TECHNOLOGY IN ART: Clicking Michelangelo’s Ceiling

The following article was posted on July 7, 2010 for the Huffington Post by Editor & Educator Alicia Anstead. She is HuffPo’s Arts and Culture Reporter.

This is shortened greatly from the original form. I try to post my blogs as excerpts of less than 500 words. The original was 1,300 words. The article in its entirety can be read here.

“Not long ago, I posted a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel on my Facebook page. This isn’t an online slide show or video guide through a Rome museum but a Vatican-sanctioned, Google Earth-style viewing tool. With the click, you can zoom in on Jesus or Moses or Noah. You can examine the minute details of The Creation of Adam or The Last Judgment or cracks in the wall. You can study the floor tiles if you want.

The question I posed with the link was: “How do we feel about virtual art?” One of my friends commented: “Sorry, I’ll never get there, so I really liked this.”

The comment gave me pause. What if we know art only online as a virtual tour? Does viewing the Sistine Chapel on a computer screen qualify as an art encounter? What do we make of this site that allows us to sit at our desks in our pajamas and see the Sistine Chapel without so much as a glance upward to the Heaven implied beyond the walls of the ceiling?

It is possible that online consumption of art may force us to reconsider the art experience for the 21st century?

.. might the virtual art tour be providing an encounter that our old history books couldn’t? And if we then talk about it on Facebook, is the “social” part of the experience addressed?

The answer is yes. And no.

… A more laborious pursuit of beauty has its benefits.

Last winter, Helen Molesworthy, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston made her first trip to the Prado in Madrid. For the last 20 years, she has had a postcard of Velasquez’s Las Meninas on her desk. She had read widely about the artist and about the work. Surely she has also seen it online. None of this prepared her for what happened when she stood before the real painting.

“I thought I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t,” Molesworth told me recently. “I was stunned by how unbelievably overwhelmed I was by the feeling I had in front of the picture. It was that kind of wonderful moment in which art really does crack you open, and you say: OK, how do I even get my bearings? And I’m a quote-unquote professional! I look at paintings. That is my job, and Las Meninas can do that to me. Now that says a great deal about that particular object. Maybe it’s the best painting ever made. But it also says something about the experience of making the pilgrimage to a place. I think we forget that the art experience begins when you get your bag ready, you lock the door and drive to the airport. There’s a runway to art, and the longer the runway the more intense the experience.”

Lots of non-arts lovers may explore the Sistine Chapel site and come to appreciate something about the real sight – or maybe will use the link as a gateway to an increasing desire for art. Novelists, painters, designers and procrastinators – all creative people – may also find the site a useful tool. Like Molesworth, I can’t deny that I spend a good portion of my day taking in some form of art online. That is our modern world at work. But let’s hope the virtual contact enhances our falling in love in museums and other public spaces. Like Facebook.

Follow Alicia Anstead on Twitter:

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