Do We Need Galleries Anymore?  The Utility of Online Exhibitons

originally published on ArtSlant on November 18, 2014

Making the art world accessible to anyone with an internet connection.


Visual art is rarely understood unless it is reckoned with in person. Even then, it is often difficult to really see what an artist is trying to express, especially with the many abstract works that have come out of modernism. A huge part of the viewing experience involves being able to face works that artists created in real time and in real space. Being able to comprehend and feel what Mark Rothko felt when he painted his large color fields is something that can only really be considered in the physical presence of his work; one fails to actually comprehend the emotion when encountering his works in a book or on the internet. At the same time, the digital age has allowed art to become more accessible in many ways. We learn about art through slides, books with glossy pictures, and the endless stream of images on Google, Flickr, Tumblr, and Instagram (to name but a few). With these new (and old) systems of visual dissemination in full effect, is there a need for museums and galleries anymore? I'd argue that there is plenty to be learned from online exhibitions and resources, but that the brick and mortar custodians of art and material culture provide an essential service that cannot be replaced by immaterial facsimiles in the digital domain.

In the spring of 2014, the Guggenheim hosted a major James Turrell exhibition. Most of the works were light sources that transformed various spaces throughout the museum, most notably the main atrium. At the very top of the spiral walkway you encountered the final room of his show. Standing in line for 45 minutes, I fell into a conversation with an older woman and her son behind me. They asked me about the artist, and though I'm no expert, I explained that the significance of a light installation is typically how it manipulates the appearance—the size or atmosphere—of a room or space.

Through a dark haze in that final room I could identify a black rectangle painted on the wall with two dim lights shining onto it. The more I looked at the rectangle, the more I was able to see images from my imagination come into play. It was almost like looking at the sun, blinking and encountering bright images; these illusory silhouettes seemed magical. Upon leaving Iltar (1976), that final installation, the family I had spoken with in line exclaimed that they didn’t get it, that they didn’t see anything at all. What I am curious to know is, would unmoved viewers understand these works if they were to see them elsewhere? Can a book or the internet really tell people all of the information they seek to know or feel about a work of art?

Turrell's light works are experiential and notoriously unreceptive to photographic reproduction, but that doesn't mean they haven't joined the legions of images of artworks online. In the last few years, the internet has boomed with infinite resources to provide images, context, and information about art. Various social media platforms have made it their goal to exhibit all visual works. The upside to these digital resources is that they make the art world available for educational purposes and in depth personal exploration. Additionally, they make artwork available to people who cannot afford to visit far-flung artworks and museums in person. With online materials, viewers are able to learn about art without leaving their computers, smartphones, or electronic resources provided in libraries and some museums. The internet is undoubtedly a valuable resource for viewing, learning about, and perhaps even democratizing art, yet the American Alliance of Museums has observed that the internet is also responsible for removing spectators from viewing art in traditional spaces because of the convenience of their digital devices. Are online exhibitions a benefit or a detriment to artworks?

In his famous essay "A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin writes about art reproduction, and focuses on the importance of a work’s authentic aura and essence. The aura is sacred, specific to every work of art; it might reveal the artist’s touch or intent. When an admirer purchases a print of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon at the MoMA gift shop, she is not purchasing the actual work but a copy of it. While that print might remind an admirer of past experiences with this painting or Picasso’s oeuvre more generally, it is distant and removed from the original. It does not express the same feeling or power as Picasso’s authentic painting, rather a likeness to it.

This is the problem with reproduction and viewing artworks on alternative forums. While viewers are able to take home memories and view their favorite artists on the internet, the images they favor are pulled farther and farther away from their intended in-person encounter. The same could be said for watching films. Seeing a movie in a theatre is a unique experience: the darkness, the projection shining brightly onto the large screen, the sound blasting to fully encapsulate the audience. It can be a surreal experience to be part of or surrounded by a film. Taking a movie home and watching it on a laptop or TV changes the experience and atmosphere, often allowing life’s distractions to interrupt and draw your attention away from the main attraction.  

Not everyone agrees, and perhaps some mediums are more suited to digitization than others. For example, Jonathan Jones argued in an article in the Guardian last week that photography should onlybe viewed on the internet and not exhibited as a lifeless image in a gallery. Jones writes: “It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown. A photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting.”

Indeed, online exhibitions of digital works are a different story, especially because the computer screen is the interface in which such works are created. Whether interactive or virtual, there are plenty of digital native works that are not made for gallery walls, but are meant to exist solely within the cyber world. There's no argument that these are best viewed on screen. There are other digital works, however, that use the computer to create and manipulate imagery which will then be printed on paper and exhibited in a real world art space. Viewing this sort of work online might provide the illusion of a digital artist's experience when working in this paradigm. For example, MoMA held an exhibition in 2008 called Design and the Elastic Mindswhich was installed within the museum but also contained a digital component that added a more interactive approach to the traditional show. The website not only provided further information about the exhibition, but it also squared with the exhibition concept more broadly. MoMA and the Design and the Elastic Mind artists explained their mission as a way to showcase the importance of designers:

Designers have the ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and social mores and to convert them into objects and ideas that people can understand and use… Designers give life and voice to objects, and along the way they manifest our visions and aspirations for the future, even those we do not yet know we have.

Likewise, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has a portion of their website devoted to online exhibitions which act as extensions or perhaps even stand-ins for their physical shows. Their online platform allows spectators to peruse and learn about current and travelling shows without being at the gallery. Exhibitions like these, which contain an added digital component to a physical show can be helpful and convenient; they educate and provide further information for viewers. It’s when the online exhibition exists on its own that it threatens to remove the greatest power and emotion from physical works of art, providing a false illusion of meaning to spectators. 

As museums and galleries continue to grow and expose more and more artists to the greater public, they often cater to their audience. What does the public look for when they engage with a work of art? Often, they look for truth, familiarity, something which is moving, or even a representation of the real. If spectators rely solely on the imagery found on online exhibitions, physical art objects become skewed and slowly disappear into the infinite domains of the internet; art loses its meaning. Without a gallery or a museum to exhibit physical works, would viewers be able to truly fathom the power and presence of these physical objects? Where would they live? Without art spaces to exhibit work, art objects will slowly lose their power and presence to the cyber world, shifting the artworld deeper into a digital paradigm—when there is plenty of room for both.   

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