Baudrillard, during his post-modern phase of writing, wrote a series of essays that lament the loss of reality in post-modern culture. He believed that everything that used to have actual meaning has been replaced by a virtual meaning and that, as simulation has become more and more realistic, reality has been replaced by simulation. This is exemplified by the idea of owning an expensive sports car or convertible. Originally, the convertible represented a way of life and a certain social status. It displayed the wealth of the owner and represented the extravagance of the life he/she must lead. However, according to Baudrillard, this significance has been replaced. The convertible itself has become a simulacrum of the social status it once represented. It has itself become the social status. No longer does owning a convertible represent wealth, it simply represents owning a convertible, which has taken on the social value once given to all of the things owning a convertible once represented. This theory can be explored further in the genre of art. As Walter Benjamin points out, the role of art is changing in modern society, now that we have entered the era of mechanical reproduction. Art has taken on a new meaning and is changing significantly from what it once was. I’m going to look here at the role of the quintessential work of art, the Mona Lisa, and explore how it’s changing status can inform our reading of Baudrillard’s theory of the loss of the real.
The Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting in the history of art, hangs in Louvre in Paris, behind three layers of glass in a moisture-controlled environment, with laser sensors around it to prevent theft. It has become one of the most revered objects in current society, and is probably worth more than any other piece of art in existence. But why is this piece of art so revered? Why do people travel halfway around the world to see it? One might like to think that it is because of its inherent beauty, and because of our love of art. But with the age of mechanical reproduction upon us, this theory becomes increasingly untenable. It is possible to open up a book of art and see a reproduction of the original so exact that it is virtually indistinguishable from the original. So, there must be something about the original Mona Lisa beyond just its content that makes it so special.
Under a Baudrillardian reading, one might suspect that the Mona Lisa is no longer the same object that it once was. Perhaps its meaning is slowly being replaced by another, virtual meaning. Where once it was a painting of a woman with a slightly odd smile, now it is no such thing at all. It has ceased to be a painting of a woman, and has become a painting of itself. It has ceased to represent anything, and now represents simply its own existence. The value of the painting, once derived from its content and beauty, now is simply derived by virtue of being the painting that it is. This replacement of the real with the virtual is another step towards society being replaced with its own simulation. The Mona Lisa is no longer a painting, but is a simulation of a painting, in fact a simulation of itself.
Baudrillard, J. (1991). Simulacra and science fiction. Science Fiction Studies, 18(3), http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/55/baudrillard55art.htm.
Benjamin, W. (1936). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.