Do you really need to see art in the flesh?

Rose Mansworth discusses how technology has given us the power to be our own curators

Rose Mansworth
5th December 2016

The geographic distribution of arts funding in England has long prioritised London, and since the Newcastle City Council implemented huge funding cuts to galleries and venues in 2012, the visual arts scene has been under threat in the North East. Whilst the digital age ensures the continued circulation of art online, can it compensate for our decline in access to the real thing?

There is an inarguable contrast between the digital experience and that which takes place in the flesh. Flattened into two dimensions, it follows that the more sculptural elements of art, such as texture, lose some of their effect, and crucial details such as the scale and technical skill can become lost entirely. Sufferers of Stendhal syndrome might call it the difference between seeing and feeling a piece, as this phenomenon describes individuals who experience an overwhelming emotional and physical response to art viewed first-hand. Causing symptoms of disorientation, increased heartrate and sometimes collapse, the illness takes its name from the nineteenth century French author Stendhal, who upon visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, reported a response to Giotto’s frescoes which bordered on spiritual transcension:

‘Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul (…) Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’

“There is an inarguable contrast between the digital experience and that which takes place in the flesh”

Although there has not yet been a consensus among psychiatrists as to whether this condition is ‘real’, it is real enough for it’s alleged sufferers to have required immediate medical treatment, and in more rare cases, long term treatment for the onset of depression. The confirmed existence of such a disorder would affirm that there is a severe disconnect between the experience of viewing an image on screen and encountering it personally; the digital format diluting the power of the artist’s expression and the viewer’s capacity to respond viscerally.

What the digital experience lacks in depth, though, it could be said to compensate for in convenience and scope. At least as often as I am captivated by a piece of art in a gallery, I feel somewhat indifferent- whereas researching the categories, periods and movements which appeal to me online, I can be almost certain I will come across a piece which resonates. In this way, technology has given us the power to be our own curators, unearthing bodies of work which cater more specifically to our individual tastes than the confines of a gallery can. Importantly, digitalisation also gives us the option to experience art within the privacy of the home, making it more accessible to audiences who might otherwise feel excluded from the historically elite space of the gallery. Although the upper classes continue to dominate both production and reception, the internet diversifies audiences and enables the extension of art into popular culture.

It would be difficult to contest that the most explosive of interactions between artworks and their viewers depend on the physical presence of both, but with attendance in art galleries across England increasing each year, digitalisation appears only to have strengthened communications between artists and the general public. So those of us living in the North East shouldn’t feel too culturally deprived- anybody with access to an internet search engine has inestimable galleries of art at their fingertips, which they can use to decide whether they are stimulated enough to visit the real thing.

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