In my humanities class, we are making the shift from literary to visual culture. I am using a new book this semester, changing from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to Cynthia Freeland’s more contemporary But Is It Art? The first chapter discusses things like blood and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph, all of which had the potential to get a bit messy in class. It didn’t as the students, once again, showed me that they know more than I give them credit for. During a very preliminary discussion about art and aesthetics, we got into the discussion, prompted by Freeland’s title, about what makes art great. One of my students brought up the Mona Lisa, and several others added to the conversation. All of a sudden, I realized that most of the students in my class (first year students who are all Egyptians and mostly 17 years old) had actually been to the Louvre and seen the painting. A quick show of hands confirmed their remarkable, collective privilege. Wow! I am twice the age of my students and have had lots of opportunities to travel, and I saw the Mona Lisa for the first and only time in 2005.
Their opinion of the painting was divided in a way that will make for productive conversations. Half of them found it terribly disappointing and the other half loved it. The former found it smaller than and anticipated and therefore somehow anticlimactic. The latter group essentially felt that it was great because it is the Mona Lisa. It seems like a good place to start our conversation about art and taste.