Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Status update + buzz hype aura & presence

Last fall I had a really stupid idea.

"I'll do a little something for National Novel Writing Month," I told myself in October. "Just for fun. It'll be fast! Breezy! Easy!"

So now it's February and the thing's at 65–70% completion and I'm at about 96% worn out and crazy. Having been so busy turning the soil over and over elsewhere afield, I've neglected my hay-making over on this side.

Well then, some stray thoughts.

The latest special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where I earn my wage) came to an end recently. Old Masters Now showcased the collection of one John G. Johnson, a corporate lawyer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who earned his fortune representing such scrupulous and benign entities as Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan & Co., the American Tobacco Company, and so on. When Johnson died in 1917 his mansion full of paintings was bequeathed to the city of Philadelphia, and the museum has hosted them since the early 1930s.

In terms of bringing in the crowds, Old Masters Now rated no better (nor really any worse) than a minor disappointment. "Paintings which belonged to one filthy rich packrat with unobjectionable taste and avaricious clients" doesn't exactly make for a compelling curatorial linchpin. Despite the exhibition's title, only one or two pieces from the individual eponymous old masters were featured—one painting by Titian, one painting by Rembrandt, one painting by Bosch, etc. Moreover, many of the highlighted pieces—such as Sargent's In the Luxembourg Gardens, Manet's U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama, van Eyck's Saint Francis of Assisi—were already familiar mainstays of the galleries.

To be fair, the curators were hamstrung: the museum is currently operating in the midst of large-scale renovations, which means it cannot exhibit objects on loan from other museums or private collectors (for insurance reasons). For now the special exhibitions are restricted to objects already in the museum's stores, constraining their curators to literally work with what they've got. I don't think the tepid turnout came as much of a surprise to anyone.

I've joked to colleagues and to the occasional guest (whose humor I've ascertained and found suitable) that the show would have been more of a hit if the museum had underscored its fugacity, changing the title from Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection to Old Masters Now: AND SOON NEVER AGAIN. That would be step one. Step two would have the publications and outreach people sending out all the usual press releases through all the usual channels announcing two things.

(1) The creme de la creme of John G. Johnson's famed art collection will be on view until February 19.

(2) At 12:01 AM on February 20, the objects on display will be liquidated. Not auctioned off for fluid capital, but thrown in a heap, bathed in turpentine, and set on fire.

"If you don't come to Philadelphia to stroke your chin and nod thoughtfully before the treasures of the Johnson collection, then you've missed your last chance because vanity vanity all is vanity, Johnson is dead, achievement is ephemeral, and all our lives are as ash. Schedule your visit today!"

That would turn heads and boost ticket sales; nothing arouses public interest like the words "this is your last chance." Whereupon the haut monde aesthetes and image-conscious corporations would blow up the museum's phone lines and all its .org email addresses, prevailing upon whoever would listen to accept shipping containers full of cash in exchange for the doomed artifacts, hoping to stave off their calloused and pointless destruction. I would hope to see the museum rising to the occasion, directing the most telegenic patrician lunatic in its employ to laugh at the protests in an open response on YouTube: "quit your puling. Whistler, Homer, and Botticelli are going on the pyre and you don't see any of us crying—and we're an art museum. And an art museum is a business. We have a bottom line to consider, admissions revenue to punch up. And it's not like those images are going away. We own the rights to the reproductions, after all. And as long as we're merchandising them, no one needs be concerned about the status or even the existence of the originals. A glossy printing of a (soon-to-be) lost Monet in a hardback monograph still thrills the eye as only Monet can, and carries the same cultural weight as any other image attributed to Monet—and furthermore, its 'lost' status will imbue it with a mystique it would not possess if we went on keeping it in a climate-controlled vault between exhibition opportunities. We're already selling these images on postcards, coffee mugs, and prints in different sizes and eight distinct framing options. When our high-resolution photos of these condemned works appear in somebody's coffee table book or art history tome, we can charge a fee. The original canvases don't need to continue existing in order for us to make money off them—in fact, destroying them spares us the cost of employing squadrons of security contractors, conservators, and handlers to guard them, maintain them, and wheel them from gallery to storage unit and back again. What we're doing is freeing the images from their material fetters. This is a win-win for everyone. All things on Earth are so much mist in the fullness of time, so you might as well cheer up and buy a catalog and some postcards to remember Leyster's The Last Drop, because it's about to become a carbonized object lesson in its own theme, after which it will await you in dissolution or in hell, whichever suits your fashion. PMA OUT."

