At the National Gallery in London, a visitor is shocked at how Monet’s Water-Lilies look nothing like the internet images. She takes in the intricate brushstrokes, the bright colours and the sheer scale of the painting. Although a barrier prevents her from touching it, the painting has become an immersive experience. It is the surface of a pond, with groups of lilies highlighted against the shadows of trees in a rich harmony of green, blue and pink. As Monet intended, his work “produces the effect of an endless whole, of a watery surface with no horizon and no shore”. The visitor remembers how flat and dull the painting looked on the iPad in an art class. She’d copied the painting, guessing at brushstrokes from pixels. There had been no emotional connection, until she saw Water Lilies in front of her.
While the internet has provided a global platform for art, it has led to an emotional distance between the audience and the artwork. To change the material to bits and bytes, and the scale to the size of a phone screen, is to change the way artwork is experienced.
Walter Benjamin argued that the invention of the camera reconfigured the networks of the visual world. The camera’s “mechanical eye” rendered the authentic original simply a jigsaw piece in a wider puzzle. Images became omnipresent, in albums and art books, even though the original can only ever be in one place. Furthermore, a photographer imposes her own vision onto the artwork. She chooses the angle from which art is captured. Her focus and lighting choices may exaggerate features that the original artist merely hinted at. Texture is plastered onto a two-dimensional medium, and the immersive experience fades away. In a Google search on “Monet’s Water-Liles, National Gallery”, there are varying reproductions in varying colours, lit by varying light sources, with varying sections cropped. The painting appears over-and-over again across the internet, and each time it challenges the authentic strength of the original work hanging in the National Gallery. To view Monet’s Water-Lilies online or in an artbook is to understand only a fragment of the painting.
This is not to say technology has destroyed our enjoyment of art. Social media has allowed art to gain a global platform, and to be accessible to everyone. Sharing images through websites, blogs and social media has enabled the artist and the public to have a direct relationship with one another. Indeed, by 2015, a survey found that 87% of collectors checked Instagram more than twice a day. It must be recognised that the internet world allows a vast audience to connect and respond to artwork.
While there was a fear that viewing art online might lead to the demise of the museum, museum and gallery attendance has instead increased since the digital revolution. The availability of information about museum exhibitions drives people to see the actual original. The social media effect goes both ways: a more modern audience has forced museums to modify their tradition methods of collection and exhibition. Often, they have introduced interactive displays to attract an Instagram crowd. For example, the I was Raised on the Internet exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago focuses on how the advent of the internet has changed the way we experience the world. A hundred interactive artworks from 1998 to present, spanning photography, painting, sculpture, film and video, invite viewers to become active participants. Social media is challenging the parameters of what defines a museum. For instance, the ‘Museum of Ice Cream’ exhibits brightly-coloured, candy-themed objects to provide backdrops for selfies. The digital and traditional worlds of art no longer exist in separate spheres.
Despite this, the internet still distinct from a museum. Instead, it is a worldwide warehouse. A warehouse does not organise to exhibit, it simply categorises for storage. The curator becomes the user. The internet categorises and structures the images surrounding a particular artwork according to popular searches and individual search results. Therefore, viewing images online creates a false sense of order, constructed by a network of algorithms.
To view Monet’s Water-Lilies on a laptop in your lounge is a vastly different experience from viewing Monet’s Water-Lilies in the National Gallery. Vision is based largely on experience and surroundings. Ultimately, aura of the original stands firm against the unforgiving assault of the online facsimile. To see a painting in real life remains a unique experience.