Mona Lisa you’re an overrated piece of shit (also, some stuff about Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School)

TL;DR – I like to see things in person rather than just looking at pictures. That’s the point of all this… read on at your own risk (of extreme boredom).

As much as I’d like to, I can’t take credit for that title, since it’s the title of a song in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which is a funny movie that I recommend. But you don’t come here to read my thoughts on mainstream comedy movies, so I’ll get to the point already. A sentiment I hear a lot regarding travel is that famous tourist locations aren’t always worth visiting, since you don’t experience anything more from them than what you can see in a photograph. Sure, it looks cool, but what’s so great about standing in front of it when you can just see what it looks like on Wikipedia? (Maybe this is on my mind because I was writing about Angkor Wat yesterday, I dunno.)

I disagree with this, and I’ll come at it from a couple angles. Let’s start on a hiking rail in Norway near the little town of Stalheim. (The header image for this site is from this trail – the building is the Stalheim hotel.) The trail runs along the side of a mountain, around 2000 feet up from the bottom of the valley – and if you’re afraid of heights (which I am), the narrow sections are sure to keep you on your toes.

Don’t slip!

So anyway, I’m hiking along this trail, and the scenery is absolutely jaw-dropping, as is often the case in Scandinavia. But the most awe-inspiring thing I keep seeing is the mountain on the other side of the valley – this enormous flat wall of rock that looms over the valley and dominates the scenery around it. I tried maybe fifty times to get a good photo of it, but in every photo, it just looked like rocky terrain. Nothing I could do with my camera captured how it felt to be on that narrow trail, 2000 feet above the floor of the valley, with this massive wall of granite reminding me of my own insignificance. It’s one of the most profound experiences I’ve had when traveling, and I don’t have a photo of it. I did some research on this particular hiking trail before the trip and saw a couple photos, but I didn’t expect to be so affected by it.

Now this example isn’t totally germane, since it’s not a common tourist spot, like the Eiffel Tower or something. But as long as we’re in Paris, we can head over to the Louvre and fight through the crowds to take a gander at the Mona Lisa – probably the best example of what I’m talking about. Everyone knows what the Mona Lisa looks like, and it isn’t even physically impressive due to its diminutive size. However, when I finally got around to seeing it, I was surprised how much it affected me. It wasn’t even the artwork per se, as much as the fact that I was standing in front of the original version of the most famous painting in the history of western art. The fact that it has been reproduced so many times is part what makes it so powerful.

Walter Benjamin has an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and like everything that came out of the Frankfurt School, it’s a tightly wound ball of intellectual wires. However, one of the things Benjamin writes about is the aura embedded in the original work of art that is lost when the art is reproduced. As a result, the reproduction becomes divorced from the technical aspect of its creation and thus takes on the social context of the zeitgeist in which it was reproduced. This is an oversimplification (since you don’t come here to read my take on German philosophy), but when you take a work of art as endlessly reproduced as the Mona Lisa, you suddenly have a reproduction that has existed in such a vast array of sociopolitical contexts that it means nothing at all. Benjamin’s conclusion was ultimately that art in the age of mechanical reproduction is necessarily political, but the Mona Lisa falls on the opposite side of the bell curve, which is to say that it has so much contextualization that it exists outside context altogether. It’s the white noise of art; discussions of its formal aspects tie back to the original, to Da Vinci’s technique, etc… but the Mona Lisa on the side of a coffee mug or on a mousepad that your dad still uses because he doesn’t realize that mice don’t use a trackball anymore is art presented as a vacuum of ideas.

Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin looking intellectual as fuck

Wow, we’re getting pretty far afield here. Let’s get back on track: when I stood in front of the Mona Lisa, the aura of the original painting rushed in to fill that vacuum, and it was a profound experience for me. I guess I could have just said that and saved you a bunch of time. Oh well.

I tend to feel the same way about things that aren’t works of art, like the aforementioned Eiffel Tower. I spent a year studying in Paris in college, and it was odd the way the famous sights like Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower blended into my everyday surroundings. But when you’re walking home late at night after the Metro stops running, and you find a grocery store that’s open late, and you get a bottle of table wine to drink on the way home because you’re 20 and you do stupid shit like that, and you’re walking across a bridge over the Seine, and the Eiffel Tower starts sparkling… it stays with you. And just like the Mona Lisa, the image of the Eiffel Tower is so recognizable that it starts to feel like you may as well skip it on your trip to Paris, because you’ve already seen it so many times in photos. But really seeing it, witnessing its honestly ugly protrusion above the flat sea of Parisian rooftops, is different than looking at a postcard of it.

Getting back to Angkor Wat, I’m sure I could get a pretty good sense of it by looking at a bunch of photo tours, but I also know that none of that will compare to being there in person, immersed in its surroundings. It’s also why I don’t mind looking at photos of where I’m going in advance, because I know that I’ll experience it differently when I’m actually there. Shit, I even felt differently about the gray fabric covering the bulkhead of SAS’s business class cabin, because I had looked at so many trip reports and built the trip up in my head so much that actually being in front of it in my lie-flat seat felt like some sort of accomplishment.

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