Picture it: New York City (NYC), November 2016. Christmas lights lassoed over trees. Their seasonal cheer casts an ambient light across steam and cement. People sip coffee, ruined by pumpkin flavoured yuletide spirit. As the daylight hours wane and wallow in the approach to winter, I find refuge inside NYC’s endless art galleries. The Whitney. The Met. The MoMA. There I witness a wall of Van Gough and mourn as a man-sized-man-shaped candle drips into an existential puddle.
I was so eager to get the most out of my first gallery visit to the Met that I prepared myself by downloading the museum app. One painting, then two. How frustrated I became when all the numbers I punched in to learn more about the art simply didn’t work. It took about ten minutes to figure out that I was at the Met, looking at the MoMA app. Technology didn’t fail me, I failed technology. It was then I decided to put the phone away and to simply wander the gallery and enjoy the atmosphere. As digitisation becomes the new way to digest, are we losing something by switching on and tuning out, or – do we gain new opportunities to seek and explore?
In my above hiccup, I was fortunate enough to afford a trip to NYC. But to see MoMA one does not have to be standing in MoMA (it’s preferential that you aren’t standing in the Met thinking you’re standing in MoMA).
MoMA is one of many galleries with exhibitions that can be explored online. With one click, users can view high-resolution artwork and zoom into the detail. Goodbye trying to find the gap in the wall of tourist heads. A digitised world means anyone can travel to the Met with just a web connection and the click of a button. ‘Digitisation democratises by making art accessible without time, money or location barriers’ (Enhuber 2015, p. 123). Although this creates a new level of equity to access art it is still limited to having a web connection. If you’re reading this, you have a web connection, but not all do. This COVID-19 world has highlighted the digital divide even in such an incredibly well-resourced country as Australia.
Digitisation goes further than modernising the stand-alone museum. Websites such as Google Arts & Culture are a repository site for global art with over 2,000 participating collections and over 100,000 high definition artworks. Users can search for works by collection, by name and even by colour, thus opening the world of research to any modicum. Google Art & Culture, like other repository sites such as Artsor.org ‘make available images submitted by cultural institutions’ (Manovich 2017, p. 260) with an arguable exclusivity. Are digital art repositories ‘amplifying an already existing bias of modern cultural canon’ (Manovich 2017) by showcasing just the greats. The word ‘Google’ in front of Arts & Culture suggests it should be more than just a replication of museum collections, for it inspires variety in word search.
Is there a responsibility for digital art repositories to capture ‘the typical’ in art as well as the ‘exceptional’ (Manovich, p. 261)? Or is capturing the typical in art the realm of social media? As Manovich avers, ‘richness and variety does not mean comprehensiveness’ (2017, p. 264). So digitising art may make it more accessible, but it doesn’t change the nature of it. Or does it? It is arguable that the realm of social media has pressured museums to, ‘create a higher engagement with enhanced learnings (Enhuber 2015, p. 129) by developing interactive digital applications. As one example, Google Arts & Culture’s art transfer feature allows you to transform a personal photo into the style of one of the greats. The feature photo of this very blog is me, having a laugh at Warholing and Van Goughing myself. The interactive element opens itself to a more effective learning method. But is there a fine line between digitisation turning ‘education into edutainment’ (Enhuber 2015, p. 130). It sounds dire but, only if the intent in visiting these sites is to learn exclusively, without joy. For me, I simply wander these digital galleries, as I did that day in NYC.
Although digitisation has opened the doors of siloed museums to a global and static audience, their beauty is bound by a two-dimensional screen. I can only speak for myself when I say that the experience of art is a fully immersive one: the size of the work, knowing that I am only inches away from the paper that Leonardo da Vinci touched more than five centuries before. It’s thrilling. If I’d never been to the Met (or was it MoMA?) I would have missed hearing the thick Manhattan accent of a volunteer, clad in leopard print coat, pointing the way out of the exhibition with an oversized ring on an undersized finger. For Enhuber, the ‘inability to experience the real art space is seen as a negative impact of digitisation’ (2015, p. 127).
That may be true if digitisation were trying to replace the experience of standing in front of an artwork, but I don’t believe that’s what it’s trying to do. If experiencing art is an immersive experience for art lovers like myself, we will always seek out art in its displayed state. But in these times of isolation with no chance to travel the world, it is nice to know I can still wander the works of the Met, thinking I am in MoMA.
Enhuber M, 2015, ‘Art, space and technology: how the digitisation and digitalisation of art space affect the consumption of art—a critical approach in Digital Creativity, 26:2, pp.121-137, retrieved 20 May 2020, (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ndcr20
Manovich, L 2017, ‘Cultural Data Possibilities and Limitations of Working with Historical Cultural Data’ in Grau, O, Coones, W & Rühse, V 2017, Museum and Archive on the Move : Changing Cultural Institutions in the Digital Era, De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston,, pp.260-276
Made by Gertie P using Google Arts & Culture Art Transfer