Problems and Possibilities of the Experience of Modern Art Through the Internet

Jin-Kyeong Oh <>
Ewha Womans University

Gill-Chin Lim <>
Michigan State University


I. Introduction

Until recently, interest in the Internet has mainly evolved around its technical development and efficiency of operation. But now it is time to examine synthetically the problems and the possibilities of its function in sociological, ethical, and aesthetic contexts.

The Internet allows the viewer to have easy access to works of art that are located in the museum far from spectators (in this paper, spectators, navigators, and viewers are used interchangeably) and receive information and documents. Can we talk about the epoch of democratization of art in which the art doesn't belong to the minority of the powerful ruling class but to the public, as Walter Benjamin (1971) wished? In answering this question, we can argue that the visual experience of the images on the computer screen cannot substitute for the experience of the real works through the Minimal Sculptures and Environment Art. For the experience of those works, the quality of "presence" is very important and essential, and the process of experience requires the stages follows: (1) spectators recognize the ontological quality of art objects exhibited; (2) a close circumstantial relationship can be established between the viewer and the art objects on the basis of the spectator's recognition; and (3) in this relationship, the spectator responds to the symbolic value of the art objects spontaneously and instinctively.

However, the experience of viewing images through media is not concerned with ontological reality, but, according to Jean Baudrillard (1978), is a sort of programmed model and "simulacrum." As the Internet system diffuses rapidly worldwide with little censorship, the Internet could be used as a dangerous means to dominate and control the ideology of a materialistic society. In spite of these problems, it is possible to find a humanistic approach through the Internet to facilitate communication among individuals and cultures.

The main purpose of this paper is to examine problems and possibilities of experiencing art works presented by museums and galleries through the Internet.

II. Information revolution for the art in a humanistic society

Historically, human beings have experienced three major revolutions--agricultural, industrial, and informative--which influenced their own life and the fate of the environment as well. These revolutions have accelerated the pace of changes in human history and have offered both unexpected risks and new possibilities for human betterment.

Among these revolutions, the information revolution has the most powerful impact on modern life in terms of both lifestyle and value system. With the advent of computers and advanced communication systems, we produce, exchange, and use knowledge faster than ever. Overall, contemporary humans are better educated and informed before. The world has also become smaller in the sense that we can communicate and travel with much less cost and time. The concept of a global village has emerged.

There are several unique characteristics of the information revolution. This revolution, which has permeated almost every aspect of our life, is faceless, speedy, able to reach addressees in massive quantity, and able to retrieve, manage, and distribute a large quantity of information. The Internet has created benefits, comfort, and pleasure for some people.

However, we hear about negative consequences of the information revolution such as electronic fraud, vandalism, and obscenity; disturbing impacts on lifestyle; and privacy invasion. These characteristics, some believe, make our society more vulnerable to criminal activities and violations of ethical and cultural norms. Moreover, there are the unwanted effects of alienation, despair, and stress which often lead to anomie and deviant behavior. One might say that these are the problems of modern materialistic society.

Democratic development in the information system provides people with a powerful means to participate in cultural activities and decision making. For this reason, users should accept information technology with a balanced perspective and a room for reflection on the part of the users. Ultimately, a user of the technology makes a value judgement about how and to use machines, tools, and techniques and for what purpose. It is, therefore, crucial to provide potential users of information technology with the knowledge of its nature.

The application of virtual reality is not confined to the business world where utilizing new technologies is an ongoing task for survival and prosperity. Computers and The Internet have become indispensable for experiencing art as well. The conventional dichotomy between art and science usually imbues a view that technological application could have limitations in the field of arts and humanities. On the contrary, scholars and practitioners are developing new perspective and theories that incorporate artistic and humanistic elements into computers.

The Internet makes it possible to connect isolated individual artists and spectators, and to create open, spontaneous, democratic communication among various arts and cultures. If we use the Internet efficiently in experiencing art, we can communicate with other members of society openly and globalize the multicultural society.

Information technologies can help human beings overcome temporal and spatial limitations and expand their domain of activities. Museum Web sites, a result of rapid advancement in information technology, can be a valuable means for opening new possibilities in experiencing art for a large number of people across different cultures.

