Beyoncé and The Mona Lisa

From time to time I will post writing assignments from my various classes, back dated to the date of writing, but always tagged under Higher Ed. This assignment was a midterm essay from my Visual Culture class

In 2014, a modern-day royal inserted herself into the ultra-exclusive proximity of the original Mona Lisa, and proved she was there with a photo. By virtue of her own good looks and Instagram following, Beyoncé created a temporary cultural relevance for herself. But as philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin asserts[1], while reproductions, (or pictures in this case) can be admired, owned, and even manipulated by the common people, a reproduction in any form of a valued piece of art lacks the indexical relationship to what it represents, the power of the experience of being there. Even in this case, where a famous and culturally relevant icon went viral with an image of herself containing this famous work of art, Beyoncé’s instagram photo not only fails to convey the crucial indexical relationship and powerful experience, but also restricts access by others for a time to viewing original art in person.

Historically, being in the presence of original art has been a rare experience, limited to those of upper class means and ability, giving an original piece of artwork a kind of sacred status. Renaissance art in general, the Mona Lisa specifically, has that sacred art status and is considered culturally relevant even to this day. Walter Benjamin theorized that reproductions or copies of original art free the art from its revered status as unique ritual artifacts. Recently, modern technology, travel, ease and widespread access to reproductions of original art has allowed for what Benjamin terms a democratization – a greater distribution to the common people – of that art.

While her post was likely meant to have the democratizing effect Benjamin spoke of – it freed the original art from its sacred status, as well as allowing the common people to vicariously enjoy Queen Bey’s here and now experience, the photo did not take the place of others having that experience for themselves. In fact, the events leading up to that photo actually prohibited some from having their own experience. Given the parameters of this publicist-contrived situation, the very existence of this photo conveys a lack of respect for the venerable masterpiece; first by denying regular people their own experience in favor of a Bey-Jay private viewing, and secondly by invading the sanctity of a cultural icon’s protected space only to take a picture with a mobile phone.

Susan Sontag writes[2] “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power.” Beyoncé’s photograph was a trite means of appropriating the Mona Lisa as her own, if only for that few minutes. Posting that picture on social media lengthened her appropriation, and put her into what may have felt like a position of power. In reality, she only used her notoriety to do something not attainable by the common people and then broadcast it to the world as if it were artistically significant. By doing so she contributed to Jacob Silverman’s excerpted essay[3] Pics Or It Didn’t Happen – The Mantra Of The Instagram Era, “The experience must be captured, the painting itself possessed, a poor facsimile of it acquired so that you can call it your own – a photograph which, in the end, says, I was here. I went to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa.”

The Mona Lisa has stood the test of time, both as an art masterpiece representing the beauty standard of that age, and by remaining culturally relevant with today’s audiences. Beyoncé may be interpreted in the same way, admired for her outward beauty as it conforms to our standards, and in the way she uses her looks to contribute to our perception esthetic. Additionally, in their access to the public, both the Mona Lisa and Beyoncé are restricted as well. In effect, charging admission at the door for the culture they effuse. In further restricting public enjoyment of something that is already restricted, Beyoncé set a poor cultural example.

If we consider the viral and meme-inducing nature of that photograph, we can safely say that it was popular and thought provoking, but was it culturally significant? Cultural significance is something with aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations. Beyoncé’s flagrant use of her power to take for her own private use something that should be individually experienced cheapens her image. She has in effect compared herself to the Mona Lisa and comes up lacking. Even the clothes she chose to wear that day – a casual tee shirt with the colors of the American flag misrepresented, portrays her disregard for the aesthetic the painting of the Mona Lisa evokes.

If we think of the Mona Lisa as culturally relevant because it is an item that reveals valuable information about the society that produced it, I would argue that Beyoncé’s take on that reveals equally valuable information about the society that produced her. Beyoncé’s status as a cultural icon was degraded by her photo with the Mona Lisa, due mainly to her attempt to gain power and influence by associating herself with it, and secondly by using her influence, selfishly excluding others from that powerful experience.

[1] Benjamin, Walter, and J.A. Underwood. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin, 2008.

[2] Sontag, Susan. On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977

[3] Silverman, Jacob. Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection.

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