The first time I saw the Mona Lisa in person I was literally stopped in my tracks. That’s because two young Americans were kneeling in the doorway, unfolding a map of the Louvre.
One of them was explaining in upwardly inflected Californian that it would be cool if they could like find a john on this floor because it had been like hours since he’d like peed and he really needed to like pee or whatever.
I said, “I’m sorry,” and they said, “It’s cool,” and I realised that they thought I was apologising. So I stepped over them and entered the room where the most famous painting in the world hung.
At least, I think it was the room where the most famous painting in the world hung. Because you can’t actually see the Mona Lisa. What you see is a scrum of about a hundred anxious people in flip-flops, bobbing and craning to get a better view of the bobbing and craning heads in front of them.
Now and then one of them manages to squirm around with his or her back to the wall before raising an arm, like a drowning swimmer calling for help, and taking a selfie. There is the sound of digitally simulated camera clicks, and the plop-plop of fresh flip-flops hurrying to join the back of the throng.
You don’t hear the people detaching from the group because they walk too slowly to make a sound. They drift off into the gallery, bent over their phones, scrolling through the pictures they’ve snatched. Like starving prospectors sieving through icy mud in search of a gleam of gold, they peer at each photograph, hoping that they captured something – a fragment of frame, two pixels of the actual painting – to prove to themselves that they had been close to something valuable.
Looking at the people looking at the people looking at the Mona Lisa was a sad experience. The painting was always going to be an anti-climax but I wasn’t prepared for the desperate hope of the plop-ploppers and the intense disappointment that filled the room.
But on the weekend, in a gleaming white cube off a bleedingly self-consciously Cape Town alley, I longed for the Mona Lisa mob. Because there was nothing between me and the art on the wall, and I was panicking.
Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur
Was I standing too close? Had I got my Hollywood tropes wrong? I had. Oh God. I had wanted to do Elegantly Ambivalent Connoisseur but instead I was doing Elderly Spotter of Excellent Fakes. I stepped back. Oh Jesus. Now I was doing Lecherous Poseur Stepping Back To Take In Some Sort of Imaginary Bigger Picture, Hoping To Bump Into Ingénue Standing Alone With Her Wine.
I glanced around and saw the artist glaring at us, despising our spineless decision to come to see his work, hating our approving nods. I understood his anger. It is a terrible thing to know that your rejection of the status quo has been paid for by your dad. I wanted to go over to him and reassure him that one day he would be able to have exhibitions that nobody was invited to, where he would be free from the insulting compliments of the masses; that one day he might even sell a painting to someone who wasn’t one of his dad’s clients. But at that moment I’d slipped into Person Who Suddenly Wants To Leave Gallery Because It’s Strangling His Soul.
Not that I could leave, of course. I’d only been there for 15 seconds, and it would be clear that I was fleeing and that I hated the work. Which wasn’t true. I didn’t hate the work. I didn’t feel anything about the work. I was like a gecko gazing at a copy of Vogue. It was just, you know, there. Perhaps I could do a slow lap of the room, pretending to pause at that one of the pig of neo-conservatism riding the Monsanto tractor, and then slip out of the door? Not yet. Maybe give it another 15 seconds.
“I like how the intervention has subverted the hegemony of flat-plane curating,” said the person next to me. I am quite fluent in Pretentious so I knew that he’d said, “I like that not all the art is hanging on the wall.”
I was going to reply that, for me, the power of the work derived from its discourse with the traditions of the Bacchanalia (“I like the free wine”) but instead I said, “Mm”.
Because, really, I have nothing to say about art. The bad stuff doesn’t deserve comment and the good stuff doesn’t require it, least of all from someone like me. But I’ll keep looking, because sometimes the most memorable pictures and mysterious smiles aren’t on the wall.
Published in The Times