III. Analysis of information about the fine arts through the Internet

In this section, we present an analysis of images and texts of museums and galleries that offer opportunities for experiencing fine arts through The Internet. The main sources of information are Web sites of "Arts: Museums and Galleries," collected through Yahoo, one of the major Internet search engines, complemented by "Top Art Sites" in Artnews magazine.

A. Analysis of image

We can find 253 Web sites (as of January 5, 1997) about fine arts in the category of "Arts: Museums and Galleries" in Yahoo and another 12 Web sites in "Top Art Sites" in Artnews (as of March 1996, p. 99). Therefore, the total number of sites for our investigation offering experience of art through the Internet is 265.

A considerable number of sites that we have investigated give us only information about a list of art objects, without images, or fixed images with texts. Several sites provide moving images, but viewers are not able to control their movement. The experience of art by visiting these sites is so simple and insufficient that it cannot be compared with the real one at all. In some of the sites, the size of images can be enlarged.

Twenty-four sites, 9 percent of the total investigated, have the mechanisms available to simulate the real experience of art. These mechanisms include control of distance, direction, and speed of viewing.

At 4 of the above-mentioned 24 sites, it is possible for the viewer to choose still images of the gallery scene. These images are not fixed. Viewers can obtain various images according to different positions by controlling distance and direction using a mouse. For example, the viewer can enjoy the still image of Keith Carrington's works in Artlink, which are exhibited in a virtual gallery, by manipulating distance to the works and direction (only two directions are specified in the server) at a fixed eye level. The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery site provides a virtual tour of the Hunterian Museum itself. This virtual tour provides a still picture of the gallery at a fixed eye level in a way similar to the example of the Keith Carrington's work, but without the distance option. Instead, another frame of a simple map indicates the viewer's position in the gallery.

Four sites offer moving images controlled in the same manner as a VCR. The Dia Center for the Arts in New York site shows a film of Joseph Beuys' installation 7000 Oaks, which provides control keys to play, forward, rewind, and stop, but does not allow the viewer to enter the virtual environment of the installation.

There are seven sites at which navigators can view works of art, controlling distance and direction freely as if they were moving in a real space. Their viewpoints are changeable within a certain range. The Uffizi Gallery@ site constructs some visual spaces, and navigators are able to experience exhibition rooms as if the navigators were in the museum. They can move forward and backward, taking a panoramic view, but they cannot choose an enlarged version of the collection. Thus the site allows viewers to experience only the exhibition environment. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney site shows Jeff Koons' Puppy in open air and provides the same experience as the Uffizi Gallery@.

Five sites offer more positive experiences of art works. Each of them has virtual spaces that are constructed in 3D. Navigators have various choices regarding distance and direction. Therefore, they can move freely not only inside of the building but also outside of it. They can examine these works and the buildings with different distance and directions in a way that is impossible under real circumstances, if they are on the ground. The Springfield Museum of Art site is such an example.

The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art site extends the realm of choices for active experience, which is indebted to the newest browser. Hara Museum offers the widest selection for navigators. Navigators can walk through the galleries with fast or slow speed, turn on or off the lights, and see the art works clearly with as slow or fast navigation as they want.

The Hoam Art Museum site is distinguished from others, in that it overcomes some of the limitations of an actual museum tour. The tour doesn't happen in the museum. The navigators go through the walls of the galleries or the art works. The exhibition space can be overturned or inclined. The museum building is shown as the object in the space. Navigation at Hoam is more similar to real human experience. The weakness of the Hoam site is that three-dimensional works of art are shown as two-dimensional images that are fixed from one angle. The site has a special function to make up for the weak point: navigators can change the direction of viewing some works arbitrarily, which has a black neutral background. The spotlights for the works are fixed from a specific direction.

B. Analysis of text

Altogether, we have reviewed texts of 267 museums and galleries. Of them, 264 are obtained from Yahoo (as of February 21, 1997), and three are selected from Artnews magazine. We examined both the quality and the quantity of texts. There are five categories of texts.

