of it, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel but just think of ways to modify it… maybe that’s what they did with the ML.



  4. When I saw the Mona Lisa as a little girl (we’re talking 1972) it was not barricaded at all. One could walk right up to it. I was so disappointed when I returned in the late 80’s and found it not much larger than an 8×10 sheet of paper. All that fuss for something I never admired that much in the first place. 😉


    The ML sure is one small piece of work… it’s kind of ridiculous to appreciate a piece of art work so small twenty feet away. But of course, as Claire says in her comment, a lot of people may just take it as a ‘been there, done that’ kind of one time trip. When I was at the Louvre, I had the chance to see the only Vermeer they have there, which is The Lacemaker. It’s a square painting about 10 inches or so. Good that I could walk right up to it and take some pictures (no flash). I hope it can remain like that for us to enjoy.



  5. Well stated, Arti. I think we share similar thoughts — certainly, we were aghast that there were so few people in awe of the amazing Rubens panels — a whole room of floor-to-ceiling, beautifully done art — and Mona was swamped. Good thing she didn’t get claustrophobic! It’s sad. Nice take on this, though, and including the music. Perfect!


    1. She didn’t get claustrophobic because nobody could get near her within, oh… 30 ft. behind the cordon. Leonardo would be most amused to find he gets a huge crowd alright but nobody can actually see his work… price to pay for being popular.


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