Mona Lisa, Shmona Shmeesa: Why We Must Take Ownership of Our Opinions
Summer was quite an adventure. After working for a month as an intern in a midtown Manhattan law firm (not the adventurous part), I set off for a month of travels. I spent a week in England, then made a quick week-long stop in South Africa (the two seemed a lot closer in my mind than in reality), and from there headed back to Europe for a few weeks in France and Italy. As a pan-European extension of the “When in Rome” mantra, I found myself indulging in what I soon discovered to be the main thrust of European tourism: art. Now, I’ve yet to take an Introduction to Art class in college. I couldn’t tell you the difference between and impressionist painting or a neo-classical one, between Jackson Pollack and the Jackson 5 (okay, I’m pushing it). For the most part, though, I was clueless, and the great cities of London, Paris, Venice, Rome, and Florence served as a grand crash course on the arts and the likes of Michelangelo and Matisse, Monet and Manet (shockingly, not the same person), Picasso and Renoir, Dali and, yes, Jackson Pollack.
Many of the world-famous pieces that I came in contact with made an immediate impression on me, and their perceived genius was easily perceptible. The sprawling exhibits of say, the Louvre, the Vatican Museum, and the Academia, were overwhelming at times. I preferred some of the smaller, more intimate museums, like Musee Rodin with (you guessed it) Rodin’s greatest sculptures, among them the poignant “Thinker” and frightening “Gates of Hell”. And even in the gigantic museums the brilliance of most of the pieces, surely the world-famous ones that the masses tended to huddle around, made a lot of sense (especially after hearing a description on the audio-guide).
But not all the pieces seemed brilliant at first glance. Some required a tremendous effort and a gapingly open mind for me to appreciate them in any way. And I’ll admit, sometimes I found myself marveling at a piece which had zero effect on me, simply because some uppity monocle-wearing monopoly guy was going to throw me a condescending glance if my knees weren’t positively buckling at Chagall’s masterful brushstrokes. And so with some pieces, there was an inner struggle – I wanted to see the mastery professed about them, and yet deep down, I thought they were terrible.
The pinnacle of this struggle took place in the world-famous Louvre in Paris. David’s “The Coronation of Napoleon” was wonderful and Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” was perhaps my favorite painting of all time. Now all signs (literally) pointed to Ms. Mona Lisa herself. As I inched closer to her room and melted into the excessive line of shuffling bodies moving towards it, I resolved to remove myself of any and all biases. This is the Mona Lisa. All movie-references and Dan Brown books were put out of my mind. I was immune to the scorn of the crazy monocle guy. I was ready.
I walked in – and there it was. For a painting that occupied such a tremendous place in history and in the minds of so many, it was shockingly small. Tiny, actually. I managed to maneuver my way to the front of the crowd, where I could get a good look, as good of a look as one can get through about ten feet of bulletproof glass. I stood there and stared, ignoring the assertive order from the guards that we “keep it moving”. I stood there for a long while.
“How did you like it?” my friend asked me after we finally moved along.
And that was the honest truth. It was alright. That’s how I honestly felt. There was something daring, something blasphemous in that assertion. The Mona Lisa – just alright. The most famous painting in the world – average. Sure, my opinion probably meant nothing. The greatest art critics in the world would probably demonstrate for me my own ignorance in making such a heinous assertion. And maybe if I had taken that art class, I’d probably be able to appreciate much more the importance of the painting, given its historical context and whatnot. And maybe I was just being a smart-alecky, difficult college kid. But so what? After all, the ability to take ownership of my own opinion of the art that I was seeing made for a much more genuine and rewarding art experience altogether. I was emboldened by my ability to be my own judge, to assert myself as the master and commander of my own experiences. It was an incredibly emboldening experience.
As I enter my third year as Opinions Editor of The Commentator, I’m convinced that college is like looking at art. One of the great reservations that I’ve had in my time as Opinions Editor was whether I was even entitled to an opinion at all. After all, college is about Learning; it is a formative stage of information-gathering with which to form subsequent opinions. Perhaps broadcasting my opinion to the masses is ill-advised.
But my experience, at least for myself, has proved just the opposite. Just as mindlessly strolling the halls of an art-exhibit and “appreciating” a painting simply because I was told to could never be “it” for me, mindlessly strolling the halls of university and appreciating or accepting anything at face value could never be “it” for me either. For me, voicing my opinion has allowed me to take ownership of my own opinions. This is not to say that taking ownerships of one’s own opinion means that any opinion must be set in stone – just the opposite. Taking ownership of our opinions gives us the ability, the sense of courage and responsibility, to constantly tweak and perfect those opinions until they resonate deeply within us as truth. And constantly teak and perfect those opinions until they resonate deeply within us as truth. And even more powerfully, if we are able to form a community together of those who take ownership of their opinions, we can develop an environment of dialogue and growth that will propel us all to new heights.
Noah Jacobson is The Commentator’s Co-Editor of Opinions, entering his third year on campus, and studying English.