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28 August 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 11:29am

If the world’s art is now available online – why do we need art galleries?

In "Ways of Seeing" John Berger writes that what we make of art depends upon our expectations of it. In the age of Tumblr and Google Images, do we expect less than ever, or has art finely become liberated?

By Philip Maughan

Last weekend in the gift shop at the Lowry exhibition in London I bought John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. I had been planning to read the book for some time. The cover art is particularly eye-catching.

The book is made up of seven essays, adapted from a television series of the same name. It stresses the importance of seeing as a fundamental process that takes place before and beyond language. A number of the ideas were familiar to me: about they ways in which women are depicted in art, about advertising and materialism in 18th century oil painting. Others seemed uncannily relevant to the ways in which we encounter images online. Berger writes:

For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.

That was in 1972. For Berger and his colleagues, the traditional custodians of art (fine art lecturers, historians, critics) were “clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline.” They mystified the western canon in order to valorise the culture it represented, along with its attitudes towards status, heirarchy and wealth. But it was not the working classes that unpicked the privileged world of privately-owned and commissioned art. It was the corporation, and to a lesser degree, the state. Today that unraveling continues online.

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In an age of instant digital reproduction (much of what is written in the first chapter of Ways of Seeing is inspired by Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 essay) the work of art becomes most valuable for its status as “the original”. The price tag it becomes the only way to distinguishing its value (where once the image itself was so costly and difficult to produce – its value was instantly apparent). Most works are far removed from their original religious or civic context. Their meaning must be explained, and is therefore at risk of being manipulated.

Berger cites statistics to show how few people visit museums and galleries, and how closely an interest in art is related to a privileged education. He argues that most encounters with great works of art take place outside the gallery’s walls:

Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living-rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproduction of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board all the images belong to the same language and are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. Logically, these boards should replace museums.

Berger’s pinboards are today’s (micro)blogs. The internet, far more than billboards or postcards or magazines, has accelerated our access to images. In fact, we are confronted by them – they form an incessant visual language – whether we like it or not.

There is a lot of fun to be had here, on Tumblr, or the Google Art Project, or elsewhere. Image galleries are permanent fixtures on news websites and art/design blogs. They display syndicated materials considered to have the necessary qualities to go viral. In some senses, Berger’s book appears to approve of this:

A people or a class which is cut of from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history.

Allowing free and open access to the artistic canon is in this sense every person’s right. This is not to deny the value of standing before the original work. Unlike photographs, paintings represent a simultaneous experience driven by a single perspective, and in their most intimate details allow us to view “the painted moment”. Online, many of the images we see appear entirely without context. Unlike a postcard picked up at an exhibition, there is no title, date, or author on the reverse.

Berger writes:

What we make of [the] painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experience the meaning of paintings through reproductions.

And so what do we expect of art, online? We know for certain that the reproduction will not outgrow our monitor, but does this matter? Perhaps more important is that certain types of images: neatly organised, shocking, topical or semi-erotic, are the most likely to be reblogged. We are also unlikely to spend more than a second or two looking at an image online, nor to take much interest in its history.

What does the fact that we encounter images on our smartphones and browsers for free say about the status of art in the digital age?

Why was I at the Lowry exhibition to begin with?

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