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Velvet Rope

Published in Semiotics and Art Education: Sights, Signs, and Significance,

Deborah Smith-Shank, Editor, Reston, VA: National Art Education Publisher, 2004

     Never before had I seen such military splendor. So stunning was the dress uniform of the White House Marine Guards that I was awestruck; completely captivated by the riveting contrast of the navy-blue jacket and dazzling white of the belt, knife-creased pants, and imperial hat. Caught in the intense spotlights of the National Gallery of Art, the laser-bright buttons and buckles, flashing against the dark jacket, seemed to dance and sparkle  with every step I took. There I was, anxiously creeping forward in a long impatient line, finally closing in on the glorious scene--just twenty feet away, then fifteen, twelve, and now, at last, directly across from the two elite Marines assigned to guard Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. While I knew I was supposed to be looking at her, I simply could not take my eyes off of them.


     With their right arms extended, white gloves gripping the barrel of their polished rifles, their ceremonial sabers gleaming at their hip, these sentries stood at their regal post, holding a pose that seemed to me as artfully statuesque as it was military in form. Flanking the painting, framing the scene--along with the potted palms, which I knew had also been precisely placed--these sculptural figures were defining for me, and perhaps the thousands and thousands of other visitors, a spectacular American aesthetic that, oddly enough, was built upon an Italian Renaissance painting on loan from the French Ministry of Culture. This clearly was a sumptuous and very public pageant, undeniably opulent, and produced for mass consumption. At twelve years of age, I was bedazzled and eager to partake.


     Even as a seventh grade school girl, I could appreciate that the scenic elements had been chosen with care, sparing no expense, for the purpose of creating a grand illusion that was ever so real to me. Running my hand along the velvet rope that separated me from the players on center stage--and the real from the surreal--stroking the velvet in a stolen moment of  private luxury, I saw that its color and texture matched the magnificent drape behind the Mona Lisa. The play of light on the gracefully perfect folds of the thick, lustrous velvet made me feel with my eyes what I caressed with my hand. I also knew that the green of the large leafy palms intensified the drape’s russet richness, just as its color enhanced the blue-green atmospheric background of the earthy painting.  During her brief stay in Washington, Mona Lisa, indeed, occupied a finely-crafted place of honor, this much I understood.


     What I could not understand, however, was how the Marine guards--young men in their prime, very vital and buffed-up--could stand so still, so straight, utterly expressionless, for so long. My own restless two-hour wait to file past this spectacle, my time of excruciating boredom, must be nothing, I surmised, compared to what these Marines endured in an eight-hour shift. I leaned across the rope, straining to read their faces for any clues as to how they were coping with their ordeal, a death sentence, as far as I was concerned. Their faces, half-hidden by the bill of their ornate hats, revealed nothing. Desperate to pierce the wooden wall they seemed to have erected between me and their human story, I tried to make eye contact, hoping to get them to wink, or better yet, smile. But no, I was rebuffed. They did not flinch, not even a blink or twitch, despite my attempts--first, feminine and coy, then pesky, even bratty--to get their attention. They looked young, yet they would not connect with my adolescent flirtations. They, like the cute boys at school, had not even noticed me. Was I just a skinny, flat-chested, annoying schoolgirl to them?  Could they not see the young woman in me, ready to burst forth at any second? But then again, how could they be expected to see the woman I could not. Where was she? How desperate I was to meet her, to be introduced at last, and to understand who she was and could become.


      Stepping back, I realized these marines were not supposed to be looking at me--or anyone else, for that matter. In a more lucid moment, I understood that these motionless humanoids had a script to follow and that the other visitors and I had ours, as well. For each side of the velvet rope, scripts were organized and given by the institutional place created for Mona Lisa. Playing important, if supporting roles, these guards from the Kennedy White House had a duty to secure a proper place of reverence. Theirs was a special mission, and they carried it out with sparkling style and skill. They had a job to do and they did it well, seemingly, by doing nothing at all. And yet, it was quite something--instructive--as I learned in that instant that I, too, had a job to do. I was to play the part of a mature spectator; an adult scripted to be appropriately contemplative and reverent in a place informed by the rules of pseudosophistication. Indeed, this was a hallowed place to be, and I had better perform accordingly.           


