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Aesthetic responses

Over the past month I’ve strolled through Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie to examine Edouard Manet’s ‘In the Conservatory’ in close detail.

5 March 2011

12:00 AM

5 March 2011

12:00 AM

Over the past month I’ve strolled through Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie to examine Edouard Manet’s ‘In the Conservatory’ in close detail.

Over the past month I’ve strolled through Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie to examine Edouard Manet’s ‘In the Conservatory’ in close detail. I’ve taken a look at what’s on offer on the stands of international art dealers including Gagosian and White Cube at the VIP art fair. I have also considered buying shares in a 1988 gouache by Sol LeWitt. And I’ve done all these things from my front room thanks to an internet revolution in the art world.

In December, the first stock exchange for art opened up with shares in two works (the LeWitt and a work by the Italian prankster Francesco Vezzoli) available online for ten euros per share. In January, the VIP art fair opened, the first to take place entirely online. And a few days later, amid much media fanfare, Google’s Art Project launched, allowing visitors to take virtual tours of 17 well-known international museums.

Of course, the art-world internet revolution has happened before — just over ten years ago. Back then the internet bubble gave rise to several start-ups with optimistic business plans based on people moving away from looking at art in fusty museums and at snooty art dealers and instead viewing it with the click of a mouse. As most of these start-ups were commercially driven, the hope was that punters would then buy it. But there were two big problems: first, the works of art didn’t look very good on first-generation internet technology. And, second, people weren’t ready to pay for ‘serious’ art this way.

In Britain, Eyestorm was launched as the first major online gallery in 1999 with promises that you could buy works by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others. It duly went bust in 2002 with debts of £18.5 million. Its subsequent rescue and relaunch by a private equity group tells us a lot about the nature of what people will buy on the internet — Eyestorm now offers works that are almost all in the sub-£1,000 category, featuring work by the likes of the comedian and part-time artist Vic Reeves.

And that’s how art on the internet has pottered along for the past ten years: sites selling limited editions of low-value; museum websites stuffed full of low-resolution images aimed at researchers; and dealers’ websites that invariably contain the line ‘Contact dealer for more information’ when you click on anything. However, advocates of this new burst of art on the internet insist that this time round it’s different, with better technology and a more internet-savvy public. And there’s no doubt that the technology is much better.

The Google Art Project uses its Streetview technology to enable you to navigate the museums. Each institution has chosen one work to be photographed in gigapixel technology, which basically means that you can zoom in to brush-stroke detail. The next level down of technology is used for more than a thousand works. The VIP art fair offered something similar, with zoom facilities on individual works, multiple views of sculpture and streamed video art.

This is exciting in the way that Google’s Street View itself was initially exciting: you can giddily swoop around lots. And giddy it is, unless one is a practised Google Street View nerd. You move your mouse over circles and arrows marked on the virtual floor, click, and your ‘point of view’ (POV) lurches towards them, bypassing what’s in-between. The clicking-on-an-arrow mode of movement also operated at the VIP art fair, but instead of the POV system, there was a slim grey figure on the screen that was meant to be you. Clicking on a navigational arrow resulted in this figure staying still and the art in front of it moving very quickly as if invisible technicians were sprinting around rehanging madly. And to make things more hallucinatory, instead of the images of art changing size, the image of you as the viewer became taller and smaller, according to the scale of the work.

And this all points to a more profound problem. No matter how much you zoom in or use devices to indicate the scale of a work, you are still looking at the representation of a work rather than the work itself. Aesthetic experience is complex terrain, but it seems fairly straightforward to state that an aesthetic response to art has something to do with the position you take up and the distance you stand from an artwork, with your field of vision in relation to it, and with the fact that your vision is binocular. Although it’s difficult to articulate how this clicks into place, try standing 50 foot at an angle from a small painting (you can do this with ease at any Tate blockbuster) with one eye closed, shaking your head and you’ll understand what doesn’t work.

From the turn of the 20th century, and then in an accelerated way from the 1970s, a growing amount of art was made which lowered the emphasis on an aesthetic response — Duchamp’s urinal or conceptual art in general are obvious examples. That said, collectors of conceptual art still tend to ask for it to be nicely framed or put on a plinth, which suggests that the aesthetic response isn’t quite dead there yet either. The zoom facilities of the new internet art technology are geared towards looking at the type of art where technique and virtuosity are valued, where each gesture has significance. But this is exactly the type of art that is the most insistent on being seen in the flesh rather than through reproduction, as it is predicated on an aesthetic response that results from the physical positioning of the viewer.

Behind most of these internet ventures is a great yearning to show and sell painting, rather than, say, to promote a greater understanding of installation art. In part this is because painting is still what most non-expert punters think of as ‘proper’ art. In part, it’s because logically the two-dimensionality of painting ought to reproduce most faithfully on the flat screen of a computer — although the best feature of the VIP art fair was the streamed video art. And, most significantly, it’s still painting that sells at auction because sculpture, photography and video are never perceived as unique pieces, and installation and performance are still too intangible to sell successfully.

There’s something rather romantic in this yearning to capture painting — although perhaps something less romantic in the urge to flog it to speculators. It’s a victory of some sort that painting’s insistence on an aesthetic response resists this technological capturing. And it is also oddly reassuring that the vicissitudes of the art market over the past two years, which have seen several art bubbles burst, suggest that painting will never be entirely the safe bet for investors in the way that those business plans suggest. Shares, I note, are still available in the LeWitt.

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