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Mona Lisa Gets a Makeover

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has been hammered into the high school art canon for centuries. Easily the most recognizable painting in the world, people across the globe have been exposed to her wry smile, yet only recently has she been dusted off and made over.

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Millions once flocked to the Louvre to dote upon the 16th century classic, which today is accessed from any digital device in seconds. The rise of the internet, smartphones, digital photography, and programs like Photoshop, have transformed the way in which we consume the classics in a variety of ways.

An article by “Steph” on Weburbanist.com illustrates this point perfectly:

“Iconic paintings…have become an intrinsic part of our cultural landscape, even as we progress far beyond the time periods in which they were completed. And, whether paying tribute or appropriating, making comments on the art itself or what we have become, today’s artists place these works in the modern context using photography, Photoshop, and other technology.”

Anyone can Google search the Mona Lisa, but they won’t just get Da Vinci’s version. Instead, the original is sheltered alongside hundreds of remixes. These altered Mona’s are all inspired by the original, but pay tribute to the individual interpretation of a piece rather than the piece itself. It is easy to accept works of art at face value (especially if the face looks borderline judgemental), but they become much more difficult to accept once they’ve been modified in any way. These technologies have transformed the viewing experience from a passive one to an active one, challenging people to expand their appreciation.

Mike Plugh’s article on Remix Culture and Composition defines art in this context, saying “the connected web offers a gigantic pool of digital content that can be downloaded and appropriated for personal use. Composition that relies on existing digital content, reorganized in new forms and for new purposes, is called remix, and there’s a whole lot to say about the cyberculture that centers on the remix.”

With digital access to paintings, they are easily retrieved, re-conceived, and reborn. Because of the internet, renowned works of art like Scream and Starry Night have moved from the hands of the masters, to the hands internet nerds with Photoshop. These paintings are no longer the imagining of Edvard Munch or Van Gogh, they now belong to anyone with access to the internet and a decent web browser.

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Following the shift from film to digital photography, paintings are often recreated as photographs that can be digitally manipulated to replicate famous scenes. This type of remix is not only popular in still frame film, but is prevalent in TV shows and motion pictures. Oftentimes the pieces are incorporated to advertise a new show, or to ride the famous iconry’s coattails through association. The famous comedy The Office used Seurat’s well known Sunday Afternoon to promote the show in 2011. While many elements of the masterpiece are fudged, the image is so famous that one easily overlooks the difference. What matters is that the remix resembled the original enough to provide a fresh look at the classic.

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Other shows, like Arrested Development, poke fun at famous paintings and the way in which they are repurposed. In Episode 7 of Season 1, titled “In God we Trust,” the Bluth family undertakes the task of recreating The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. After undertaking the role of Adam, George Michael realizes he must wear a false ‘codpiece,’ and opts for Tobias’s signature cut offs. In this instance the painting is repurposed in order to parody the fine art in a way that gives it new significance. What was originally intended to be a serious, highly religious fresco, is transformed into something more universally relevant: laughter.

What spurs us to recreate these images? Are we bored with what we’ve been inundated with and need to shake things up a bit? Or are we expressing an appreciation for something that used to be off limits, on reserve for a select few with enough money to visit the famous works in person?

It’s important to keep in mind that remix culture is not the first wave of copycats

Art forgery has had its hand in the art world since the beginning of art itself. Long before technology was invented that could detect fraudulent paintings, art fraud was a great way of making big bucks. Mona was kidnapped in 1911 by Eduardo de Valfierno, who had six copies of the painting created which he intended to sell. Valfierno was caught, but his crime remains his legacy. Famous works of art have been stolen, repainted, and sold for millions.

But what if Valfierno had succeeded? What if the Mona Lisa you were looking at turned out to be a fake?

When people can copy art so exactly that it is undetectable to the average viewer, is it just as valuable? Blake Gopnik of the New York Times brings up an interesting point about fakes in his article “In Praise of Art Fraud.

“Our first instinct is to marvel at the forgers’ skill and lament their misdeeds. But while forgery is very clearly an economic crime, it may not always be an artistic or aesthetic one. Forgers can even be an art lover’s friend…Sometimes, they give us works that great artists simply didn’t get around to making. If a fake is good enough to fool experts, then it’s good enough to give the rest of us pleasure, even insight.”

The masters would train apprentices to mimic their style so closely that the piece could be sold under the master’s name. The apprentice would gain the master’s technique, while the master would gain the credit for someone else’s creation.

Instances like these bring forth more important questions about the nature of art itself. Do we value a piece based on the signature at the bottom, or by the aesthetic pleasure it can bring us? And because a painting was altered with digital technology, is it unworthy of being called art despite allowing us to reflect upon images we’ve so long admired?

The pervasive nature of remix culture has allowed for paintings like the Mona Lisa to reach more people than ever before, this time in a new way. A single painting can be viewed a hundred different ways from a single device. Art is often valued for it’s authenticity, but by turning the Mona Lisa into a lego person, or a fat person, or a hippo-snake hybrid, we are free to mock her or glorify her, but most importantly, we keep her relevant.

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