Then he'd kick over the podium and rip an eighteenth-century Goya etching in half over his head to prove we mean business.

Francisco Goya, El sueƱo de la razon produce
(1797–1799). You got lucky this
time, Goyboy.

A lot of wheel-spinning here. But if one enjoys playing the devil's jolly advocate, why should he curtail his fun by taking his foot off the pedal before his argument or farce hits the inevitable end of the road and spills out into the weeds?

I rehearsed some of this gibberish for a couple of tourists, who expressed a disagreement so bland it almost approached ambivalence. One of them asked if I'd heard about Google's "art camera," and I confessed that I had not.

His explanation was adequate, though quoting Tech Crunch taxes fewer minutes than a paraphrase:
Google’s Cultural Institute, the company’s initiative to preserve the world’s culture and history by bringing it online, has this morning unveiled a new project aimed at allowing web users the ability to view art up close——down to the very brushstrokes. Google had invented a new camera it’s dubbing the “Art Camera,” which is a custom-built, robotic camera capable of capturing gigapixel images quickly. 
This camera is steered by a robotic system across the painting in question, taking hundreds or even thousands of high-resolution close-ups. To focus precisely, it uses both a laser and sonar system. The latter uses high-frequency sound to measure the distance of the artwork to better position itself. Yes, the camera hears like a bat does, Google points out. 
Of course, capturing these images is only one feat——they then have to be assembled coherently. Google’s software is capable of stitching the images together to create a single image, it says. 
These images are being shared online, so people can get as close to experiencing the art as possible, apart from viewing it in real life.
Perhaps the knowledgeable traveler felt more strongly about the inviolable eminence of an original artwork over its reproductions than his mild attitude led me to believe. Because the Art Camera's reproductions are unparalleled in quality, and yet in spite of the technical feat they represent, they ultimately underwhelm. See for yourself.

Here's a reproduced Pissarro painting (Apple Harvest, 1888; original dimensions 60.96 x 73.98 cm) shown in three different dimensions and degrees of compression.

And this is the Art Camera photograph fully zoomed in on one of the prominent red apples below the hand of the woman on the left.

The resolution is incredible. But: who cares? Except for sedulous art wonks, nobody will get much enjoyment out of these once the novelty wears off.

You wouldn't go to an art gallery and study each painting on the wall through a telescope at a distance of thirty feet. You'd limit yourself to viewing objects either indistinctly or fragmentarily. And here, unless the size of your display monitor can match that of the canvas, the image must be viewed either as a fudged reduction or as through a peephole. Even if you did manage to achieve a pellucid, lifesized, lifelike resolution on a monitor with the appropriate specs, you'd still have nothing worth showing off. What you've got might not be much better than a print—it might even be worse. In all likelihood the Art Camera reproduction on the screen would come closer than a print to getting the colors exactly right, but the electronic image's additional degrees of separation from the medium it simulates (neither an oil painting nor a print glow in the dark, and their appearance changes depending on the color, intensity, and angle of the light reaching them) is sure to exasperate the Pissarro enthusiast who hopes to steal the deluxe experience of viewing Apple Harvest without flying out to Texas to visit the Dallas Museum of Art.

But where technology is concerned lately, there's always a "what follows?"

Several years ago I encountered a post on a notgames blog espousing virtual reality trips as a desirable and eventually plausible substitute for tourism. If I recall, the author put forth the Louvre as an example: wouldn't you rather experience the most famous museum in the world through a headset in your living room than spend hundreds or thousands on air fare and suffer the noise, odors, and jostlings of the crowds?