Of the museum Web sites, 170 (63 percent) have very little information in their text. Some of them do not have any text information at all. For instance, Internet users can obtain only very limited information about great works of art possessed by the Louvre.

There are 34 sites (13 percent) in which the information does not go into enough depth to be of value for the viewers. For example, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, which has an outstanding presentation of images, has a meager text from the viewpoint of art history.

Thirty-two sites (12 percent) provide a large quantity of information although the qualities of their texts are not highly refined. Examples in this category are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution@, and the L. A. County Museum of Art.

Ten of the museum Web sites we reviewed (4 percent) have excellent text information about artists or art objects, while the amount of their text is relatively small. We may point to the Musee National d'art Moderne-Pompidou and the National Museum of American Art.

Twenty-one museum Web sites (8 percent) are rated excellent in terms of both quantity and quality. For example, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Uffizi Gallery@ explain succinctly the history of how art objects were created, making it easy to appreciate the art objects and to understand the artists in the context of art history. The Hoam Art Museum is also one of the outstanding sites in terms of both quantity and quality of text information. The Hoam Art Museum provides abundant explanations about their art objects displayed. However, in comparison to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Uffizi Gallery, the Hoam's text is limited to the background of artists and their works without sufficient explanation about relevant information in the context of art history. National Museum of Women in the Arts, in their texts, emphasizes the theme of feminism and provides bibliographies of individual artists.

A highly unique Web site deserving our attention is Media Centre of the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal. This museum puts more emphasis on text information than image. In this museum's text, the viewers can move around among various links. One may observe interviews with artists, catalogs produced by different regional exhibitions, articles, and bibliographies. This is a case which makes the best use of the exclusive technical advantages offered by the Internet system.

However, a critical shortcoming of all the sites we examined is the absence of measurement for distance and direction. Viewers can control distance and direction, but they do not know exactly where they are.

During our study, we discovered a critical problem involving the predominant use of English in the Internet. As we are all aware, English can not write characters with accents. When artists' names, countries, and titles are written without proper accents, some of them are not recognizable. The current practice greatly reduces the efficacy of the Internet--its ability to convey original information.

IV. Conclusion: the experience of art in the age of information

With the new technology of information, people can easily approach the art works and have the opportunities to learn about art and its history with less cost. It is now possible to talk about democratization of art, which has been a critical issue in the history of modern art. Many art museums use the Internet to provide the public with their art collections with more vivid images and rich text information. However, for the art works uploaded on Internet sites are only limited to 5-10 percent of the museums' collections. More advanced technical methods must be developed to increase the proportion of art works to be viewed through the Internet.

Moreover, the visual quality of image and the amount of text information provided through the Internet are not satisfactory. In the field of art, the information revolution should be concerned with not only technological development but also a value revolution and a state of mind or attitude advancing humanistic values.

The designers of a Web site have to recognize the viewers as individuals, each of whom has his or her own personality. The designers must try to find methodological approaches to communicate with viewers and to deal with the various demands of each person who has unique conditions of life.

In the past, most museum sites on the Internet were composed by HTML, which makes the information very static and unilateral. Nowadays, with the new technologies of Java, VRML, and DB Programming, museums can produce more vivid and communicative Web pages. This allows the individuals to respond more actively and spontaneously.

To provide the information about art works more effectively, the following conditions should be considered: the level of the viewer's eyes, the change of viewpoint according to his or her movement, the intensity and the direction of light, the brightness of color, and the direction of shadows, etc., with measurements. These elements are the logical criteria for decisions made by the viewer of art works. The more freely the viewer can choose and control these conditions, the more effectively the viewer can enhance his or her level of imagination about experiencing art works.

The experience of art on the Internet includes the significance of symbolic interchange. The Internet user should not be a passive receiver of information codes but an active respondent who can exercise his or her unique personality. With this consideration, the Internet can open a new road to a harmonious humanistic society in which values of art are deeply and widely appreciated. Technology expands the possibility for a variety of human experiences and activities--including arts--to intersect. We can construct a more humanistic world, in which people are not isolated, by harmonizing artistic imagination and technological prowess. The use of the Internet to help viewers experience art works is one of the most valuable examples of such an endeavor.


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