      And so, like the other adults around me, I focused on Mona Lisa, hoping to appear studious and sophisticated. But I had already sized up the painting, and no matter how intently I stared at it now, it still seemed, well, rather dull and boring, easily dismissed.  I tried hard to understand why this disappointingly small canvas, unimpressive on its own, should have such star power. What made Mona Lisa so famous--and so valuable--that these stunning marines were required to guard her? While I knew that this quiet portrait was one of da Vinci’s masterpieces, along with The Last Supper and The Virgin of the Rocks, still, I did not understand how this particular piece had earned the distinction. It seemed to me that Mona Lisa was as stiff and nearly as expressionless as her guards, and frankly, much less visually-exciting. Indeed, their sparkle seemed to make up for what she lacked.


     On my art history-for-young-people record set, a Christmas gift from my mother, the narrator’s lilting voice said with dramatic emphasis that I should wonder ... wonder about who she was... and wonder why she smiled... so mysteriously...What was her story? .... But I did not find Mona Lisa’s mystery alluring, not in the reproduction accompanying the record, not in the priceless original now before me. To me, she seemed knowing; yet smug, somehow, even withholding.  She was obviously a mature Italian woman who seemed quite sure of herself. Indeed, she was everything I was not. Her serene confidence proved too much for my flailing pubescent personality. I was still hoping.... searching.....and...  yes, wondering, always wondering... who was I?  I was busy auditioning, trying out various roles. Sometimes, I would play the Patty character, sometimes the Kathy character from The Patty Duke Show, a junior high favorite. The show’s up-beat theme song said it all: Kathy and her composure should be here admiring Mona Lisa.  After all, she “adores” the finer things, “a minuet, the Ballet Russe, and crepes Suzette.” But live-wire Patty, who “loves to rock n roll, a hot one makes her lose control,” was also here, and could not be denied. With her understated pageboy, Kathy was quiet velvet, while Patty’s sparkle danced right to the tips of her flipped-up hair. They were “a pair of matching bookends, different as night and day.” So was I.... How could I be both? But then again, how could I choose between them?


      In a moment of narcissistic paranoia, I was convinced that Mona Lisa was sizing me up, too, and that she could see the confusion and insecurity filling my empty center. And she had read me right:  I was not a convincing Kathy, nor a successful Patty. So please tell me, Mona, who else could I become? Was there another script? She would not say. Oh, she was cold, yet relentless, and so insistent.  Not only did she seem to know about my anemic performances--my conflicted identity--but also, Mona Lisa clearly expected me to figure things out for myself...  to tell my own story.  And I was unnerved by her uncanny vision.... her timeless integrity, serenity.... her reach right across the velvet rope.


     Shifting my gaze, perhaps to avoid hers, perhaps to reconnect with the sparkling safety of the larger scene, I did wonder.... I wondered how she she had come to find and embrace her true self.  And I wondered if the adults around me shared her secret wisdom... Did they know what she knew? Was that why they were so dutiful, so effusive in their praise of Mona Lisa?


     The line moved on, waiting for no one, pushing me beyond her intense stare, after the minute or two allotted to each of us making this pilgrimage. I rejoined my mother’s side and, ready or not, we exited the theater, Mona Lisa’s temple. Just like that, we breezed past the tall columns and down the granite steps where thousands still waited to enter and pay homage. In two more hours, we would pull into the driveway of our suburban tract house and my mother would feel a deep sense of satisfaction, knowing that she and I had been there, participating in the art world’s historic event. This event, arranged not by art historians and curators, but through the highest diplomatic channels of the French and American governments, was always intended to salute high art, high culture, and high society. It began with a special reception, hosted by the President and First Lady, and attended by members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the diplomatic corps.  As a housewife and mother of four, my mom felt it important--vital--to associate with such dignitaries, if only vicariously. She gladly accepted her invitation to Mona Lisa’s ball, in the hope of connecting with their world.


     It was also her way of reassuring herself that she, rightfully, had a place in the worlds of high art and high society.  After all, she was the only daughter of a corporate attorney who had worked at a major New York firm. She had married the only son of a wealthy doctor, although hurriedly, due to my impending birth. Having studied art at the prestigious Syracuse University, my mother still dreamed of producing her own masterpieces and working both sides of the velvet rope. And she also had big dreams for me.  Well why not?  Indeed, I showed promise as the class artist and winner of scholarships that paid for Saturday classes at the Delaware Art Center. My mother’s duty, as she saw it, was to prepare me, a debutante, for my entrance into the art world--the main stage that so far had eluded her. And so far, I had performed reasonably well, quickly learning the script endowed with traditional adult values and expectations for young girls who aspire to paint.  I knew very well how to be a dutiful daughter, an over-achieving first-born, the young artist who drew endless self-portraits, cats, and other approved-of subjects. But what if I no longer wanted to perform for others, doing what demanding adults expected of me--all for that patronizing pat on the head? How could I create an opening, find a way out? I needed to find a wide-open space in a world scripted by others... and dare to perform my own...