Well, it seems fact is catching up to conjecture.

While at present the Art Camera's sonar simply helps to guide the lens, a sufficiently sensitive instrument of the same kind could also be used to develop topographical data to be transposed over the visual map. In this way the digital reproduction could be made to exhibit the semblance of depth and texture when viewed in a pseudo-3D "environment." (This is important: neither prints nor digital reproductions are good at simulating topography. An oil painting doesn't simply imitate depth, it possesses depth: the heaped pigments form subtle plateaus and valleys across the canvas, and we mustn't believe the artist was overlooking the fact as he or she developed a piece.) For a virtual museum-goer to explore freely, to scrutinize a digital image of a physical image from a diversity of perspectives, an Art Camera would necessarily have to capture images from several different positions. Maybe fewer than one would suspect: once an object has been mapped out from a certain number of "keystone" perspectives, the software could be trusted to realistically render transition states between reference points.

Imagine we're living in a world where VR headsets have become as regular a fixture of the Western household as a video game console. If I wished I could slip on my goggles and solicit an app to conduct me before an image of Kandinsky's Circles in a Circle (which is no longer on view in Philadelphia and it breaks my heart) which appears to hang on a wall as I appear to stand on a floor of some kind. When I approach it, the virtual painting enlarges and rarefies, as any material object does when brought nearer to the eye. I can crouch and view it from below; gaze at it straight on or study it from the side at an angle nearly parallel to its face. The ersatz lights in the ersatz ceiling cast highlights and shadows as they land on the elevated and recessed areas of the composition; even the variance in the different pigments' level of reflectivity seems true to life. No matter where I look, my eyes find no seams in the costume, no evidence of simulation.

What does this mean for the museum? How does it alter the "meaning" of an original artwork?

Wassily Kandinsky, Circles in a Circle (1923)

Piling on the hypotheticals. Writing off the cuff like this, I've carelessly taken more onto my plate than I can handle.

Let's start over. Before we consider virtual museums, let's ask ourselves: why do people still visit art museums, when there's plenty of art to be seen at home on one's computer screen, when there's plenty of other things to go out and do, and when we're already living in a world inescapably riddled through with images? And for what reason are the objects on the gallery walls held in such veneration?

I think the answers are related, and they pertain to what Walter Benjamin called "cult" value—as contradistinct from "exhibition" value. The "cult" value of an artifact is derived from the particularities of place, time, and perhaps ritual usage; Benjamin cites as an example statues of the Virgin Mary that are only uncovered on certain days of the year. "Exhibition" value consists of being presentable, movable, marketable, and finally reproducible.

The stage play—in which adults in costumes imagine to enact the identities and roles of figures who are not themselves—evolved from ritual and festival. A religious, perhaps even secret performance became transmuted into a spectacle for its own sake (or, more often, for selling admission tickets). As the stage drama divorced the costumed group performance from its ecclesiastical functions, the motion picture abstracted continuity, presence, and temporal particularity from the stage drama.

On the same theme: the viewing of a deity painted with animal blood and mineral pigments on a cave wall might once have been permitted only to the initiated brothers of a priest caste. Centuries later, oil paintings of mythological figures came to be displayed in administrative centers, the households of the nobility and bourgeoisie, and eventually public galleries. By the end of the twentieth century, photographs of Botticelli's Venus and Goya's Kronos are reprinted in books, transferred to posters, stamped on T-shirts and tote bags, etc.

