Although the image was created well before the current pandemic, as it bounces around again on Twitter, it seems as if she is having her “first vacation in 500 years,” as one user captioned it in a tweet.
The Louvre, like museums all around the world, is closed. The humor of the meme is its suggestion that the great, iconic works shuttered therein are letting us know how exhausted they were with our usual attention. It is related to other memes and now debunked or discounted stories that suggest the natural world is also happy to have us less out and about in it, including the claim that dolphins and swans have returned to the suddenly pristine waters of Venice (the dolphin images were taken in Sardinia, and the water in Venice is clearer, but not necessarily cleaner). A YouTube video of penguins wandering the empty public spaces of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago — thus reversing the usual dynamic of observer and observed — is authentic, but supports the same deep craving embedded in the spurious memes.
We imagine the world is taking a much-needed breather from us.
The Mona Lisa meme, however, gets at deeper psychological beliefs about art. We tend to anthropomorphize artworks, investing them with a sense of agency and action. We refer to the Mona Lisa as her, not it, and not just because it is an image of a woman. At some level, we can’t quite believe she is an inanimate object, mere oil and pigment on a warped panel of poplar wood.
So the meme implies a question worth thinking about: What is all this art doing now that we are no longer looking at it? The rational mind will say, nothing. It is just sitting there, like it does every night when the museum is empty. The halls are dark, the space is quiet, and the art hangs mute upon the walls. Perhaps a security guard passes by from time to time, but that’s it.
That answer would shock someone from an earlier age, when art had ritual and religious power. And it probably still offends many of us, if we are honest about the complex ways we conceive of art’s power. In 1936, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin published a classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which introduced a term that has become inseparable from the way many people think about these ideas. He wrote about “aura,” the unique presence of the work itself, which carried vestiges of sacred resonance from an earlier age. The constant reproduction of paintings and sculpture — in books, cheap prints, postcards and posters — allowed modern audiences to get closer to art, but it also threatened “aura,” the particular power of the work when contemplated in real life, at the right distance, under the right conditions.
Strictly speaking, the Mona Lisa is a painting, and everything significant about the power of that painting happens inside us, in our minds and through the circulation of cultural ideas about the painting. But speak less strictly and we find ourselves thinking about art as if it is intelligent and active in the world. We still believe in something like “aura,” and can’t quite conceive that the art is simply turned off at night when we aren’t there to see it.
Art speaks to us. We have a conversation with it. Curators often speak of putting works “in dialogue” with each other, as if they are capable of having a conversation among themselves. So when a museum closes at night, we may be more inclined to think that the art is sleeping, rather as we do, and not merely inert, like the waffle maker or microwave in our kitchen.
So what is the art doing now, during this long hiatus that may keep the Mona Lisa with her feet up for months? The reclining Mona Lisa meme suggests that we think (or hope) that the art is resting up, getting ready for us again, preparing to reengage us when we can get back to public life and the museums are open once more.
Another way to ask this is, what is happening with aura now that almost the whole world is shut off from the art itself, able to access only reproductions, and mainly digital ones? Is the aura regathering? Is it re-accumulating in the art, like the fictional dolphins and swans returning to Venice? Is it getting ready for our return to a shriven world, sadder, smaller but somehow more pure than before?
Those are fantasies, and powerful ones. But the reality is this: We won’t return to the same Mona Lisa, or any other work that existed before the coronavirus pandemic. We can’t even begin to understand all the ways it will be different. Travel and tourism may return, but they may no longer be accessible at the same scale, and to as wide an audience. There will probably be new inequalities and hierarchies in the access to art. The exchange of private tours for promised donations, deeply embedded in the economy of many museums before the coronavirus, may be explicitly monetized: Pay us up front to see art without the public and its pathogens.
If thousands die and millions are unemployed, art will be for many people more local, no longer about a trip to Paris and a day at the Louvre, and more a matter of finding something sustaining near to hand, as cheaply as possible. If social distancing becomes embedded in our behavior, the psychology of our great, big-city museums will be different, too. It may be a long time until museums feel comfortable packing their galleries like they once did. And even then, a quick jostle past an iconic work, thronged with a few hundred fellow art pilgrims, will feel very different than it once did.
The greatest difference will be at the personal level. Art almost always feels different to us after a great shock, after a health scare or major illness, or the death of a loved one. Sometimes things that seemed important feel suddenly insipid, and vice versa. We tend to attribute these changes as much to the work itself as to our own changed condition. We think the painting was only pretending to be good, or hiding its true value, and the change in our perception has something to do with the modesty or wiles of the art work itself.
Perhaps we will return to the world in which great works, like the Mona Lisa, have aura. But it would be better if we didn’t. If we could transfer that fantasy about art — that there is something magical in its presence, that it is somehow human, like us, with emotions and agency — to actual people, we would live in a far better world.
We might then put these great works in a new category, no longer relics of a sacred past, but harbingers of a new, humanist future. We would thank them for having taught us to invest other humans with the same value we vested in them, and then, perhaps, the Mona Lisa could really put her feet up and indulge a satisfied smile.