Mimetic Desire in the Art Market: Mona Lisa

What art feuds reveal about human desire

Islesworth Mona Lisa

The art world has a fetish for conspiracy. Take a casual sweep of the news over a given year and you will turn up any number of stories about stolen masterpieces, disputed provenances, and multi-million-dollar black-market auctions. 

Art itches for intrigue and the latest installment involve the Mona Lisa and a look-alike painting called the ‘Islesworth Mona Lisa.’  According to CNN, the ‘Islesworth Mona Lisa’, which experts have known about for years, had been quietly touring world galleries until an anonymous claimant made a ‘grab’ for quarter ownership, thus inciting a sudden, heated scrum for its possession. 

Reading the account of the ‘Islesworth’ is like reading the opening chapter of a mystery novel, with its multi-layered histories of buyers and sellers, claimants and counterclaimants, aristocrats and feuding experts. It’s quite racy stuff. But what is most fascinating about the whole account is that the ongoing debate not principally about the art, but the ownership of the art. 

That’s right: put aside questions about the canvas and the oil and sfumato. This feud is simply a human drama about human desire. And like all high stakes art conquests, this one follows the stages of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory like a script.

In the first stage of mimetic theory, called mimetic desire, an object is desired not in and of itself (sorry, Leonardo), but because someone else wants it. Case in point: there was no quibble about the Islesworth Mona Lisa until the anonymous someone made a grab for it. The burst of desire triggered more desire. Then everyone was making a grab for it.

In the second stage of mimetic theory, mimetic desire leads to mimetic rivalry, where two sides fight over the same thing. It’s an important distinction that the two sides fight over sameness, no difference because it is common for people locked in mimetic rivalry to think they actually want different things. 

For example, one side claims to want the Islesworth in order to share it more broadly with the world. The other side says they want it to prevent it from falling into the hands of hucksters. But regardless of motives, both sides really want the same thing: ownership. 

The second thing to note in mimetic rivalry is that the scarcer the object, the fiercer the rivalry – which in this situation (ownership of a single painting), increases the violence of the feud.    

Finally, mimetic rivalry gives way to scapegoating. Scapegoating is the process of unknowingly choosing something or someone (the scapegoat) to assume the blame for the contention. This scapegoating mechanism works by disabusing both sides of the rivalry and establishing a sense of stability, or quasi-peace.

This raises an interesting question: who or what is the scapegoat in the Islesworth Mona Lisa trial? The claimant who made the first grab? Are the various experts yelling back and forth? The painting itself?

To find a scapegoat, go to the center of the furnace, where the fire’s hottest. And what do we find: a legal ‘battle’ being ‘waged’. Could the law itself be the scapegoat? Or lawyers trying to appease their feuding clients?

Maybe the Mona Lisa knows. Maybe that’s why she’s smiling.