In general we see a movement from mystery to mass media. Benjamin saw both costs and potential benefits, but he was clear on what he thought the effect of the mass distribution of reproduced images would wreak on the sanctity of the original artworks:
The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated....In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus——namely, its authenticity——is interfered with...The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object. 
One might subsume the eliminated element in the term "aura" and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. 
David Joselit differs with Benjamin on this account:
One could say, following the Comaroffs [who argued the "raw material" of cultural commodities are not depleted by mass circulation] and contra Benjamin, that it is saturation through mass circulation——the status of being everywhere at once rather than belonging to a single place——that now produces value for and through images...Instead of a radiating nimbus of authenticity and authority underwritten by site-specificity, we have the value of saturation, of being everywhere at once. Instead of aura, there is buzz. Like a swarm of bees, a swarm of images makes a buzz, and like a new idea or trend, once an image (whether attached to a product, a policy, a person, or a work of art) achieves saturation, it has a 'buzz.'
The buzz of "fine art"—a low-volume, humming, ambient alto—proceeds first from the cultural heights it occupies. The canonized luminaries of the art world and their creations are part of the common curriculum, no less than renowned authors, philosophers, inventors, political figures, and all the rest of our endorsed popular heroes. In other words, Benjamin jumped the gun in announcing the annulment of the marriage between tradition and art. The buzz resonates and amplifies in the tymbals of consumer culture. If the promiscuous circulation of previously chaste artworks displaced them from the sacraria of contingency, by the same means they were subsequently instated in the pantheon of neoliberal idols. At some point it ceased to be the case that Van Gogh's Starry Night is reproduced on credit cards, socks, mousepads, and phone cases because of its worldwide renown—rather, it's renowned worldwide because it's reproduced on credit cards, socks, mousepads, and phone cases.

Concurring with Joselit, McKenzie Wark elucidates how this works:
Far from making the work of art obsolete, the reproducibility of the image can give it a new kind of value....The copy can precede the original. You see a reproduction of something, and that makes you want to go see the thing of which it is a copy. That's a common enough occurrence, and it's something Jean Baudrillard flagged a long time ago. But the thing to pay attention to is that the copy also creates the provenance of the original, not the other way around. The copy not only precedes but authenticates the original.
This is particularly true when the copies remain stubbornly inferior to the original. Beyond the denudation of the original's particularity, in the reproduction we find a decrease in visual quality. Philadelphia Museum of Art patrons routinely sigh in disappointment at the failure of a replica—whether printed on a piece of glossy paper sold for $12 or on a 25" x 40" canvas sold for $450—to fully evoke the same condescending command and laconic allure of the Moorish Chief painted by Charlemont.

Eduard Charlemont, The Moorish Chief (1878)

The colors of a print will differ slightly from those of the oils on canvas. The eye detects the absence of details elided in the digitization, compression, and printing processes, and further sees that the painting in the gallery possessed a subtle but perceptible topography, while the gift shop consumable, despite the colorful image on its surface, lies flat as any blank sheet of paper.

Where retail commerce is concerned, the artwork serves as the mere template for a mass produced object. And yet the original holds fast to a virtue peculiar to itself, refusing to transmit it to its copies. In this, "traditional" visual art diverges from films, novels, recordings, and digital art.

I would thrill to read the Billy Budd manuscript preserved in the Harvard's Houghton Library—but is it the superior product compared to the Penguin Classics edition in my bookcase? I don't think so. I generally prefer clean type to scribbles, scratched-out words, and note-to-self authorial annotations. The print version—the mass-mechanically manufactured consumer item—stands as the consummation of the manuscript, the thing Melville intended for it to become. (Well, at the juncture of his life in which it was written, "hoped it would become" is more like it.) The Billy Budd draft, treasure though it might be, does not possess a greater use-value than its reincarnations in print or in digital; its purpose to produce copies to be read has already been fulfilled, and the copies themselves surpass the manuscript in readability. (A medieval manuscript such as the Book of Kells, which was a completed article in itself and never slated for reproduction, is a different case altogether.)

A musical recording, released commercially, is often a copy of a copy of a copy. You're listening to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Spotify; obviously you're engaging with a reproduction. But where and what is the original? Is it the multitrack masters? Is it the individual tracks—bass, drums, guitar, vocals—that were spliced together to create an artificially unified whole? Or was it the very set of performances in the recording studio, the events of making music, temporary and long-passed?

