Does technology degrade art or liberate it? It has the potential to do both, and much more. Museums are eagerly exploring the virtual realm, but experts say this boon to research can never replace the real-life experience.

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It used to be that if you wanted to study Michelangelo’s “David” in detail, you had to go to Florence. Computer scientists at Stanford and the University of Washington plan to remove that inconvenience when they complete a perfect 3-D virtual replica of the marble muscleman, ostensibly to make future repairs easier as the sculpture ages (graphics.stanford.firenze.it/projects/mich). The technology doesn’t end there, though. Soon it will be possible to animate “David” — get him to wind up and let loose his slingshot.
“I’m not sure I want all that potential energy bound up in ‘David’ released,” says LACMA associate curator of photography Tim Wride MSP ’95. “There’s a tension because of that stasis. Once he throws the stone, what does he do next?”
What indeed? It may be only a matter of time before “David” cha-chas across your desktop.

Like it or not, the Internet is shaking up the staid world of art. But let’s not forget this is 1999 — 70 years after Marcel Duchamp first shocked critics with his “Fountain” (a urinal) and scrawled a mustache, goatee and dirty joke on the “Mona Lisa.” The art world isn’t so easy to shock anymore.
Some trend-setting museums now incorporate cyber-exhibitions. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example, features on its Web site eight virtual projects that “explore some of the properties and possibilities of the Web, such as interactivity, motion and sound” (
www.moma.org/docs/onlineprojects/index.htm).
USC’s own Fisher Gallery has experimented with virtual art through the USC Interactive Art Museum (
digimuse.usc.edu/museum.html). Funded by the USC Annen-berg Center for Communication, the proect is an experiment in building a museum with neither walls nor guards, globally accessible day and night. Drawing on faculty in engineering, communication and museum studies, the virtual gallery currently has four exhibits on view. In a past project, online visitors could manipulate tele-robotic devices that rotated an 800-pound marble sculpture; then they could see it from every angle via streamed video.
The Internet, like film and video before it, has become a new medium for artistic expression. Multimedia and CGI (computer generated imagery) will certainly take their place in museum collections, predicts Wride. But it’s important to remember that the computer is but a tool. “Did the Polaroid change photography by making accessible an immediate image? Yes. Did it necessarily make for great art? No. The computer is the same kind of thing,” Wride says.

Tim Wride M.A. '95

Associate Curator of Photography,
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Education: B.A., San Diego State University, art history

Internship: LACMA, Modern and Contemporary Art

Current Project: Planning LACMA’s millennium exhibition, which will examine the role of the arts in the creation of the many definitions of California.

Web-based art is still in its adolescence. However, once high-tech pyrotechnics no longer drives the image-making process, once artistic expression becomes an end in itself, Wride believes virtual art will become infinitely more interesting.
In the meantime, most museums are aggressively building their Web presence as a way to supplement their education, outreach and public affairs efforts. Many are going a step farther: systematically digitizing their art objects and posting them for general access. Some museums, like the National Gallery of Art (
www.nga.gov/search/search.htm) and the National Museum of American Art (nmaa-ryder.si.edu/collections/index.html), now offer online search tools that let virtual visitors view and sort through a large part of their collections by title, by artist or by subject. Some provide zoom capabilities, making it possible to hone in on fine details within a work.

Convenient, conservation-friendly, fast, democratic — with the Internet, why do we need real-world art museums at all?
Hold your Holbeins!
“It will never come to that,” says LACMA educator Mary Lenihan, who also teaches in USC’s Museum Studies Program. “You can have the best reproduction possible, and it’s still so vastly inferior to seeing the work in person. Paint, linen and canvas are three-dimensional materials. When you see them in person, they jump off the wall. There is no substitute.”
The recent Van Gogh show at LACMA gives a perfect illustration of that fact, says Lenihan. A work like “Wheatfield with Crows,” which you’ve seen a hundred times in reproduction, seems completely different when you can see the intensity of its colors and the thickness of the paint application.
“Technology can lead you in some wonderfully interesting and kitschy directions,” says Wride. “What it cannot provide is the visceral experience, the inhabiting of a shared physical space, the absolute surprise, often pure joy, when you turn a corner in a museum you’ve never been in before and you confront an amazing work of art. When the hair on your arm stands on end, you’re so moved by it.”
Where the Web is unbeatable, museum professionals agree, is as a research tool. “I’m a strong believer in the Internet,” says Getty educator Maite Alvarez.
“I think it’s one of the greatest boons for art historians. As grant money dries up, the more research you can do ahead of time, the better. Putting images up on the Internet means spending less time in archives. That will be a lifesaver.”
Last summer, two Internet start-ups began the arduous process of digitizing tens of thousands of art treasures and making them available to university students and researchers. Both projects grew out of a three-year experiment, financed by the J. Paul Getty Trust, in which seven museums provided some 9,000 images to seven universities. Dozens of major American museums — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Arts and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis — have since agreed to participate.

A much weirder experiment in virtual museum-building is the low-tech variation that was unveiled a year ago in the remote town of Naruto, in southeast Japan.
Here, according to London’s Telegraph, millionaire industrialist Masahito Otsuka has spent seven years and $400 million creating the ultimate encyclopedic museum of Western art. No art collector himself, Otsuka set out instead to fill his museum with breathtakingly exact reproductions of 1,000 masterpieces, from antiquities to Andy Warhols.
The knock-offs were produced (with permission from each artwork’s owner) by one of Otsuka’s own companies, using a process for baking photographic images onto huge ceramic sheets. The technique faithfully reproduces up to 30,000 colors and recreates even the surface texture of paint.
The high point of the “collection” is a full-scale recreation of the Sistine Chapel. The gallery also includes the complete works of Leonardo da Vinci, all of Rem-brandt’s self-portraits, Picasso’s “Guernica” and even a long-lost El Greco altarpiece whose panels, in real life, are split between the Prado in Madrid and the National Gallery in Bucharest.
“There’s Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Adventureland and, now, Artland,” says Wride. “It’s wacky.”
Actually, not as wacky as you’d think.
The museum has no guards or alarms, and actually encourages visitors (some 300,000 in the first six months of operation) to run their grubby fingers over the “Mona Lisa.” As with the virtual “David,” the objects in the Otsuka Museum will remain in pristine condition for millennia, long after the original works have faded and crumbled to dust.
“There’s something about that that doesn’t sit right with me,” says Wride. “I’m sure there are fakes inhabiting the galleries of most museums in the world.
“But faithful reproductions will always be reproductions. I’m a throw-back. I still have an amazing relationship with the objects.”

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