Wylie: In digital age, why have an art gallery?


By Liz Wylie – Kelowna Capital News

In this age of instantly available information of all kinds, there have been huge strides made in the proliferation of images of works of art on the Internet. Most recently among these is Google’s high-profile Art Project, on which we can see high-resolution images of masterpieces from some of the world’s great art museums—the Hermitage, Versailles, London’s National Gallery, the Met in New York, the Uffizi in Florence—with 360-degree tours of the rooms in which the masterworks are installed.

These sorts of experiences bring a whole new level of wonder to armchair travel. In fact, some might posit, why bother going to see original works of art anymore when the reproductions are so terrific?

Is the notion of manoevering one’s physical body into a building that is equipped with special ventilation and security to look at works of art hopelessly old-fashioned? Could we argue that those who say there is no replacing the real thing are just being precious and nostalgic about the original?

In a similar vein, we have been told that some musical performers prefer their sound on studio-made CDs rather than as they perform live, as flaws can be tinkered with and the recording perfected. So some music we hear on CD is not “original” or real in that sense. Is art the same, better seen on screen than in real life?

Taking this idea further, if we eliminated bothering with looking at real art, then art galleries could just become storage facilities, thereby freeing up space and funds.

Of course to art curators, this kind of thinking is anathema, spending our careers as we do making original art available to the public in exhibitions. In our experience it is dangerous, really, to think to ourselves that we have “seen” a work of art when we have only seen it in reproduction, in whatever type of reproduction, even on the online Art Project.

One of the great joys of going to museums is discovering works of art that you have seen only in reproduction and making them your own: Now you know what the surface of a painting is like, how big that print really is, and what it feels like to move around that sculpture you have always loved.

Another consideration in favour of travelling to see works of art that are still in their original settings, is that when art is removed from its initial context, it can be said to suffer an “aura loss.”

One thinks of the many works of art that were rounded up from small churches in Tuscany and brought into the rather inhospitable rooms of the Uffizi museum in Florence. This keeps the pieces safe and makes it convenient for visitors to Italy to see them in one handy spot, but the works have lost their moorings, and there is no longer any original context to assist in constructing cultural meaning.

Certainly people report that their experience of real works of art in their original settings is like none other. One thinks of famous examples such as Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, or Byzantine mosaics in their churches, and the suite of dark paintings installed in the Rothko chapel in Houston.

In the case of contemporary art, if the place of origin has been the artist’s studio, the situation is a bit different, as works may have always been intended for a “white cube” museum environment. Some contemporary artists, of course, prefer to find places and ways to insert their work into entirely other sorts of environments, and for good and provocative reasons.

The notion of removal of context for art is only one aspect involved in the disembodied images of works of art floating in the ether that is the Internet. Without real texture and materials, without any physical information to tell us of the scale of the works, we are only being given a few aspects of the entire experience. To get the whole meal, we need the real deal. To this end, people invented the art museum.

In Canada most galleries were formed in 1967 as Centennial projects, and often they began as rooms in the town library. From then the network has grown and now Canada boasts some fabulous and huge art museum facilities. No matter how large or small in scale, any community is enhanced by having its own gallery, and Kelowna is no exception.

What the Kelowna Art Gallery provides our community, then, is a place to support and promote the work of local artists, not just by exhibiting them, and by having our curator meet with them, but as a place where original works of art from other places may be brought to a safe and secure environment and made available to all members of the community.

By all means, use the Internet for research. But don’t let surfing replace the real experience of original art in your world.

In fact, why not go ahead and embrace original art in your life and where you live?

Visit your local galleries often, and go to visit artists’ studios to get to know and give support to their work. For original art to function it needs an audience, and welcoming art into our lives can only serve to enlighten and enrich ourselves as human beings.

American Artist Tara Donovan at Pace Gallery in New York.

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