Putting the smile back on the Mona Lisa“The world needs authentic beauty and artists have the responsibility of bringing it to people through their art.” ~ Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, Nov. 22, 2009.
In some ways art influences the way we think and in other ways the way we think influences art. In the Renaissance age most art was Christian because the Church was such a great patron to the arts. In the twentieth century art reflected modernism and industrialism. Today art is diverse and eclectic with influences from every corner of the globe largely because of commerce and the Internet. This frenzied exchange of data is accelerating the ebb and tide between cultural expression and pop culture. Which begs the question, are TV, Movies and the Internet an accurate reflection of who we are or are the images helping to shape who we are becoming? It seems that whoever patrons the arts and the media in particular have the steering wheel of the age and of cultural identity.
One recent shift in the tide or turn of the culture wheel seems to be when our attention shifted from the Mona Lisa’s smile to her eyes. The beauty of the Mona Lisa was chiefly in her smile as many a poet has mused. Her smile leads us to wonder what she was thinking. In contrast, has anyone ever written a poem about Mona Lisa’s eyes? Nevertheless today’s graphic art has little to no concern for her smile. Instead, today’s popular art is concerned with the eyes and with appearances. In other words it’s all about superficiality. There was one image in particular that epitomized this shift. Remember the image that popularized that insipid book The da Vinci Code? It was the image of the Mona Lisa with her mouth torn away. She was robbed of the central thing that made that work famous. She was unable to speak and this is precisely what the book attempted to do in words. It presented only the details that Dan Brown wanted us to see and which he pronounced as the whole truth. The image was a dead giveaway that the masterpieces which he hijacked for his plot wouldn’t get a chance to tell the whole story. I am surprised that feminists didn’t object to the image of the Mona Lisa as a woman whose mouth had been torn, hidden or stolen away; a woman whose voice had been squelched. But then again that woman is really not the feminine mystique that feminists protect but rather the Catholic Church (reasoned by the books content not the image of the Mona Lisa).
Contrast this with the Renaissance age of art when the beauty in the master painter’s works spoke the gospel truth loud and clear. Pope Benedict XVI, addressed the artists of the world last November (Nov 22 2009 Vatican City) saying, “Christianity from its earliest days has recognized the value of the arts and has made wise use of their varied language to express her unvarying message of salvation.” It wasn’t that long ago that beauty in art still invited the observer to lift his mind and heart toward heaven. Pope Benedict continues, “What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation – if not beauty?” And what more beautiful things are there than heaven and salvation? Indeed, Pope Benedict concludes, “Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, … can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality.” It’s no wonder that the Church is still the custodian of some of the world’s greatest and most renowned masterpieces including the Sistine chapel ceiling, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame, the Thinker, The Last Supper, and the list goes on and on and on.
In architecture there are some Gothic basilicas with ornate flying buttresses that render the totality of the whole construction so visually poetic they soar beyond architecture and pierce the heart on their way toward heaven. This is what truly great art should do. It should make you gasp in awe of grandeur not in shock of obscenity. It shouldn’t just peak the interest with hidden puzzles and pseudo-religious-neo-pagan-socio-psycho-political-mind-babble. Some of that stuff can seem fun or engaging but mostly it pales in relation to the beauty in the works of the masters. The reason the masters works endure is because the subject satisfied deep desires of the soul rather than shallow desires of the flesh or the world. Here let me quote Pope Benedict XVI one more time, “Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God.”
Achieving the transcendent in art requires freedom not just in liberties and rights recognized by the law of a good nation but by the good choices of people unfettered by the chains of materialism and unconditioned by the cardinal rule of modernism, which may be summed up as ‘think free as long as you don’t think as the Church thinks’. Anyone can see that such a rule has not the ultimate and complete freedom that it pretends. In contrast the Church says ‘wherever the truth is, recognize it, acknowledge it, and believe it.’ I can find little or no truth in tearing off the smile of the Mona Lisa (tearing it off just smacks of truth killers and silencers like socialism and communism). But I can find truth in protecting her smile and wondering of what beautiful thing she was thinking. It’s not a question of relativity like beauty belonging to the eye of the beholder but considering that the internet is a great gallery of parading images the beholder may get the last word. It may be that the new patron of the arts is the people and that their payment is their praise. Therefore pray that soon many artists will, by their free choice, concede that their responsibility is greater than themselves and more valuable than the praise of their peers. Pray that these will realize that the pinnacle and purpose of art is not to honor creation or creativity rather it is to honor the creator.