Where any recorded song is concerned, there is no true extant source: just the first copy. If your playback format duplicates it without compression loss, there's little to be gained from inveigling your way into a record company's archives and listening to the masters—except maybe for the experience of listening to them in a different environment and perhaps on better speakers.

Film tenders an analogous case, and brings in the all-important variable of context, which we've so far neglected touching on. Would there be an advantage to watching Citizen Kane on the 1940s nitrate reels over the Blu-ray restoration? I wouldn't think so. Again, as with an audio recording, the template of a film is the action occurring and taped on a Hollywood set—and that all belongs to the unreclaimable past. If the master reels in a studio vault can be flawlessly transferred to a more serviceable format, then—to elaborate on an analogue with an analogue—deciding whether to watch the prototype reels or the digital version is basically the same dilemma the old-school game enthusiast faces when he can play play Super Mario Bros. on an NES console, a homebrew emulator, or Nintendo's own Virtual Console. The concern shifts from fidelity to interface. With Super Mario Bros. it's a choice between an NES pad, RF adapter, and a Zenith TV; a laptop and keyboard; or a Wii U pad, HDMI cables, and an HDTV. With Citizen Kane it becomes a choice between: smartphone or tablet; laptop or desktop; a television and home entertainment hub; a small film projector and projection screen; a large projector and screen in a screening venue with rows of seats—in which case an analog or digital projector would work just as well.

In the final case, the venue assumes a greater significance than the format. In this a closer parallel might be drawn to an arcade game like Street Fighter II instead of a console title like Super Mario Bros. Imagine the gamer has three options available to him: a homebrew CPS1 emulator and a HORI fight stick; an arcade cabinet in the corner of a lonely rest stop somewhere on a highway in upstate New York; an arcade cabinet in a well-attended urban game center. What matters now isn't the the visual, audio, or mechanical quality (provided the rest stop and the arcade are taking care of their machines), but the setting.

Street Fighter II box art by Akira Yasuda. In case
you need a break from all the text.

With paintings such as are exhibited in museums, the original still enjoys primacy over its reproductions. It is a one-of-a-kind, manually produced article that was commissioned or purchased post-hoc to hang on a wall, be seen, elicit consideration (if not admiration), and testify to the virtuosity of the creator and the good taste of its owner. Its utility, to being with, was to be one-of-a-kind; its unintended and subsequent usefulness in furnishing the prototype for merchandise came later, and as Wark observes, does not depreciate its value as an irreplaceable artifact (provided no mechanical reproduction can pass as an actual counterfeit).

Then we have the museum itself: the venue in (or the the interface through) which we engage with fine art in its original format, and the amplifier of its (perhaps diminished) aura. A Monet canvas hanging in somebody's dim and cluttered garage behind a rack of rakes and shovels will prompt more puzzlement than wonder from the viewer—and only momentarily if the viewer has been asked to fetch a spade and hurry back to the garden beds toute suite. A Monet canvas on a sparse white wall in a hushed, well-lit chamber with a high vaulted ceiling and marble floors that announce every footstep demands to be noticed and wondered at.

I doubt we risk buckling credulity by calling the museum a secular place of worship—the consecrated abbey of neoliberal society. Where else but at churches and in graveyards do we tread so lightly and conduct ourselves so solemnly as we do in museums? Where else do we go to gaze upon relics in silent contemplation, speak of them in hushed voices, and make the effort to be fully present in doing so? Where else, now, do we risk getting dirty looks when we carry on loud phone conversations or watch YouTube videos without headphones?

Should it come as a surprise that in our age of estrangement, procrustean consumerism, spiritual drought, and ubiquitous graphical interfaces we've substituted the aesthetic experience for the religious one? That a people who recognize no agency or power above that of humanity and have little interest for things that don't touch directly upon human human affairs adoringly extol a pantheon of canonized geniuses instead of gods or natural forces? When we so seldom possess or come into contact with objects that weren't manufactured en masse, what should arouse more wonder in the heart of the citizen consumer but an item radiating the halo of the one-of-a-kind; the miracles of fabrication without mechanization, production unmotivated by the creation of surplus value, and virtuosity that declares itself not in description, not through a monitor, not through testimony, but in its concrete particularity?

