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In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, people more than ever are moving towards to conducting their affairs online and art is no exception. However, the digitization of art has been happening for a while. Cathal Kerins reviews the role that art galleries and museums play and whether the internet and digitization of art has made them defunct.

 

Museums and galleries are often housed in grand, expansive buildings at the Tuileries, Paris, Midtown Manhattan or Museumsinsel, Berlin. Eye-catching, magnificent and crawling with tourists and security.

But now they are closed. At some point after Easter, they will likely be resurrected along with the rest of society’s institutions but for now, what does the lock-down tell us about them? 

There has been a train of thought for a while, which springs from as far back as Ellen Ullman’s Museum of Me in the 1990s, and the notion of societal disintermediation that accompanied big tech, that roles that were once commonplace, were now being replaced with apps and interfaces. This disintermediation could be said to have progressed to such a degree that galleries and museums have now become defunct. But how did this happen? What role do galleries and museums even play?

The democratisation of art

Initially, art was something reverent or reserved for the wealthy. Art was used to sanctify images, sacred spaces or temples. Churches used it to show their otherworldliness, sanctity as well as their power and wealth while monarchs and wealthy families cottoned on to the effect. Soon, wealthy Italian families began becoming patrons and collectors of artefacts and those European monarchs began curating their own collections too. The collections were mainly private and for the impression of their guests, however, latterly, they slowly began to open their private collections to the public. 

The first museum which is attributed to have been consistently open to the public is the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, after Elias Ashmole donated his collection to Oxford University in 1677. The first public gallery is attributed to be the Louvre in Paris which opened for public viewings in 1793, though it could be said that the Capitoline in Rome did so too, sixty years prior. The point being that the idea of the gallery moved from private consumption to public consumption approximately three hundred years ago.

Public galleries and museums, at this juncture, made art and artefacts accessible to the general public when it would otherwise have been unavailable. In essence, they democratised art. However, with the advent of the internet, accessibility and democratisation reached an unprecedented level.

Ellen Ullman’s Museum of Me

It is evident that these recent technological trends have facilitated a retreat to private enjoyment of art and to what Ellen Ullman describes as the “Museum of Me”. This is especially evident in the current coronavirus pandemic which has brought about mass isolation. Museums and galleries are closed, but people have continued to interact with art in the way that we have become accustomed to doing so: online.

The Museum of Me is essentially the idea that we choose what content we interact with online, and that this experience is essentially unique.

Streaming services, online interfaces and the internet of things, which includes Spotify, YouTube, Amazon Video, Netflix, and Google have algorithms which understand our preferences and know how to pique our interest. They provide us with bespoke suggestions. By interacting with the algorithm, it only learns more and becomes more attuned to each individual. In this way, everyone’s online experience essentially becomes unique.

Formerly, it would have taken a trip to the Louvre to see the Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova; now, it only requires a simple Google search. Many artefacts are arguably more viewable online than they are in real life. High definition or HD technology enables us to interact with our 3D screens at resolutions that are almost indistinguishable to human sight. Is it really much different to see the Mona Lisa on a HD or 3D screen than from behind a bullet-proof screen?

Virtual beers and waters

In addition, the lock-down brought about the prohibition of large gatherings. This has pushed many formerly, in-person-only experiences to also become virtual.

Examples include: the Bolshoi Theatre airing live ballet premieres; the Château de Versailles hosting virtual tours; music artists performing concerts from isolation; Franco-German TV network, ARTE facilitating virtual attendance at nightclubs and bars with virtual revellers being encouraged to buy virtual beers and to drink from home (#stayhome) while also supporting the clubs.

Role of the gallery is disintermediated

All this points to the reality that artistic experiences are becoming more and more a virtual reality. It begs the question, why do galleries still exist? If the internet has made more art available than any gallery, surely its democratisation role is outlived and its exhibition role overtaken. The gallery curator could even be said to have been disintermediated by the individual or even “the algorithm”.

For sure, there will be those who say that going to an exhibition will never compare to a virtual tour. The question is: why? Is there something special to being present in the spaces of art galleries. Are those spaces somehow artistically sacred? Is there a spirituality attaching to art that supersedes the virtual despite being sensorily indiscernible? 

Maybe our Oculus headsets are not yet realistic enough, but when they are, surely nothing will distinguish the gallery.

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Cathal Kerins
A Dubliner with an interest in art, business and politics. Cathal wants to be an effective change maker for climate action and create a more beneficial society.

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