Robert Hughes is an eloquent Australian-born art writer who has written for Time magazine since 1970. In 2008 he released a provocative documentary titled The Mona Lisa Curse. His movie is a great mix of art history, humorous interviews, and insightful commentary.
Click the video display below to view an excerpt of The Mona Lisa Curse.
An early segment shows millions of Americans, including the Kennedy family, receiving and reacting to the Renaissance masterpiece during its tour at the Met in 1962. While narrating over footage of this celebrity welcoming party, Hughes explains that the Mona Lisa brought fans not to “look at the Mona Lisa …. They came in order to have seen it.” Hughes further claims that this event laid a curse upon the future of contemporary art.
Hughes says the painting “made the leap from artwork to an icon of mass consumption.” “The Kennedys managed to turn the Mona Lisa into a kind of 15th-century television set,” says a younger, long haired Hughes in footage of his earlier encounter with the work. He then quotes a cynical Warhol saying, “Why don’t they just have someone copy it and send the copy? No one would know the difference.”
Hughes argues that the million-dollar transactions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were unheard of before the 1960s. These “grotesque” displays of money were made possible because private art collectors changed the value of art from cultural to financial investment. Hughes claims that these auction houses are the “new arbiters of taste” and “art as commodity has taken over from art as art.”
Later Hughes interviews a not-so-savvy collector by the name of Alberto Mugrabi. This collector, whose father owns a collection of 800 Warhols, knows surprisingly little about art. Mugrabi says that Richard Prince “is such a deep person that maybe you don’t see it through his paintings but he definitely is.” Hughes replies, “If he is, why does one not see it in his paintings?” This painful interview bolsters Hughes’s assertions that the art world has changed in the way “art is made, controlled, and experienced.”
After finishing the documentary, I began to wonder. Hughes makes a lot of sense but he isn’t flawless. Maybe he’s just envious? Wasn’t he, as the art critic for Time, just another arbiter of taste for the Eurocentric and modernist establishment? In the film he even places himself above his subjects—literally. There are shots of him looking down at “swarms of passive art imbibers.” Is he not giving himself away as an elitist? Could he be just nostalgic of the good ‘ole days?
Despite this complication, the film wrought questions in my mind concerning art in Atlanta. Hughes focused on New York but he still spoke to art everywhere. Do the Atlantans who purchase art treat it as a financial investment? What motivates them to collect? Does Southern culture affect how we value art? Does the market and museum culture serve to democratize art, or does it serve to commercialize it? And as Hughes might ask, does our art stir intelligent critiques of our world, or is it simply “part of the problem?”
Watch this film with some friends. It makes for great conversation.