The art museum stands the reliquary shrine of the materialist, anthropocentric cargo cult of the object, the aesthetic, the innovator, and the circulated and celebrated image. Is there anything else more suitable for a people such as us to worship?

While Benjamin grinds his axe against the depoliticization of art in the reverence for naked aesthetics—for instance, that a painting by the jolly sycophant to the bourgeoisie Renoir can hang on a wall beside one by the anarchist Pissarro and both be called "impressionist" and end of story—we should remember he was hunched over his millstone before Marshall McLuhan observed that the content of any medium is subsidiary to its format. The engagement of a man standing quietly in a gallery in rapt rumination before a Warhol print partakes less in the cultural program highlighted and acquiesced to by Warhol and the Pop artists than does the man watching a YouTube documentary about the Pre-Raphaelites on his iPhone while eating his lunch in the mall food court.

The usual mode of interaction with an objet d'art in a gallery has crystallized into a tradition unto itself since Europe's first public galleries opened in the eighteenth century. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the Western penchant for standing quietly and still with one's own thoughts as the eye roves about and interrogates a static image was developed after the print revolution gave humanity "an eye for an ear," as McLuhan observed? (Incidentally, the emphatic visual character of the gallery experience is what makes a virtual reality emulation feasible to begin with. A tactile, olfactory, or gustatory component would moot the whole discussion.)

Thus far we've more or less assumed the contents of our hypothetical art museum were fabricated prior to the twentieth century, before Duchamp's readymades, mounted and framed photographs, Warhol's factory, Hirst's whatever the hell he/his public thinks he's doing, video monitors on gallery walls, etc. But however the praxes of "contemporary" art (which let's define as post-WW2 material that pisses off the Stuckists) differ from those of its forerunners, simply by being on display an engaged with in the mode in which we've traditionally encountered fine art (since the first public galleries were opened in the eighteenth century), contemporary art acquires the same aura through a kind of ritualistic induction.

To take another example from the Philadelphia Museum's collection: Joseph Beuys' The Earth Telephone consists of a rotary phone and a clod of dirt sitting on opposing ends of a wooden plank. And...that's it. Of this piece, the Embracing the Contemporary exhibition catalog says:
The Earth Telephone...exemplifies Beuys's approach to object-making, treating materials as repositories of potential energy rather than as inert things....Here earth and telephone are paired as as visual manifestations of the transformative power of human communication....a statement on the nature of energy in which the man-made telephone represents the conveyance of harnessed electrical current, while the lump of soil alludes literally to the ground through which the current passes and metaphorically to the generative an restorative powers of the natural world....[It] may also be seen as a call to initiate change through communication or as the mechanism for the enactment of an imagined action, while at the same time underscoring the role of art itself as a transmitter of knowledge.
Joseph Beuys, Das Erdtelephon (1968–71)
Photo via Art Blog By Bob

Whatever your feelings about Earth Telephone (personally, I'm not a fan), two conditions that apply to to Rembrandt's The Head of Christ in the galleries directly above still apply to Beuys' piece.

(1) It cannot be replicated. Not exactly. The stains on the the plank, the uneven edges and the grain of the wood, the apparently arbitrary but nevertheless particular shape of the dirt lump, the placement of the dried stalks of grass, the lay of the telephone cord—to use the old cliche, they can be imitated by not duplicated. Its creation may have required less time, sweat, and perhaps talent than Rembrandt's Head of Christ, but the halo of irreplaceability still clings to it. (The fact that there are more than one Earth Telephones out there, all made by Beuys, but not identical, changes nothing.)

(2) It's still in an art museum, and we are still cued to appraise it the way we would a painting by Rembrandt. Scrutinize it, look for the subtleties, ponder intent and meaning—activities which require a degree of edifying discipline. The peasant farmer turned his mind from the practicalities of the prow and village life to the mysteries of the empyrean in the refracted light of stained glass windows and the the chants of the celebrant; the urbanite actively engages with content that doesn't spell itself out, demands the viewer ascend to meet it rather than ask it to condescend, and cannot be manipulated, modified, or otherwise played with.

