Saturday, February 25, 2006

Is she more beautiful now?

Was the Mona Lisa more beautiful just after Da Vinci painted it or is it more beautiful now?

And I do not mean due to the natural deterioration of the paint and canvass.

The question seems nonsensical. The Mona Lisa was as beautiful then as it is now, is the obvious answer. So why am I asking the question?

I had never been into the avant-garde. As the famous twentieth century composer Lutoslawski wrote, “Novelty is that quality of a work of art that ages the quickest.” As such, the search for novelty seemed to me to be a shallow pursuit. I remember, therefore, being incredulous when one of my university teachers suggested to me that I read contemporary writers – I had always favoured writers from the early twentieth century, people like Virginia Woolf or Joseph Conrad. Having read a little of contemporary literature I had found it not worth the time to pick through to find the truly great works. As a good friend of mine had suggested to me, I had always allowed time to do the winnowing for me.

Lately, however, I have come to understand something of what I think the teacher was trying to communicate. Art is an on-going conversation, each work adding a voice to the general hubbub, replying to what was said before and in turn being replied to by later works. By not looking at contemporary art I was cutting myself off from what was being said now. This is a hard idea to communicate as it is only possible to get a feeling for it by exposing yourself to a significant amount of art and considering the context that art was created in as well as the context it exists in now. None-the-less, the point is that to a large degree, the significance of the piece of art isn’t internal to it but to the general cultural milieu it exists in. But this then leads back to the original question – can a piece of art become more aesthetically pleasing? Well, in the sense that in a richer cultural milieu it gains added meaning, it seems that it can.

I find this line of thought deeply troubling as it conflicts with the deeply held conviction that underlies the original thought that the Mona Lisa is just as beautiful now as it ever was. One could try to save things by claiming that beauty is internal to the piece of art while something like meaning is external but this seems to me to be just a relatively weak distinction created to avoid a real conflict. And I am not sure what to think, really.


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