Virtual vs. Tactile – Plastic Bubbles and the Art of Experiencing Art

In 2011, internet search giant Google announced the Google Art Project, which allows anyone with an internet connection to access images of artworks housed in museums around the world. The initial roster of institutions was 17, with another 151 institutions added in 2012. Google recently added 20 more institutions. Museum collections in over 40 countries are now represented – available to be experienced in 20 different languages.

In terms of delivering visual images of artworks to home computers, tablets, and smartphones, today’s internet is a dream come true conduit for museums, galleries, artists, art collectors, art aficionados, and private dealers such as ourselves. The internet serves up a broad and seemingly endless supply of visual art, from masterworks such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night to the less sublime yet still compelling thrift store classic Velvet Elvis, all in real-time. There’s no need to travel, buy admission tickets, or even change out of your favorite pajama’s in order to virtually visit a lifetime supply of art via the internet. You don’t even have to whisper or leave your food and drinks outside. It doesn’t get any better than that. Or does it?

Garofalo's Annunciation at Musei Capitolini

Coming now to a screen of your choosing.

We’re in an age where our collective attention spans are shortening while simultaneously being conditioned to absorb ever-increasing amounts of information that gets delivered to us in smaller sized scraps of sounds and sights. It is a testament to the power and mysteries of the human brain that more of us don’t go cross-eyed just trying to keep up.

When the 1976 classic made-for-TV movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” found its way into those bulky boxes planted in our living rooms, aka televisions, it depicted a world filled with billions of humans who were free to interact and connect in tactile ways, with the exception of one person. Todd Lubich (played by John Travolta) had to be in complete isolation because if he left his sterile bubble environment he risked grave consequences. Though the film will never challenge “Citizen Kane” as an American classic, it garnered a minor cult following. It also brought up the bigger question – can we truly experience life without touching it?

The boy in the plastic bubble

Less than a generation later, in an unsettling  twist of technological fate, millions are now able to retreat into own very own digital plastic bubbles 24/7/365. Last week I was enjoying a scrumptious western omelette at a local diner and happened to notice a family of four out for their breakfast. As they ate, each one was staring intently into a smart phone. They chewed and tapped at their screens and chewed some more, and I never heard a single word uttered. Breakfast in a digital bubble. From the outside looking in, it seemed sad, yet there are times I’ve been just as guilty of savouring my meal the same way. It also made me think of how the average person “savours” art these days.

In the days before the internet made it possible for things like Google Art Project to exist, viewing and collecting fine art was an extremly tactile experience. Gallery hopping, visiting artist’s studios, attending museum openings, art fairs, auctions, and visiting or hosting collector friends were all ways that one experienced art in a first-hand manner. You got a sense of scale and depth, as well as some of the finer subtleties of shading and texture which do not always translate to a computer screen even with the best digital photography. Whether one was standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica or holding a treasure found while rummaging through a thrift store’s back room, the experience of interacting with art was very personal. One amazing couple that defined this idea of getting out, viewing, and living with art were Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who you can read about by clicking here.

As the two images below show, scale can become warped by the size of the digital screen you’re viewing a work of art on in comparison to the actual piece.

George Washington by William Birch

Small artwork that looks bigger on the tablet. Hello, George!

Fred Wagner, Feeding Pigeons

A tablet view dwarfed in comparison to a large painting.

I am fortunate that my job gives me very tactile experiences with the various paintings and sculpture here at the gallery. Whether combing our storage racks or hanging the gallery with new works or unpacking the latest crate from FedEx, I am able to interact closely with fine art on a daily basis. Yet in reality a big part of the art business is now done online. We research artworks online, pieces are often evaluated, sold or bought by email, and a big part of marketing happens via the web and social media. We know this new way of dealing art adds a layer of separation between the viewer and the artwork. Subtleties, which are afforded by the first-hand viewing experience, can be lost. Brushstrokes which have been flattened in 2D on a screen can seem to jump off the canvas when seen in person. True colors can be shifted, and as shown above, scale can become lost.

Reach out and touch some art - well not really unless you have permission, and archivist gloves.

Reach out at touch some art – well not really unless you have permission and a pair of archivist gloves.

The quality of today’s digital imagery, captured on multiple megapixel cameras and viewed on the screens of various digital devices allows for some pretty spectacular viewing. Added to that is the ease with which one can can become a digital Johnny Appleseed sharing these images via tweets, Facebook likes, Pinterest pinning, and links. My question is will all of this digital interaction with art lead us to the next step? Will online viewing make us shed our pajamas and go out to view the actual art in an actual place? And what do we lose when we don’t experience that first-hand interaction?

I won’t give away the ending of “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble”, but in terms of how we experience art, or for that matter the rest of our lives, it seems we do have a choice. Just like Todd Lubich, we can choose whether we want “a lifetime of loneliness…or one day of love”. My advice – choose wisely.

3 thoughts on “Virtual vs. Tactile – Plastic Bubbles and the Art of Experiencing Art

  1. The really huge difference made by our expanding ability to reference and learn about fine art via digital imagery has to do with informing and inspiring INTEREST in the first place. Informing people – educating them, if you will – is always worthwhile because knowledge is always better than ignorance. Enterprising, energetic people will do their active thing, even if it means leaving behind for a while the convenience and ease of internet browsing; conversely, the passive, desultory slugs of the world will simply continue to sit at home. If lazy, insipid people do nothing further with their rudimentary electronic experience of art via Google, it is certainly not a criticism of the technology! Like those enterprising financial announcements from Nigerian widows that arrive from time to time, the eliciting of even one “response” in a million e-viewings of a Renoir or a Winslow Homer will make all the other electronic activity worthwhile. Once even a single person is inspired to visit a gallery or a museum, a major impact – sometimes even a life-altering one – will happen when he or she experiences the difference between a 2-D e-image and its real-world original. Your article very nicely describes the value of first-hand experiences of art (for my part, I like changing the angles of view, the angles and intensity of lighting, getting close and then retreating across the room, comparing one work with others hanging nearby, even sniffing the smells of curing paint) and all these sensory experiences are only intensified by being contrasted with a relatively inert photo book or electronic image. I think the accessibility of artistic images via the internet is a good thing – indeed, a marvelous, wonderful, unimaginably important thing – that, like art itself, will ultimately benefit us all by contributing to Everyman’s understanding of the human condition. IF, of course, Everyman finds electronic inspiration and information sufficiently stimulating to get up, get out and experience the real thing.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful words. Inspiring interest is indeed a key catalyzing function of such readily available, yet detached, artwork viewing access. We’ll be back exhibiting at the Boston International Fine Art Show this Fall, so please let us know if you’d like tickets again. Our booth will be filled with works which you can view from afar or near, and at the angles of your choice. Enjoy your Summer! Jay Caldwell

    • You have a long memory! Thanks very much: I will indeed take advantage of your generous offer for tickets to the BIFAS this fall.

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