For all Joselit's talk of "buzz" and "global image justice," to my knowledge he never rejects the notion that the fittest place for viewing culturally significant artworks is in a gallery—not on tablet, not in a book, not on a postcard, not in an oligarch's living room. It is the museum that makes artwork culturally significant (or authenticates its buzz). A mummified severed hand in a traveling freak show tent is a curiosity; the same in the Vatican is a sacred relic. An amateur's watercolor painting in an antique shop might be passed over; that same object in the Guggenheim will be reverentially meditated upon by thousands.

Like accepting the Eucharist in a Christian chapel, observing the rites in a secular house of worship is to some extent an act of faith—believing the hype and trusting the provenance.

Paul Klee, Tomb in Three Parts (1923)

Let's wind down and wrap up as best we can.

What would digital reproductions of works of art in pseudo-3D gallery environments mean for the original artifacts and the institutions in which they are housed and exhibited? Hard to say. If the technology could deliver nearly perfect visual facsimiles of the objects and reproduce the authenticating presence they acquire through their situation in a gallery, it might obsolesce the original artifacts and the museums which own them, for the same reasons that online retail continues to obviate brick-and-mortar stores. Under neoliberalism, convenience trumps every other consideration.

The culturally canonized artists and works the museum system fostered and bolstered would probably continue to circulate and generate a low and ambient buzz (at least for a while), but what about works produced before the advent of the VR galleries? Would they be lost in the general deluge? Who would continue to make it if (big if) the digital democratization of artworks drove prices down? Would the people who don't depart for more lucrative and glamorous industries be capable of consistently turning out work that generates buzz and titillates the chattering classes? Would artists increasingly abandon physical media and exclusively produce works using 3D graphics editors?

But it's better not to speculate too freely on the trajectories of technology and culture. We don't know if any of this will happen or what forms it would most likely take. There's too many imponderable variables. Who would own the virtual images? Who could curate the virtual spaces? (Humans? Algorithms? Which humans and whose algorithms?) Who would pay to keep the servers running, employ the coders and other support staffers, and pay for new acquisitions? Would these sites be subsidized by the state? By a corporation performing a public service for a tax break? Would they charge subscription fees or insert advertisements? Could users curate their own spaces? How will the makeup of the tastemakers and canonizers change? Would fine arts simply be absorbed into the online scene? Would canonization even be possible if artworks take on the aspect and shelf life of memes in order to keep pace with the tempo of the digital sphere? Would a medium whose raison d'etre has always been interaction leave the passive activity of the art gallery experience unaltered?

Then again, if one or both conditions are not met—the virtual reproductions of the artifacts are imperfect, glitchy, or uncanny, and/or the virtual exhibition spaces are not sufficiently immersive or impressive—then a VR gallery might be a boon to museums, generating additional buzz for galleries and the works therein. Or maybe not: did the release of Wii Sports in 2006 drum up more business for bowling alleys? Less? Did it have no impact whatsoever?

The possibility of the digital reproduction of presence becoming as widespread as the digital imitation (and surrogacy) of social life should really be treated as separate and general consideration with the virtual gallery and simulated artworks as subordinate concern. What would be the broad impact of a new and profound layer of hyperreality—are there scales we'd be in danger of tipping? What happens to the particular when particularity itself can be simulated? The implications for centuries-old canvases slathered in colorful goop would be the least of our concerns, I should think.

I think it might be appropriate to close with a few well-known and possibly germane lines from Jean Baudrillard:
It can be seen that the iconoclasts, who are often accused of despising and denying images, were in fact the ones who accorded them their actual worth, unlike the iconolaters, who saw in them only reflections and were content to venerate God at one remove. But the converse can also be said, namely that the iconolaters possessed the most modern and adventurous minds, since, underneath the idea of the apparition of God in the mirror of images, they already enacted his death and his disappearance in the epiphany of his representations (which they perhaps knew no longer represented anything, and that they were purely a game, but that this was precisely the greatest game——knowing also that it is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them)....All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange——God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.
Is it not odd, too, that we call a canvas painted upon by the man named Claude Monet "a Monet"?

