In the News: Please Don’t Eat the Art

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in August of 1911 from the Louvre led to widespread concern in the country of American millionaires buying up the legacy of France—their paintings. That 19th century fear is manifesting itself in the 21st century through a petition started last year by Kane Powell entitled, “We want Jeff Bezos to buy and eat the Mona Lisa”. Now gone viral with over 13,000 signatures, it’s spurring questions of: can Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos afford to buy and eat the Mona Lisa? Should he? Why is this a thing? How is art best served?

Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, is a portrait of woman with a slight, sly smile and country background.
Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1452-1519. Portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo. Oil on panel, between 1503-1506. The author died in 1519, so this work is in the Public Domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

According to the petitioners, their stance is that “nobody has eaten the Mona Lisa and we feel Jeff Bezos needs to take a stand and make this happen”. No one, in fact, has eaten the Mona Lisa; and as an art institution we caution against not touching the art in any form, and this includes with teeth. While we doubt the French government would allow a significant piece of cultural heritage like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to be sold at all (let alone devoured by an American billionaire), at current market value Bezos would be capable of buying and subsequently eating it. Invaluable to the Louvre, the museum calculated it would lose the equivalent of $42 million in just 3 months if the painting were removed from its storied walls. In an article written by The Independent, Stephane Distinguin, the CEO of Fabernovel, a tech company in France, set the price for the Mona Lisa at a staggering $60.6 billion, with a “b”! To put that in perspective, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for a measly $450.3 million, the most expensive artwork sold on record. Now, can Jeff Bezos afford a $60.6 billion piece of art? Yes. Forbes’ “Real Time Billionaire” list shows, at time of writing, Bezos secure in his #1 spot with $201.5 billion dollars. What else is he going to do with all that money? (If you feel like spending some cash, we suggest spending Bill Gates’, though the site lists the Mona Lisa as worth a measly $780,000,000. Let us know how many NBA teams you bought). Can Jeff Bezos eat the Mona Lisa? Assuming he has indeed bought the work of art, it is his to do with as he pleases. Should he? We think not.

As an art museum our formal stance is that no one should eat works of art. In Bezos’ case, it would be physically harmful to digest Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. While we’re sure his personal chef could whip up a delectable menu worthy of the gastronomical moment, older works of art such as the Mona Lisa are death traps. Painted on wood plank (ouch), the first layer of the work is a white primer made from lead-based pigments (yikes). Extremely toxic, many artists suffered from lead poisoning and other illnesses in the pursuit of their craft. (It is believed that Vincent van Gogh ate his paints, which would have contributed to his ultimate mental decline, and that Michelangelo may have suffered from lead poisoning while painting the Sistine Chapel.) If he makes it through the wood and lead, Bezos has more lead paint to contend with, along with the various substances artists ground up to create their paints: silica, iron oxide, tin oxide, mercury sulfide, various ground minerals and stones, crushed beetle shells, and bone dust. Yum! Mixed with egg or animal byproduct as a binder to ensure the pigments adhered to the painting surface, Bezos isn’t a vegan (he has partaken of both octopus and iguana), but the other ingredients would definitely lead to an upset stomach. Though Bezos has probably undergone rigorous health and physical examinations before going into space, it may be unwise to chow down on the painting if he hasn’t already met his healthcare plan’s premium.

Why is this a thing? The Internet is a breeding ground for tongue-in-cheek humor and nonsense (remember 2017’s Boaty McBoatface?) so why not ask the richest man on the planet to eat arguably the most iconic, recognizable piece of art on the planet. The Mona Lisa is the main draw for visitors to the Louvre, most recently honored with its spotlight in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s 2018 music video, despite its less than stellar reception (much smaller than imagined; too many iPads in the air blocking the view). The art market itself may be to blame, as paintings garner price tags beyond comprehension. Blue-chip art is soaring to prices out of reach of even museums, and many works of art may end up in private hands. Aside from limiting public viewing, works in private collections are not always protected to the standards set by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM); which, to be clear, has not made an official statement on eating paintings but we can assume views it negatively. Housing artworks in museums ensure they are kept safe from humidity, extreme temperature fluctuations, light and water damage, and bugs. As do many art lovers, I, too, enjoy seeing original artworks on my wall and not just reproductions; however, it is through private ownership that many masterpieces fall outside the tracing of provenance and end up as bargaining chips or leverage. Works like the Mona Lisa are more than just aesthetic objects, they represent our shared human culture and remind us of what we are capable of producing and achieving.

Therefore, art is best served to the public. Disappearing from the eyes of the people to be hung on a wall in a bedroom (or digested in a billionaire’s stomach) is a thought too disheartening to ponder. Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years on his masterpiece, and it has captivated an audience for years far beyond that number. Her knowing smile and piercing gaze has enthralled generations, an enigma on canvas that has spurred movies, tv shows, and parodies galore. Even if you don’t know art, you know the Mona Lisa; and the only way it should be consumed is through the eyes, as it is masterpieces like this that make the art world rich, and dare I say, palatable.

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