Since I started teaching in an exclusive school, I became fond of starting the semester with Mona Lisa Smile. This line from Catherine Watson is the best:
What is art? What makes it good or bad? And who decides?
It is one of the key things that I try to teach in an Art Appreciation class. Even in an Art History class. How do I convince my students to ponder about these things? I always want my students to challenge not just the role and image of art but also of their place as women in society. We have come a long way since the setting of the movie (50s), but let’s face it, women today are still expected to marry and have children after they graduate. Not that they shouldn’t, but, it should not be to their detriment if they do not want to. Of course, the weakness of the movie is on Catherine Watson’s own love story, which is completely unnecessary to the narrative. But, this is still Hollywood cinema, it is inevitable.
The issues presented in the movie is still relevant in the contemporary setting. When asked about artists that they are familiar with, it is still very common to hear about Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. After all these time, few would immediately name Soutine or Pollock, the artists featured in the movie. Abstract expressionism, is well, still abstract in their mind. It is the consideration for art that they need to learn. There are various artistic movements that is difficult to trim it down to a two-hour class every week for the entire semester.
Part of the responsibility of a teacher is to choose what to teach to their students. It is the most difficult part. There are too many artists, art works and art movements that choosing what you teach in class can be quite a burden. How do you mold your lesson, not just to teach, but to be relevant to the lives of students. As part of the educational institution and of the artworld, the teacher defines what is art. It is inevitable based on what you teach and what you put up for consideration for your students. The strength of the institutional theory of art is strongest in the classroom.
Another issue covered by the film is the mass reproduction of art. Remembering Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, one should consider the effect of mass production in art. Decades after this article is written, it is still very relevant, even more in todays setting. With Tumblr and other photo sites, reproducibility is more rampant now than ever. Does this affect the production of art? Or the appreciation of it? Or does it depreciate the value of art? I have never been to Europe or America, so at least I can experience their art through these reproductions, but, it is not the same. But different is not necessarily worse. For one thing, I am able to teach my students based on these reproductions.
Lastly, another issue dealt with by the movie is on advertisements. Last semester, I covered advertisements, especially with the issue on the gigantic Bench advertisements along EDSA featuring the Azkals. The imagery of men and women in advertisements and the reactions the inspire from the audience is very different. Just like in Catherine Watson’s breakdown, how will the future scholars see us and represent us? Unfortunately, I have to say that even my students love the photo of the MAC cosmetics and would be pleased to look like Barbie dolls. We still have a long way to go.
Ironically, a film about women’s role in the artworld ignores women artists. The film still falls in the trap of art HIStory. But that would be part of another lesson, another time. A very lengthy lesson.
This is just the beginning of an exciting semester. Hopefully, it will be a good one. In the end it is still about choices. After this course, maybe art can play a role in those choices. It is the smiles and frowns of a Mona Lisa.
- Marie Curie and the new semester (portiaplacino.wordpress.com)
- Leonardo da Vinci: the man, the myth, the mystery (cnn.com)
- Pop Artist Romero Britto Paints the Mona Lisa as ‘Mona Cat’ (prweb.com)
- NCBI ROFL: Was Mona Lisa’s smile caused by Bell’s palsy or a punch in the face? | Discoblog (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- The Story Behind the Mona Lisa Heist (artaffactory.wordpress.com)