What are we looking for in art, anyway? Or whom?


  1. Great observations, Pat. The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is fantastic, it completely changed my artistic trajectory during adolescence, as photography was formerly just my means of creating reference material for paintings, until I came to value the medium itself. It’s interesting how you discuss where a given artwork is housed too… I read a lot into Richard Wagner’s theory of the Gesamkunstwerk, and how he believed audience immersion was paramount, and achieved not just by the operatic performance itself, but also the architectural integrity and design of the opera house itself.

    I’m not sure if you consider how your own work fits in with this either (e.g. the printed word vs digital). I’ve been very conflicted in the past about the artistic integrity of photographs tangibly hanging in a gallery space vs them being bundled into blog posts online where their significance as artworks is significantly diluted (particularly as mine has a chronological thread that’s obscured by the blog format) - but at the same time has the potential to reach a wide audience.

    Anyway, i’ve got some catching up to do on your blog. I dropped in because I associate you with Melville in my mind (weird) and I’ve been reading Moby Dick for the first time. It’s proving a profound and revelatory experience.

    1. Hey, thanks. Looking back over this...this thing, it seems quarter-baked rather than half-baked. If I'm going to talk about cult value and religious activity/sentiment, maybe I should take the time to try to understand just what those terms mean. Hrm.

      But I *did* recently acquire Baudrillard's "The Conspiracy of Art." Maybe he has some answers.

      I'm embarrassed to say I haven't given TOO much thought to the print/digital text divide because I hate reading text in digital format. That could be a consequence of the format, though. It's difficult for me to concentrate on a Kindle book (I have the app on my laptop for when I can't wait for something to ship) because just sitting at the computer sends signals to the parts of my brain that want to look at YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, news, or any of the 4302854209852 that I waste too much time on. The other thing I've noticed is how important it is that the eye fall on pictures in a web text, and I learned it by accident through putting together those Final Fantasy...things. I think many of my readers would have lost patience and quit were it not for the eye candy. Scrolling a chapter of a Moby Dick in a browser window somehow bores me after a couple minutes, and this is a text whose physical version I can open up to any page and read for half an hour before getting up out of bed on a day off. I have some guesses as to why this is, but they're just guesses. And not very good ones at that.

      If you ever ever EVER want to talk about Moby Dick, I'm always game.

    2. Generally I agree with you completely, and given the choice I'd take the printed format every time. However, my forays into kindle reading is currently twofold: firstly I have no more room in my goddamn flat for books. Secondly, Amazon offers ‘amazon classics’ editions for free - Moby Dick among them. So I take these where I can get them. Although Amazon’s Moby Dick is a troublesome one because Melville’s whaling parlance, while immersive, is profoundly foreign to me, and the Amazon edition doesn’t have much in terms of footnotes, so I do find myself cross-referencing a lot more… and as you mention about being on a browser, before I know it i’m on a wiki about ancient inuit whaling techniques.

      Yes, your FF articles are classics. Although I would hazard a guess that even articles punctuated with images don’t cut it quite as much these days. Without wishing to sound like an olde timer, the video essay format prevailing on youtube, particularly in the remit of game analysis has probably impacted the written word a lot, but perhaps that’s just my ageing cynicism.

      Weirdly I picked up FF6 again recently as they’ve remastered the graphics and retranslated a lot of it. I’ll have to check back on your article ;)

  2. Film is the superior format! Sorry, several of my friends are film school grads. In all seriousness though, this was quite interesting. Keep up the good work.

    1. Danke. Clearly I am not a film aficionado—but I wonder how stark the difference is. Some people prefer vinyl just because the little popping and clicking sounds make a Beatles recording sound more "authentic."