If Helen’s was the famous face that launched a thousand ships, it was Mona Lisa’s—the computer analysis of it, anyway—that launched a thousand newspaper articles.
One of the enduring mysteries of Western art, Mona’s subtle smile has been studied, explained, theorized, and rhapsodized about since it appeared on Leonardo’s easel. It’s been described as sexy, sad, and enigmatic. It’s been attributed to facial injuries, Bell’s palsy, and painterly innovation (Leonardo’s use of a new technique called sfumato where the edges of various contours are blurred.) E. H. Gombrich spent a page in The Story of Art discussing its eerie aliveness and Dr. Margaret Livingstone a couple of pages in The New York Times trying to reduce that aliveness to epiphenomenon. (Apparently the actress Geena Davis has a similar smile.)
Not too long ago, as part of a stunt designed to call attention to a new computer program, the painting was run through an “emotion-recognition” analyzer by a gaggle of geeks at the University of Amsterdam. (They were working in concert with another gaggle from the University of Illinois.) After assessing, among other things, the curvature of the lips and the crinkling around the eyes (variations from something called the average “neutral” expression—the look one sees on a presidential press secretary’s face just before that first question about warrantless wiretaps), it was concluded that the subject—Mona—was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, and 2% angry.
The amusingly flagrant silliness of this specificity was pure catnip to the media-ratti. The findings were news everywhere. The story appeared on the BBC and on Al Jazeera. It was reported in Pravda, in the China Daily, in the Telegraph of India, and in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I saw a little piece about it on the local TV news. (It was followed by a story about a Toyota-eating pothole and a cinnamon bun that looked like Mother Teresa.)
Of course none of the poindexters involved intended this as a serious scientific study. It was more about fun than fact, which is probably fortunate, because as I look at the reproduction of Mona I have sitting here in front of me—as I run it through my own emotion-recognition software—the only number from the study that doesn’t strike me immediately as way off or just plain wrong is the 9% one attributed to disgust. I’m not saying “disgust” is something that jumps out at you—it isn’t—but at least you can see how they could reasonably have come up with it. (I mean, it’s 1503—there’s plenty to be disgusted about: warring city-states, the fashion in codpieces, the church’s selling of indulgences. For all we know Leonardo’s personal hygiene could have been an issue.) But 83% happy? That’s a lot of happy. To me that sounds borderline grinning-idiot happy. I just don’t see it. Amusement? Yes. Contentment? Yes. Good spirits? Yes. Happy? OK. 83% happy? Uh Uh.
Being the most famous painting in the world—which isn’t the same thing as being the greatest painting in the world (the greatest painting in the world would be Rembrandt’s Woman Wading in a Stream or Van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban or maybe Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus)—Mona has been interpreted up one side and down the other to the point that now most of these interpretations have started to say as much about the interpreter as the interpreted.
Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs sees Mona as a self-portrait—that is, Leonardo in a dress. Freud sees her as—what else?—a representation of lust for one’s mother. Walter Pater sees her as the mythic embodiment of the eternal feminine. When I look at Mona I see other things (exactly what depends on how hard I’m trying) but invariably when I look at her I see a reference to Mary Egar.
Mary was the woman who took care of my sister and me after school while my parents were out earning vacation-home money. It isn’t a physical resemblance that has me associating these two, but what I guess you’d call a spiritual one. They have similar airs of quiet goodness. When I think of Mary—which I do almost every time I see a picture of Mona—I think of tomatoes (which for some reason we seemed to have at every meal), Chihuahuas (there were four), and a gentleness that surpasseth all understanding.
This latest study isn’t really about art—it’s about computers and the coming wonders of the technopolis. (One of the things they hope to do with this program is develop a computer that adjusts its responses to the user’s mood. It would be a nerd’s dream come true—a laptop that understands you.)
While it wasn’t intended to give serious answers to the questions surrounding Mona, it did get people started thinking about them again. (For instance, it inspired me to conduct a frivolous little experiment of my own. I subjected Mona to one of those Five Factor Personality Exams you can find on the Internet. Conclusion: she was a good-natured, somewhat conventional sort of person who was neither organized nor disorganized, someone who enjoyed spending time alone and who remained calm in tense situations.)
As I sit here scribbling this sentence on a piece of Xerox paper (emphasis on scribbling), I can see out of the corner of my eye the portrait of a glumly staring clown. Titled simply enough “Clown,” it was painted by Kris Hargis, an angsty Northwest artist with a taste for the divinely demented Egon Schiele. The best way to describe this clown quickly would be to say he looks like the sort of clown Samuel Beckett might have painted if Samuel Beckett had painted clowns—i.e., depressed, weary, and existential. Done in grays and blacks and drippy blues, his mouth is a sort of inverted boomerang. He has a lightbulb-shaped head and the soulful eyes of a disappointed basset hound.
When I look up at him I can’t help but wonder what his scores would have looked like if he’d been run through the analyzer. How happy would he be? 15% (probably a little high, skewed by the big red nose). How disgusted? How fearful? How angry? (Five Factor-wise: where Mona came off as a calm, courteous introvert, he comes off as a neurotic one who finds it easy to be critical.)
Ultimately, the value of these sorts of studies isn’t in the answers they give you, but in the fact that giving answers, especially half-assed ones, they encourage you not to cede individual response to the newest algorithm but to look closer. Looking closer (unless maybe it’s at your own deeply flawed and imperfect self) is almost always a good thing. In fact, I think there was a study not long ago conducted by the Department of Computer Sciences at a university in Bruges that suggested it was worth a person’s while at least 79% of the time.