It is always bad news when our art museums find new ways to subvert the purposes for which they were created. Nowadays the ways are so many and so varied, ranging from the crassest commercialization to the most flagrant politicization. Soon we shall need special guides designed to advise museumgoers on what to avoid at these institutions if their primary goal is to look at actual works of art—the “originals,” as we now call the objects that artists have made in order to distinguish them from the plethora of counterfeits that museums currently expend so much energy in promoting. Picasso on a coffee mug, Rembrandt on a T-shirt, Monet on bed sheets, and Matisse by the yard: it’s a wonder that we haven’t yet seen Van Gogh’s ear reproduced in the form of a garnet brooch. And all this is in the name of advancing an appreciation of fine art.

Now, owing to advances in computer technology that have nothing to contribute to our experience of the art of the past, a new development in aesthetic subversion is being visited upon the museum public. This is the computerized information center, which is alleged to give museumgoers new ways to “explore” works of art without actually looking at the objects themselves. In what is called the Micro Gallery at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, for example, we are told that “visitors can learn about the life and work of more than 650 artists. Illustrations of the artist’s work on view at the National Gallery appear with each biography, along with pronunciation of the artist’s name.” Also available at the touch of a finger are a subject index, a “Timeline” index that “provides context”—non-art historical events—and some allegedly “in-depth” information features on composition, symbolism, and “context” again, this time through diagrams and animation.

This is the computerized information center, which is alleged to give museumgoers new ways to “explore” works of art without actually looking at the objects themselves.

There are also lessons in geography, showing on maps where artists lived, and a special “zoom feature” that enables visitors to conduct what is called a “close visual examination of every work in the Micro Gallery”—all without going to the bother of looking at the originals.

On a recent visit to the Micro Gallery, we conducted an informal survey—purely anecdotal, as the polltakers say—to determine how many of its patrons had seen or were planning to see the objects they were having so much fun with on the computer screen. Among the first four couples we questioned, none had yet ventured into the galleries containing the paintings—mostly the works of the Old Masters—they were “interacting with” on line. A fifth couple said flat out that they thought there was much more to be learned about painting from the computer program than from looking at the pictures themselves “without help.” We concluded our mini survey by visiting the galleries containing the paintings that seemed to be the favorites of the Micro-users, and found—not to our surprise—that the Micro Gallery was already a bigger draw at the National Gallery than the permanent galleries containing real art.

In the Micro Gallery, visitors are told that “touch-screen monitors offer color images, text, animation, and sound that together provide ways of understanding the works of art on display in the galleries.” But the reality seems to be that the experience of art is once again subverted by the promotion of its technological counterfeits. Computers have already given us virtual reality; we are now in for the rise of virtual art.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 4, on page 3
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