     Ten years later, I saw Mona Lisa in yet another proper place. At that time, she was presented by the Louvre without fanfare, without velvet, among a crowd of other paintings, high on a neutral wall. With no sparkle, no guards or special arrangements, not even a velvet rope then, she was almost anonymous, Though she was still attracting hordes of pilgrims--tourists from all around the world--they formed no orderly procession to file past her nondescript throne. It was hard for me to believe that she was ensconced so unceremoniously in a humble spot, after her royal American visit and return voyage aboard the luxury liner, S.S. United States.  But there she was, ever the diva, and this time, I was ready for her. It was as if we had an understanding. And clearly, we needed no rope to define our places inside this institutional place or out. In a surreal moment, I met her gaze, and with a knowing look of my own, I was able to smile back at her--broadly, happily.  While I had not yet acquired her timeless wisdom and serenity, I knew with a degree of certainty that I had begun telling my own story. As a young wife and newly-certified art teacher, at the time, I knew I was in charge and had reason to smile.   


     Today, precious Mona is encased in bullet-proof surroundings after an ax-murdering attack on her character in the mid-1970s.  A victim of this most irreverent act, Mona Lisa was violated, ironically, not only in the place created for her, where the laws of the stable and the proper rule (de Certeau, 1984), but also, because of this place and the challenge it apparently presents to the unstable. (Here the fading image of the White House Marine Guards takes on a new luster...Maybe their military might and splendor were, in fact,  effective, enforcing the laws of the place ....) Transforming place into space, by whatever means, is not an easy process, and creating a space that allows some stability is even more difficult.


     Just as ironic is the (non-violent) intrusion of Andy Warhol’s proudly irreverent silk-screens of Mona Lisa into the world of velvet ropes. Looking at these parodies just recently, I had to grin, seeing Mona’s image again and again, each in its institutional place, securely ensconced in the recent Andy Warhol Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Iconic as ever, there she was, multiple Monas in orderly rows and columns--Mona times twelve, Mona times twenty, Monas on a red background, and dark purple Monas--wordlessly staring straight ahead, but articulating as always a commentary on mass consumption, this time without potted palms or a velvet drape. Somehow, it all seemed ironic to me, as if her power to parody had been hi-jacked by the very world of high art she was intended to critique. But, Mona smiled on, as knowingly as ever. Here, at least, she was among friends, free to associate with her fellow stars--hanging along side the huge celebrity images of Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, and most appropriately, Jackie Kennedy, her one-time hostess. Only the large canvas of the multiple Marilyns was isolated behind a velvet rope. Wisely hovering between reverence and irreverence, between high art and pop culture, Mona had transformed this place into an improvisational space, after all. With this realization, I grinned again: “You go, girl!” 


     Wherever she is, whatever her circumstances, Mona Lisa’s place is secure. From the Louvre, she will continue to direct acts of proper contemplation, as performed by millions of obliging visitors. But her reach extends well beyond this institutional story. Through a myriad of images everywhere--Mona with a mustache, (thanks to Duchamp’s irreverence), Mona with braces, Mona with rollers, Mona on T shirts, key chains, coffee mugs, and on the shrink-wrapped Shorewood print I have carried into my university classroom over the years--she reaches across time and space, right into the popular culture and people’s daily lives. Consumed by everyone, belonging to no one, she succeeds in creating her own place--a vast space--which cannot be contained. Indeed, she is active, inspiring fresh wonder and directing cultural, as well as personal improvisation. I am lucky enough to have ventured into Mona’s open space, to have been prodded by her velvet wisdom at a young age. And I learned that she was right: I should create an authentic space beyond the ropes where I could discover for myself why I would not become Kathy, nor Patty; why I needed to follow my own dreams, not my mother’s, and how I grew to become someone who will always need some velvet and a little sparkle in my world--along with some reverence and irreverence. Sharing her secret, Mona Lisa reminds me even now how important it is to reach across velvet ropes to continue telling my own personally-mediated story within a culturally-mediated world.

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