What does the rise of the virtual museum reveal about seeing art in person?
When we encounter a great work of art, we often stand in contemplation and in awe of the artist’s greatness. If it’s a Barnett Newman, we ponder the work’s immense size. In front of the Mona Lisa, we wait in line with anticipation as we hear cameras click and bodies bustling the Salle des États.
But, how do these experiences translate when we view art online? Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an emergence of virtual art tours offered by art museums across the world and artworks are easily accessible for view on platforms like Google Arts & Culture. These mediums give people across the globe the capacity to view art collections and exhibitions online. But how does seeing art virtually change the way we understand and experience it?
To answer this question, we have to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of seeing art? Is it to understand the techniques of the High Renaissance painters; is it simply for beauty, as Oscar Wilde would say; or is it to understand the artwork’s political and social pertinence? What has been the purpose of seeing art, along with the museums and chapels which hold them?
It’s true that art is important for its reflection of culture, society, and politics. It’s equally true that art is a function of aesthetics, and we may simply enjoy it for its beauty. All of these purposes of art can be easily understood and translated by seeing artwork online. But, that moment of silence and solitude when standing in front of a piece of art, in the vast museum hall, is a moment that doesn’t exist on our digital screen designed for fast scrolls.
Some of the aspects of artwork that can’t be imitated when viewing online are technical characteristics like canvas size and texture. Our smooth and fixed-size computer screens can not technically emulate these traits. The starry reflections bouncing in every direction in Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” can not be imitated through a laptop, nor can Kusama’s galaxy-like vision be fully experienced without a physical presence in the gallery space.
However, the in-person experience of art can also deceive us of an artwork’s greatness. When we hear the cameras clicking in front of Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit” sculpture, perhaps it’s simply a desire to be socially correct, leading the viewer to compliment the puzzling steel bunny. Not to mention, cameras clicking and shoes shuffling, especially in front of famous artworks can be distracting. When the crowd overwhelms the artwork, perhaps the better decision is viewing through the virtual experience at home.
Viewing art online allows greater accessibility, especially if the goal of viewing the artwork is to analyze the contextual elements of the piece. However, the intention of patience sets the museum stage. When we use digital platforms, it’s possible to feel overwhelmed by the huge database of artworks that are out there. But, when we enter a museum, we’re excited because the opportunity is rare. We’ll have a few artworks in mind to see, while hoping to find a few others that will impress us. Although online exhibitions bring convenience, perhaps the silence and vastness of the museum remain a valuable space, inciting some form of philosophical meditation commonplace to us all.