Social capital in France’s Capital

JENNIFER GOOD

The jostling crowd. Cameras thrust in the air. Security personnel keeping a close eye on the commotion. Is this a frenzied red carpet crowd? Crazed concert ticket line? No, this is the everyday crush in front of the Louvre’s most famous painting, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. And we’re in the middle of the fray trying to get our daughter up to the front railing so that we can take pictures – and, yes, videos – with only the bullet proof glass separating us from Mona.

monalisa

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we visited Mona. When in Paris, visiting the Louvre seems like an obvious choice. The Louvre is an art destination of great desirability filled with tens of thousands of incredible objects of art. So why did we join the crowd and head straight for Mona passing all of the other art with barely a glance? It certainly wasn’t because our daughter was begging to see the, admittedly rather small, painting off in the distance behind the wooden railing somewhere behind that shiny glass. To be fair, she was much more interested in the trampolines we found in the nearby park.

And we didn’t head for Mona because we were trying to school our daughter in the importance of the artwork’s value in art history (to be honest, we didn’t know much about Mona’s artistic significance). Indeed, I would say that what we were doing is what the vast majority of the approximately seven million visitors (according to the Louvre’s website) do when they visit Mona each year: we were creating a kind of “been-there-done-that” experience. We were doing what everybody else was doing. What we’ve been told we ought to do. And I’ve been thinking about how this is problematic ever since.

When Robert Putnam wrote his groundbreaking Journal of Democracy article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” in 1995, he was sounding an alarm about what he saw as the decreasing prevalence of deep human connections. He wasn’t proposing that people were no longer spending time doing social things but that the social things were more superficial and less interactive than in the past. Indeed, “bowling alone” referred to trends of decreasing participation in bowling leagues and increasing solo-bowling. I would like to propose that our fascination with Mona is an example of declining social capital.

One of the reasons that Putnam proposed for declining social capital is what he refers to as the “technological transformation of leisure.” He felt that technology was “radically ‘privatizing’ and ‘individualizing’” our leisure time and actually getting in the way of other opportunities for the creation of social capital. He highlighted television as a main culprit, and while I would argue that television continues to reign supreme as a gobbler of our leisure time, there are many more examples today (than in 1995) of how technology (i.e. screens) has influenced our leisure time.

But technology’s role in creating Mona-madness, isn’t clear from the mere fact that screen-time displaces time we could be spending doing other things. To answer the “why?” of Mona-mania one must look at how our screens encourage us to be in the world. Putnam proposed that television “has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower” and I would propose that all of our screens tend to do the same. After all, how many “friends” do you have on Facebook? How reliant are you on 140 character tweets for information? How many text messages do you send each day and how often do those texts invade your precious few face-to-face conversations? How readily do you offer “likes”? How many more times a day are you appealed to as a consumer versus any other role in your life? Indeed, technology has sold us Mona – John Lichfield writes in The Independent that Mona has been “implanted in the world’s eye by countless reproductions, spoofs, pastiches and advertisements” – and encouraged us to consume her.

After spending a day watching people encounter the Mona Lisa, Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman calculated that the average visit lasts less than a minute. She draws on Darian Leader, author of Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing, who wrote “People no longer study [the Mona Lisa]. It is no longer a painting, but has become a symbol of a painting.” That was Putnam’s fear – declining social capital was rendering our lives less “vibrant,” less “engaged” and shallower. Yes, my family and I, along with the others in the Mona crowd, did what we were supposed to do. We can now share our shots with our hundreds of friends, and we can tweet about our crazy day at the Louvre, but the experience may leave us feeling like we we’re not sure why we did it. Indeed, the experience may leave us feeling a little lonely.

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Jennifer Good is an associate professor in the department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film. She is on sabbatical in France this semester.

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