One of my favorite pastimes is sitting on my family’s big red couch with my younger sister and making fun of bad TV. Even at age 15, my sister is still one of the sassiest, most sarcastic people I know, so when you get the two of us together and hand us the remote, we’re merciless. It’s fantastic.
Modern-day Disney Channel original series often provide some of the best material for this rainy-day activity. I remember watching a particularly dramatic episode of Hannah Montana together in which poor Miley Cyrus was, like, freaking out about people discovering her true identity. Like, OMG, what would her fans think if they knew she had been lying to them this entire time about being a natural blonde?
Our answer? Well, with or without the wig and rhinestone-studded costumes, we’re still talking about Miley Cyrus here. Blonde or brunette, Hannah or Miley, it’s all crap. But regardless, this high-suspense episode somehow (probably unconsciously) raised an interesting question about our need as viewers for that element of mystery in art and in the rest of our lives. Why do we so enjoy reveling in the unknown, and what is lost when the veil is dropped, when we discover the full truth?
Think about it: Even if you say you’re not an “art person,” there’s no way you could’ve gotten this far in life without being exposed to the speculation surrounding Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at some point in time. Who was she? Why did he paint her? Why does she have that weird smirk on her face? There’s a reason this painting is considered the most famous in the world, and it’s certainly not because Miss Lisa was a hottie with a Renaissance body. At face value, most will agree that there’s nothing too remarkable about this piece. What fascinates us, what makes it the first thing we have to see when we visit the Louvre, is all of the mystery surrounding her. Would she really be that interesting if we had all of the answers, if all of the speculating, theorizing and debating were put to rest?
The same goes for Dutch artist Jan Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (often referred to as the “‘Mona Lisa’ of the North”), another seemingly simple painting about which very little is known but much is speculated. The mystery surrounding this representation of a young girl is only enhanced by the enigmatic character of the man who painted her; much of the life of Vermeer is still unknown and may very well stay that way. But would we still care about this fairly ordinary girl if we knew the whole story?
Thinking in contemporary terms, one of the most notable public enigmas in the art world is Banksy, easily the most well-known street artist today. Banksy has created his entire persona as an artist around the ambiguity of his true identity, and many would agree that much of the success of his satirical, subversive work — which can be found on walls, bridges and billboards throughout the U.K. and America — can be attributed to his careful protection of this mysterious personality. Without having a real face or name to associate with this work, we are left with just the paintings themselves, which send pretty powerful messages about the darker sides of our contemporary consumer culture.
We all like a little mystery, a little intrigue, a little taste of the unknown. You see it in art, in music, in television and even in love interests. (Who doesn’t find themselves instantly attracted to the tall, dark and handsome stranger?) And yet, at the same time, we always want to have all the answers. It’s a bit hypocritical, really. So what does that say about us as a culture? Do we really need that element of mystery to keep us intrigued, interested, tuned in to the world and the people around us? Does our perception of a person, event or work of art change when we learn the full truth? Do we always need to be in this state of perpetual cliffhanger, never quite a knowing what’s going to —
Clare Donnelly is a senior in the College.