The Mona Lisa’s Faux Pas

As detailed in the latest episode of Crimes Against Art, the Mona Lisa has been a target for criminals for over a century, but perhaps none so heinous as contemporary artist Jeff Koons.

Jeff Koons was not alone in this crime, partnering with Louis Vuitton to create some of the most extravagant museum store merchandise in recent history. No longer exit through the gift store but queue up along the Champs-Elysée for your memento of the Louvre.


The Mona Lisa was targeted by Koons as part of a series of handbags and small accessories produced by Louis Vuitton in 2017. The series, entitled with the utmost creativity ‘Masters’, had Koons transplant familiar canvases from the likes of da Vinci, Rubens, Titian, Van Gogh and Manet on the iconic leather goods of Louis Vuitton.


And in case you weren’t quite sure who the works were by, Koons had the artist’s name branded in large gold lettering across each handbag.


The resulting handbags look as though they should have matching fridge magnets and sets of pencils, however their price tag is less entry-level museum souvenir and more an arts workers’ monthly salary.


Although the focus on the artists’ name appears kitsch, the large gold lettering is indicative of the broader shift towards symbolic value and the convergence of the contemporary art world of Koons, and the luxury sector, of which Louis Vuitton leads the way.


The compulsion towards symbolic value is encapsulated in Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy’s ‘aesthetic capitalism’. Lipovetsky and Serroy characterise twenty-first century capitalism as one which ‘exploits openly and freely, the realm of aesthetics, the imagination, and the emotions to make profit and to conquer global markets’, a description which helps explain why such kitsch bags were able to command a high-end price point.  


For luxury brand Louis Vuitton, partnering with contemporary artist Koons ‘serves to aestheticise products’ according to the fluctuations of fashion. More importantly, the use of key master works from the canon of Western art history both reproduces and manipulates ‘the immaterial and symbolic nature’ of objects.


As described by arts writer Christopher Mooney, ‘you want integrity? Individuality? Artistry? Name it, it’s yours’, as the name of the artist has become a vessel of immaterial value. Similar to a logo on a luxury handbag, the artist’s name is now a brand and operates as a reassurance for the collector of both prestige and of their aesthetic judgment.


If only the bags also carried the same aesthetic values of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  


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