Mona Lisa Paint-by-Numbers
According to the site stats, at least a few people check here every day, presumably looking for something new. Whoever you are, thank you. It’s nice to be read. I’ve added a button to the top of the page; my contact information is there. If you feel inclined to write, I welcome the correspondence.
Lately I’ve had a sort of thought experiment running in my head. I call it Mona Lisa Paint-by-Numbers. Mostly it’s just a series of questions; pinning down the answers is the experimental part, I guess. It goes like this:
The Mona Lisa has been called “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.” It’s a masterpiece, and Leonardo da Vinci is rightly lauded for creating it.
Let’s say on a trip to Venice you come across a small shop selling paint-by-numbers recreations of the old Italian masters. The merchant’s kits are remarkably authentic. The Mona Lisa kit, for example, contains a poplar panel and early 16th-century paints and brushes, and the kit-maker religiously numbered every hue and shade to be used and where. You buy it, take it back home to Peoria, and devote the next six years of your life to painting the Mona Lisa.
You now look on your creation. The results are pristine. The casual observer can’t tell the difference between your painting and the original, and even the experts have trouble without a microscope. Pop the champagne and put on your party hat; it’s time to celebrate. You’ve created a masterpiece. But have you?
I suppose passages like this are the philosophical equivalent of the Sanskrit om. It’s not internally meaningful (Just about anything can sound pseudo-philosophical if you ask, “Or is it?” at the end. Try it at cocktail parties!), but the act of bringing it to the front of your mind gets your head in the game. So let’s get our heads in the game.
I’m pretty sure the answer here is “No.” Recreating the Mona Lisa with a paint-by-numbers kit does not create a masterpiece. There’s a number of different reasons why that’s so, but I think the most compelling is the lack of originality. It’s why ghost writers don’t take credit for the books they write, why Milli Vanilli had to give back their Grammy, and why we haven’t started religions based on Xerox (otherwise those damn copiers would be art machines). Sorry, man from Peoria, a copy of a masterpiece is a copy, and copies are cheap. Agreed?
Agreeing with me here is dangerous. We need to tweak the facts a bit to show why. Let’s keep the conclusion: copies are cheap. But let’s talk about climbing Mount Everest instead of painting the Mona Lisa.
Climbing Mount Everest was originally a team sport. For example, John Hunt lead the 1953 expedition which first reached the summit of Mount Everest. If that name sounds unfamiliar, it’s because Hunt never made it to the summit. He was a logistics man, more concerned about portage and provisions than sticking his head through the clouds. But without his contributions, the expedition likely never would have left base camp. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, members of Hunt’s team, were the first to reach the summit, but they weren’t the first pair from Hunt’s expedition to try. Two days before, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans came within 100 feet of the summit before they had to turn back. When Hillary and Norgay ascended, they followed the path the Bourdillon and Evans used.
The brush strokes of climbing Everest: Hunt, Hillary, Norgay, Bourdillon, Evans, and twice again as many names history has forgotten. Each man contributed to reaching the top, even if only two men stood on the summit that year. And Hunt’s team’s efforts were not singular; they were able to succeed because they trod where others failed. All the previous teams which had tried to climb the mountain laid the groundwork for Hunt’s successful expedition. When Hillary placed his foot on the summit, every man who set foot on the mountain before him could smile.
Nowadays climbing Everest has become an individual achievement. Hikers still ascend in teams, but they are no longer drawn together by nationality or common background. Professional outfitters will, for the right price, oversee every step of the ascent. They arrange for provisions, equipment, and permits; hire sherpas to set guidelines to the top and back; and hire guides to show novice climbers the way. The combined knowledge of Hunt and his brave companions can be purchased with a check. The climb is still grueling, but the way is known and paved with creature comforts. If people fail nowadays, it’s not because they can’t find the way up (it’s marked with ropes); rather, it’s usually a personal setback, like cerebral edema or cowardice.
What, then, does it mean to summit Everest now?
I don’t ask that rhetorically. A little subtraction, I think, ought to do the job here. Let’s start with a hiker who has paid for an outfitter to take him to the top of the world. Now subtract the Hunt team’s accomplishments. Take all their knowledge, experience, and bravery, compress it into a discrete amount, and subtract it from the hiker. What remains? What has our hiker achieved? All that remains is what the hiker carries up with him. He, personally, has achieved something, but what should we care? The way our hiker measures himself isn’t how I measure myself. What he can do says nothing about what I can do. He wrote a check and did what another guy told him to do. An Everest paint-by-numbers, if you will.
Copies are cheap. Danger, Will Robinson!
Perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that it can no longer be meaningful to summit Everest. As soon as the weather clears and the summer climbing season opens on Everest, sherpas ascend the mountain and lay guide ropes for the expeditions that will bring paid hikers up the mountain. There are only so many days the summit can be reached, so the teams all pile onto the mountain as soon as they can. Traffic jams are common at bottlenecks, like the ladder below the Third Step. (Can you imagine climbing five miles up from the ground only to have to stand in line?) Just below the summit there’s only two ways to the top, the north ridge and the south ridge, and hikers swarm both sides when weather permits. Even if you blaze a completely new trail up the mountain, you’d still have to wait for the tourists to finish on the summit before you can take a peek. If you want to see the view from the top, you have to put up with the attendant bullshit. By taking up space for personal gains, each man that pays to “achieve” something up there only makes it harder for any of them to achieve anything beyond themselves.
And while we’re dancing with ideas in rarefied air, let’s spiral this thing out of control. I’m not just talking about Everest here. How many ventures do we humans undertake strictly for personal satisfaction? Ventures that should feel meaningful, but are really as vapid as the next Kardashian reality series? I’m looking at you, cruise ship passengers and safari-goers, “eco-tourists” and “volun-tourists”. I’m not saying going on a cruise is a bad thing; just don’t confuse it for a meaningful thing. The only things you stand to gain are a tan, a gut, and duty-free liquor for your friends back home.
Maybe this is why we become so obsessed with firsts. We all intuitively recognize the subtraction as it happens. We achieve something, then think about how little that differs from someone else’s doing that same thing, and we can only wonder, “What new thing have I done?” A Danish triathlete, Mogens Jensen, spent two years trying to be the first asthmatic man to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. As if climbing Everest with asthma wasn’t difficult enough, he wanted to handicap himself further just to prove it could be done (he failed both times). But if he ever gets to the top under his stipulated conditions, when he does the subtraction at the summit he’ll at least know something remains. He has done something new. But it’s still a personal achievement–a thing done in the face of an artificial disadvantage. I can’t regard it as a brave or adventurous feat, any more than I’d be inclined to pay for a Mona Lisa painted in Peoria.