This may come as a surprise to you, but the Mona Lisa… isn’t actually that special.
“Fake news,” you say, “you’re just being a hipster snob!” And hey, I never said it wasn’t good art. It’s masterfully executed, it‘s painted by one of the Greats, it’s become the icon of the European Renaissance. There are plenty of other, much cooler, more dynamic paintings from that era though. “Each artwork is unique! They each have their own individual merit and it’s all very subjective!” You protest, and I agree wholeheartedly. But the Mona Lisa specifically transcends the value of fellow paintings from is time mostly because of that one time it got stolen. Back then it was but one amongst an elite set of artworks, but then it went missing, which is what put a spotlight on it. When it was recovered they upped the security for it to maximum, and in the eyes of the general public, everyone was like ‘Ooh, it’s behind like, bulletproof glass and stuff, there must be something special about it.” And so it became a Thing. ‘Emperor’s New Clothes‘ vibes.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that the Mona Lisa doesn’t deserve the hype. The point here is that to properly understand the Mona Lisa, to really appreciate it, it’s background is equally important as the panting itself. Did you know it’s actually incomplete? You walk into the Lourve and the guide tells you that that over there is a very famous painting, and you have no context for why he’s saying that; what are you going to think? Is it famous because the lady in it is someone important? Why doesn’t she have any eyebrows? Did people back then not like eyebrows? But then you look into the context behind it and you find out that the lady isn’t anyone famous or anything, and that she does actually have eyebrows, expect the painting is so old and so famous that no one wants to be responsible for restoring it in case they hurt it and get sued or something. So it’s just covered in centuries of gunk.
Context comprises a large part of understanding art. Art history is literally almost entirely about dissecting that context. The ‘origin story’, if you will. And it’s not just for fun, either; art isn’t just about looking pretty, it’s also an integral tool in understanding cultures, people, and society. Heck, it even gives us clues about geography and botany and stuff, and things like what people value, how connotations vary from place to place, etc.
Let’s take a very common example; weddings. We’re all familiar with the fact that ‘white’, the quintessential western bridal colour, has very different connotations in different cultures; mourning in India, virginity in the West, and death in East Asia. Wearing white to an Indian wedding is generally a faux pas because it is a colour typically associated with funerals (although with increasingly western influences dominating the globe, this is changing), wh