The Orgy of Consumption: The Mona Lisa Curse

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In his critical documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, distinguished art critic Robert Hughes seeks to expose the commodification of art in the last century. The thought-provoking Australian is portrayed as a frustrated Sysyphus who watches dealers and curators discard aesthetic value in search for money. And yet his argument, that the mass production of art that began with Andy Warhol and disregard for aesthetic value in favour of market value, does not convince me that contemporary art is meaningless. According to Hughes, this phenomenon is most evident in the Mona Lisa’s first trip to Washington in 1962 when, “the painting left the Louvre but its meaning stayed behind”. Americans went to see the painting, but didn’t actually look. Their goal was to tick off another cultural checklist rather than appreciate the masterpiece for what it was.

The commodification of art is regrettable because, as Hughes points out, audiences (collectors and curators alike) care more for the price than the aesthetic value of the piece. Hughes states “art was always associated with money but, it wasn’t only just an investment”. Art much like antiques have no established price, (further explored in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch). The unregulated market allows auction house transactions that in other cases would be considered corrupt. The overpricing and overlooking of talent has provided the means for a thoughtless, investment-oriented art world where, “some of the things that are consequential aren’t shown because they aren’t trendy”, comments Hughes.

Yes, art has become easier to make and mass produce but, Hughes’s claims that all contemporary art is meaningless seem premature. These pieces inspire a new, deeper type of thought. One that may not compare to the skill of Van Gogh or Monet but hold spectacular conceptual value seen in such works by Damien Hirst.Hirst-Love-Of-God What Hughes describes as an ‘inedible fish’ is in reality a thought provoking conceptual piece that makes viewers contemplate life, death, nihilism and their own reality. The fact that it is not as ornately developed as it used to be reflects a shift from a classic society that took more time and value in production. Modern manufacturing doesn’t follow the same rules as a century ago, when a craft lasted a lifetime.

The change we can see in art comes from this same idea. It is simply an offspring to an industrial era where society itself moves faster than it did before. People travel more, the internet fires thousands of images in a few minutes, and this inevitably, seeps into artistic methods. Private collectors have created a new market for artists, one where they receive blinding success. They must supply faster because the demand is higher. And who says that’s a bad thing? Hughes is reminiscent of an old, stiff Professor who won’t consider knew ideas because he is fixated with the past. The conditions of contemporary society do not have the necessary tools to produce a new Da Vinci but, they have made way for artists like Gustav Klimt (whom Hughes disregards as a ‘decorative’ painter) and Cy Twombly to create masterpieces.

Pop Art and Dadaism were conceptual movements that worked with their epochs to conceptually draw out its flaws or emphasize its strengths. The new technology should not be discarded by Hughes simply because patrons are not art directors, museum owners or critics but companies and young entrepreneurs. The 20th and 21st centuries have allowed people across all social classes to take an interest in the art world. The development of this economy has expanded artistic employment, culture and awareness. Hughes should be content with the fact that private, wealthy families are investing so heavily in an unstable market. Its development should not be viewed negatively but, in a positive light that generates thought-provoking talent, money and jobs.

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