OPINION: New ‘Mona Lisa’ VR exhibit highlights need to truly respect art

Blue and red outlines of the Mona Lisa
Graphic by Natalie Bauer

The “Mona Lisa.”

The woman with the enigmatic smile. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. One of the most well-known artworks in the world.

And, undoubtedly, the Louvre’s most popular piece of art.

When I visited the Louvre this past summer, I, of course, had to stop by the “Mona Lisa.” During my visit, I was shocked to find myself shooed around the “Mona Lisa”’s room, surrounded by too many bodies invading my personal space. 

My five seconds with the “Mona Lisa” were filled with watching fellow tourists snap photos and selfies with the painting, and me squinting to see it. We were kept a few feet away from the painting, which was encased in glass. 

And before I knew it, I was quickly ushered away from the painting. All I really ended up seeing was the reflection of 30 phones and cameras on a glass case.

In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, the Louvre recently opened a virtual reality exhibit entitled “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass,” which enables viewers to see the “Mona Lisa” in 3D and learn more about da Vinci and this particular artwork. 

The Louvre also hopes this new exhibit, created in collaboration with VR company HTC Vive, will help alleviate some of the problems originating from the crowds that gather around the famed painting. Visitors will now be able to have more time with the artwork, which would be difficult without the new VR technology.

The Louvre’s efforts are respectable. The VR exhibit is an interesting piece at the intersection of art and technology, and the technology itself is a nice nod to da Vinci’s innovative style.

But viewing a piece of art through VR is not the same as seeing it with one’s own eyes, in real life. There’s something about that interaction between someone and a physical artwork that cannot be replaced with a digital version.

The name of the VR exhibit itself highlights the absurdity of the situation at the Louvre. The phrase “Beyond the Glass” refers to the fact that the “Mona Lisa” is encased in protective glass, which was placed around the “Mona Lisa” to shield da Vinci’s masterpiece from acts of vandalism, such as an acid pouring incident in the 1950s. Though certainly not every visitor to the “Mona Lisa” throws acid on it, most do contribute to the hectic crowds that congregate around the painting.

In 2018, the Louvre hosted 10.2 million visitors, most of whom ended up visiting the “Mona Lisa” during their time in the museum. Due to the combination of these numbers and our society’s general lack of respect for valuable art like the “Mona Lisa,” we are unable to enjoy it as we should — sans glass barrier and sans chaotic crowds.

If anything, the Louvre’s new “Mona Lisa” VR exhibit shows us that we need large-scale societal change. There must be thousands and thousands of images of the “Mona Lisa” online. 

We don’t need to each add one more to the collection. We’ve become people who need to snap photos of every moment, or share every little thing that we do. And that’s taken away from the quality of our lives. 

I’ll be honest — I love taking photos of the most random things, and I can be that annoying person who has to snap a photo of everything. I’ve often wondered if I should just put down my phone instead — maybe then, I would actually be able to better absorb the sights and sounds and feelings of the moment.

From my experience at the Louvre, and hearing about the new “Mona Lisa” VR exhibit, it would probably be better if I just lived every second of my life to its fullest, instead of trying to document it for a future version of myself who may not even care to look back. In any case, with the way technology like VR is going, it may soon be able to provide me with those digital records of the moments of my life that I want to capture forever.

I want to tell the tourists crowding around the “Mona Lisa” at this moment to put down their phones and their cameras, and to patiently and respectfully wait their turn to see the artwork, while allowing others the permission to do the same.

I want to tell them to be content to be in front of such a masterpiece, and be able to see it with their own two eyes, hundreds of years after its creation.

When it comes to seeing pieces of art, we shouldn’t have to settle for being squeezed in massive crowds or viewing a digital version. In our technology-infiltrated world, we could all use a lesson in living more in the moment. Art should be respectfully appreciated, without the distractions of phones and cameras and the impatient crowds.

And art depicts life, so there’s my conclusion about how we should be living life.

Michelle Lum HM ’23 is from San Jose, California. Though she has a horrible accent, she still sometimes misses the French language. One day, she would like to go back to the Louvre and see “Mona Lisa” in person, in peace.

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