Mona Lisa Smile

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Mona Lisa Smile

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Jeffery LeMieux: In the classes I run that have an art history component, one of my assignments is to have them write an article on a painting they despise. The point is to move away from the default awe that all art is supposed to inspire in everyone. I am trying with that assignment to drive home the point that everyone not only can but MUST make evaluations about art. Once we recognize that we are all minimally qualified and even obligated to judge, the class moves on to a discussion about what kinds of evaluations might make sense.

Excellent idea! Do you also do another one about a painting they consider great and another one they consider mixed or mediocre?

JL: And while the movie Mona Lisa Smile was not an accurate portrayal of the artworld in the 1950's, I don't think that was its intent. It WAS an accurate portrayal of a conservative and parochial university, of which there are always some, even today, and of the "virtuous" struggle of a new instructor to bring students into the present, coupled with a correct demand that those students see themselves in a new and more empowered perspective. While it could have been seen as a condemnation of conservative thought, the fact that one of the students chose to follow traditional roles and demanded that her decision be respected indicates that it was not a one-sided polemic. Not one of my favorite movies, but not a bad one either.

Anyone else want to weigh in on that? I see it as pertinent to the subject here because it is a popular movie that presents a particular view of art, artists and the larger culture.

I saw the film and I thought that the artistic aspect of it and the social commentary about the conservative boring and repressed school versus the free spirit view of the ideal life was intentional, old and tired, and ideologically flipped upside down for modern movie goers. For folks currently in their seventies, I have no doubt that there were a lot of struggles against that kind of conformity in their youth, but my experiences have been quite the opposite (and I'm no spring chicken myself). The conformity I have fought against my whole life has been the strong forces against effort, skill, achievement, clarity, and seriousness. Schools, museums, government, the media, etc. have been constantly pushing me toward the idea that talentless modernist art is the greatest thing ever, that working hard to accomplish difficult things is a sign of neurosis, that precision in thought and language are vices, and that moral laxity and perversion is the only way to be truly happy. From that perspective, the whole theme of the film came off flat to me. Self-determination is of course a great thing, but in my own experience, "going with the flow" in school would have meant adopting the ideas championed by the film and rejecting what they called the orthodoxy.

Of course, the fact that they were oohing and aahing over modernist splatters and pretending to see all kinds of deep emotion and meaning in them didn't endear the film to me very much either. ;-) At least the acting was pretty decent. I particularly liked Julia Stiles.

--Brian