“Art isn’t art until someone says it is”, retorted Betty to the ugly, rotted side of meat on the projector. “It’s art”, came the facetious remark of the new teacher Katherine Watson.
The story of Mona Lisa Smile is a story of rediscovery of art. These above mentioned lines can very well be the central inspiration behind the story of Katherine Watson, an art history teacher and her students. Miss Watson is a maverick in the rather orthodox Wellesley College. She believes in the spirit of art as an individual’s discovery of the world within. While the orthodoxy of the society has pushed art as another crystal in the crown of the elite, she stands for art as a basic human right.
The story very subtly runs us through the zeitgeist of art in the 20th Century America. It is shown as trickling down from the artistic cascades of Michelangelo and other innocuous artist of the century. And very beautifully it also insinuates the fact that art is like a river. As it flows down to the earth form the heavenly mountains to the lands and the masses, it is not so pristine in its purity anymore.
This is nuanced in the scenes where art remains limited to the flowery curtains, bed covers and wallpapers. For the elite it is a poem read out impersonally by a newlywed husband for his wife. It is merely another book by a famous and innocuous author about how to look at landscapes and most importantly how to look at them artistically. Advertisements are depicted as the most commonly distributed art forms for the masses. They are shown as the vilest form of art and creativity that touches the social construct, nevertheless aptly capturing the existential zeitgeist like any other form of art.
Ms Watson vows to bring a change to this heavily structured system of learning a subject as dynamic as the winds. She is a new teacher and in the college known for inbreeding only as if by chance. Her only strength is the classroom. She is handed a batch of some of the best bred women of the Art department. Of them, despite winning the hearts of the whole class she happens to bond particularly well with four of her students. Her vision of what true art is and her belief in what it is potent of doing to humans brushes off at them rather stronger than the rest. They are Connie, Joan, Betty and Giselle.
The start of the year long exchange of art lessons does not really go as expected. The girls are over-prepared for the textbook syllabus. So Ms Watson revises it to suit her grander agenda of teaching art in the truest spirit. She begins by the simplest questions like ‘What is art?’ And ‘Who decides?’. By doing that she forces her otherwise mugged up students to actually think about what art really is for an artist whose works they study in their courses.
It is represented as a stark contrast to how creators of art and students of art are markedly different in their outlooks as simple as everyday life. While the creators are depicted as artless in their expression of truth, non-devious, particularly aware of their human imperfections; the students are impeccable in their white pearls, curled hair and red lips. Ms Watson bridges this gap with a profound empathy for the imperfect women beneath the grooming and girdling. Her lessons is class reach out to the students in various ways and break the ice of perfect crystals encapsulating their hearts.
Each of the four favorite students are affected differently in their lives. Betty is the very first one. She belongs to the elitist families central to pricing art and selling it to only the rich and cultured. Ms Watson annoys her incredibly. Being a strong headed woman she stands by her inherited ideals of the right art, right friends, right love and even right wedding. She comes across as arrogant and surprises Ms Watson often with her effrontery more than once. But it is this student that truly rewards the teacher in the end by imbibing her teachings and also boldly recanting her beliefs about art and life, publicly.
Joan is the ideal girl of that and I believe every era with an impeccable school record, one of the most eligible bachelors as her life’s love and a mind of her own. She goes on to truly understand Ms Watson’s spirit of individual’s rights to choose the course of their life before anybody else in the batch. She chooses to have a family, be a housewife and raising children – out of a love for the life and not out of any moral obligations.
Connie is the plump, pure heart teachers’ pet. She is also easily enervated by the likes of Betty for her alleged flaws. She almost believes in her inferiority to the rich, classy and perfect, Betty and Joan. She is scared that this would devoid her of even the subtle bliss of love. But Ms Watson’s lessons of bringing art to the everyday experience – in the seasons, flowers, gifts and even good manners; encourages the young girl to listen to her heart. She ends up molding her own path to the love of her life.
Finally, Giselle is the one to first absorb the dangling enigma of Ms Watson’s words on art. She has already lived one of the most essential pre-requisites to understanding true art – Pain. She has a broken family, she falls in love with another careless man who is only cruel to her needy heart. The freedom of expression through art comes off to her as ineluctable. The pain inures her to the demoralizing constructs of the elite society building itself around her. She already rebels against the fake and prestige loving principles of the school. But she is too scared to find an ally. She only manages to earn a bad name by notoriously breaking all the contemporary laws of the society made for a girl. The pain inflicted by the broken constructs of the society was only turning her to a life of degeneracy and self immolation. She is practically rescued by the strength of art in expressing the most common human characteristic of pain and loss. The freedom of Ms Watson’s art redeems her lost self and encourages her to keep faith in the immense possibilities of the future.
Ms Watson herself is described as a strong headed woman who had to take on pain early in her life. This definitely denied her a normal adolescence but it came as a blessing too. She went on to carry herself up from a broken relationship to college and immersing herself into the profound that is art. Excellence becomes her sword and elegance her shield, with which she fights her war for freedom and truth. She manages to fight the oppressors and reach their colonized fields. But she also fights the oppressed to convince them of the fact that they were not free. She fights her students and their years of patriarchal upbringing everyday that passively asks its ladies to continue smiling even in the face of tears. She challenges them, picks at them, rewards and empathizes with them without failing to grow with them too. She manages to win the war by winning the hearts of her students and sowing the seeds of true spirit of learning in them. Her last lesson to them is of Mona Lisa and her legendary yet enigmatic smile even in the face of tears and sadness of her eyes. She earns acceptance by the orthodoxy because of her popularity among the masses (students). But she refuses to accept the conditional welcome and continues to explore, maybe for the place she can call home where she finally can build walls with freedom and not have to keep breaking them down.