Illustration by Dadu Shin.

Looking at Art: Is The Internet Producing A Better Product

USA The Netherlands
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

I have spent more than half of my 40 years in the art world without the benefit of the internet. Its advent and growth, particularly in the last decade, have catapulted art into a bigger world with more participants and greater access to information and reproductions. But to become an educated viewer, seeing art in person is paramount.

Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing the much-anticipated Rembrandt van Rijn retrospective, “Late Rembrandt,” at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The exhibition was mobbed, and I braced myself for viewing it with masses of people. Despite the crowds, I was struck by the sense of humanism that the Dutch master brings to his paintings. Rembrandt captures the sense of a person through brushwork: a dab of paint rendering the glint of an eye or a loaded palette knife used to create a grand sweep of fabric. The scale of the paintings is astonishing, from intimate views to monumental wall-sized canvases. It was a privilege to see the show.

There is that word, “privilege,” implying my ability to travel to a destination, buy a ticket and see art firsthand. The internet may allow me to explore many images by and facts about an artist, especially one as famous as Rembrandt. But, isn’t the greatest satisfaction found in seeing the hand of the artist in person, up-close?

The internet is an amazing portal to access information about art. Yet, in a digital format, there are inherent shortcomings to fully understanding the object of interest. Some issues have not changed since the old world of slides, transparencies and even reproductions in books. No work viewed on a computer screen can be accurately reproduced in color and there is no relationship to scale. The problem is greater when looking at video or sculpture. Most videos are conceived to be viewed in a specific format that often does not conform to a screen or smartphone. Looking at sculptures on a flat screen is especially difficult, since it is a three-dimensional medium meant to be viewed in the round. 

A good analogy is the way one consumes music, dance or opera. Each viewer’s experience is unique to their place in the audience, whether they are situated up high, near the stage or to the side. Every seat affords a different view and may affect sound. Lighting varies depending on one’s perspective. It is the same with viewing works of art. One can view art from a distance, or up close, with or without natural light. Think of a sculpture on an outdoor terrace: how does the piece look with objects or other works flanking it? All of these aspects shape one’s experience of the artwork.

Now consider looking at the screen of a computer or smartphone. The size may be large or small but it is nonetheless flat. The quality of color from one screen to another is never the same, much less relative to the actual object or action being viewed. The reproduction of sound lacks the distinction enjoyed in real life. Scale is left to the imagination. These observations may be obvious, but such discrepancies are not discussed often enough.

The internet is a powerful educational tool that allows large populations to experience art in virtual space. But the democratization of information is dangerous. Without filters in place, anyone with a big voice and the financial ability to promote a product can be seen and heard. There is a tendency to believe that when using Google to research an artist, for example, whichever link appears first is the most informative posting. In fact, Google searches rank web pages according to algorithms that factor in things such as keywords and popularity, but not necessarily accuracy. Advertisements that regularly appear at the top of a search are just that—paid content.

Novice viewers who are trying to educate themselves about art may feel more at ease looking at art on social-media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, but such sites have no curatorial hierarchy. Popularity should not be confused with aesthetic value. The internet has played a role in corralling popular views and allowing people to voice their opinions. But curators provide an educated, more nuanced view of art that is not necessarily popular. Whether one is seeking a quality viewing experience or participating in the marketplace for buying and selling art, there is no better way than with the guidance of a qualified professional. There are legions of specialists who have dedicated their careers to art, such as museum curators, gallery directors, art critics and art historians. Individuals who have years of expertise can provide information that is best transmitted in a conversation while looking at the art object.

Are there benefits to buying art online? Possibly, but with caveats. Buyers should ask: can the art be viewed in person before being purchased? What is the condition of the work and is the condition guaranteed? Is the website offering the art taking a commission or simply connecting the buyer and the seller? If it is an auction website, does it provide sale results? Websites are operated by people with a purpose. Are those people qualified experts in art? The seduction of the online marketplace is reinforced by convenience, website design and content, often drawn from brick-and-mortar galleries. When buying art online, keep in mind that the art has to be stored somewhere. The seller should be able to answer all of the above questions satisfactorily.

Art lovers today face an enlarged ecosystem with many means of assimilating information. The internet has enhanced people’s knowledge of art, but that is only one part of the viewing experience. Seeing art in person—be it in galleries, museums or artists’ studios—remains a crucial part of the equation.