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…