by Jay McAdams
The first time I met one of the most famous Italian women in the world, she smiled at me across a crowded room. From where I stood I could barely make out her smile. That’s because I could barely see her and because she was barely smiling. It was eleven years ago when I first saw the Mona Lisa at the world famous Louvre in Paris. I remember being somewhat disappointed in the way the painting was mounted behind glass, giving it a hazy greenish appearance. And I was surprised how small the painting was. Unlike most other pieces at the Louvre that you can go right up to, museum-goers were kept back quite a few feet from the Mona Lisa by a railing, even though it was protected by this wall of glass. There was a throng of people up against that railing trying to decipher the genius in the work. But it was respectful, at least as I remember it. I tried to navigate the crowd little by little to get up to the front, but even with everybody doing that same thing, the overall tone of the room was reverent because we all understood that we were in the presence of one of the great masterpieces of all time.
I returned last week to the palatial Louvre, which is still overwhelmingly breathtaking. There is now an Apple store next to the inverted pyramid below street level, right across from the centuries-old Comédie Francaise workshop. The Mona Lisa is one of the iconic works of art on the signage that helps you decide which section of the enormous palace to enter. In other words, it’s one of the most revered works of art in the Louvre. The energy in the Mona Lisa room was very different this time. It was even more crowded but what I noticed most was that the reverence was gone. The crush of people pushing toward the front were focused barely at all on DaVinci’s work now because they were looking at it through their phones. Many turned their backs to it for selfies. Today’s crowd is no longer about understanding why art scholars have long defined this work as one of the greatest paintings in the world, but rather about showing the world that they’re there seeing it. It’s no longer about the experience of seeing it, but rather being seen. This, in and of itself didn’t surprise me. We’ve all seen this phenomenon many times by now. In just the 3 years since Webster added the word “selfie” to the dictionary, we have added “selfie-ish” to our way of life.
Make no mistake, I’m no art puritan. I took many selfies standing in front of thousand year-old sculptures that day, relegating some of the most important art in the history of mankind to a mere backdrop. But the Mona Lisa room more than anywhere else in that stunning museum, really bothered me because it made it crystal clear that smart phones have dumbed us all down. No wonder we’re so divided. No wonder we can’t even agree on basic facts anymore. No wonder empathy is at an all-time low. This awful global change in behavior has clearly reached all over the world.
It wasn’t the selfies themselves that were the problem. It’s the narcissism that comes along with the desire to always put yourself in the foreground. As I waded into the self-absorbed mob it was like being in a paparazzi feeding-frenzy, like the ones who chased Princess Di into oblivion in that very same city. Nobody was even remotely aware of anybody or anything else in the room because their hunger to get themselves in the shot with the mysterious Italian made everyone else invisible.
I always think of the past as being more primitive than the present. But being surrounded by ancient art, it was so clear to me that modern technology, as incredible as it is, has moved mankind backward in the evolution scale. In some ways this art from centuries past is more evolved than those of us paying to photograph it with our devices, which we would really love to recharge, btw. After the Mona Lisa, I came upon an ancient statue of man or a God, appearing to take a selfie of himself, with people standing in front of him mirroring the image by taking selfies. Very meta, I thought. Rather than interrupting everyone’s selfie by trying to read the plaque and see what the selfie statue actually was, I just took a shot of it instead. I can always google it.