Recently someone shared with me a story from NPR about what makes famous art famous. It spoke specifically about the crowds that surround the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The conclusion drawn was that the popularity of art is random (based on a study of teenagers and music). But I don’t agree.
Much of the success of famous art, in fact what makes famous art famous, is press. If people know it and do not understand anything else about art, they will like the thing they recognize—it is comfortable and doesn’t demand they think much. That explains the success of the Mona Lisa, which is a good painting but not even Leonardo’s best—or necessarily the “best” thing in the Louvre.
Many years ago I lived in Florence, Italy and my bedroom window was directly across the street from the front door of the Academia, where Michelangelo’s David is housed. (Yes, it was absolutely wonderful) Every day I would watch the tour buses pull up in front, the people would stream out, I could see the camera flashes going off and then back they went into the bus. They never even looked at this magnificent work of art. Snap a picture, tell your friends you saw the great art of Florence and that was it. I, on the other hand, went in every day on my way out and on my way home (plus on nice days when the doors were opened I could see him from the window) so I could to drink it all in, study every detail. Appreciating art takes time, and most people just don’t give it the time it deserves.
While in Florence, I worked at the Uffizi, filled with wonderful art, which was consistently mostly empty but for a few people who ran through it in an hour or less and were out. The same goes for the Louvre, the Met and probably other great houses of great art around the world. Go in, say you saw it, look for a good restaurant nearby. (Hey, I am not knocking good restaurants nearby!)
Most people don’t know much (or anything) about art. And more than that, they don’t even want to know much about art. Art is stuffy, it is old paintings in fancy gold frames hanging in dusty old museums. They don’t get it. When they feel compelled to go to the Louvre when visiting Paris, they don’t even know what to look at. So they stand in front of the one painting they recognize, snap a photo and feel as if they have seen it–they have taken in and appreciated the art. But in fact, all they have done is to see in person that which they already know, and which makes them feel comfortable. It is no different than taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower. It is just a symbol. Nothing to learn, nothing to really see, just something that is a landmark and proves to your friends you really did go to Paris.
To me, this is the same as eating at McDonalds instead of trying the snails. Know it, feel comfortable with it, move on. What makes the Mona Lisa famous (don’t get me wrong, it is good art) is that it has become an icon, and icons are famous and their contribution to the culture is never questioned.