This essay, on the virtual and the actual, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 18 September 2022, under the headline “The web has expanded the reach of art but nothing beats standing in front of a Picasso”.
It is more than 30 years since I saw Pablo Picasso’s Guernica face to face, as it were, in Madrid’s Prado Museum, shortly before it was moved into the Museo Reina Sofia, where it still hangs. Painted in 1937 in furious protest at Germany’s bombing of the Basque town of Guernica at the behest of Franco’s nationalist forces during the Spanish civil war, Picasso had refused permission for it to be housed in Spain until the return of democracy.
I had seen dozens of images of the painting. But nothing could prepare me for standing in front of it. There was, first, its overwhelming size, something no image can portray. Guernica stands more than three meters high and almost eight meters wide. You don’t so much view the painting as the painting wraps itself around you and you are drawn into its emotions and intensity.
The compression of space, the ambiguity of perspective, the splintering of the bodies, all seem far more pronounced when you view the work in real life. Painted in black and white and muted greys, the absence of colour, again, seems so much more visible in the gallery than it does in any reproduction. I saw details that had otherwise eluded me: the bull’s third eye looking directly out of the canvas; the tension in the arm of the dismembered man clutching a broken sword; the barely visible, half-rubbed-out dove. Standing in front of Picasso’s masterpiece, I was overwhelmed by a sense of dislocation and horror that no reproduction could convey. Thirty years on, the visceral power of Guernica still lives with me.
I saw Guernica around the time that a new way of viewing art was coming into being – the internet. Over the past 30 years, museums and galleries from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, from the National Museum in New Delhi to the tiny Lynn Museum in Norfolk, have put much of their collection online, making them available to millions, cultural treasure that would otherwise be denied them.
However, the growth of online collections has also generated a fierce debate about the virtues of the physical v the virtual museum, of how the digital should relate to actual. Last week, that debate received a new twist when New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that it was auctioning off 29 of its physical paintings, including masterpieces by Picasso, Monet and Bacon, to help “establish an endowment for digital media and technology”. What that means in practice is unclear. What MoMa’s move has done, though, is revive the debate over the merits of the actual and the virtual.
The idea of a virtual museum is not new. Fifty years ago, long before the world wide web came into being, the French novelist, critic and one-time culture minister, André Malraux, wrote of a “museum without walls”, which collated every person’s ideal collection of art.
Writing decades before the internet, the technology that Malraux imagined might make this possible was primitive. The ability that the internet provides museums and galleries to put their collections online brings us closer to a museum without walls; a museum not confined by physical space or by opening and closing times but allowing any number of people access to the collection they want at any time. Online collections also allow us to access information about the object or painting, place it in historical and social context, and link to stories about it, in a way that no physical museum can.
And, yet, just as no number of images of Picasso’s Guernica could prepare me for the experience of the actual painting, so no degree of sophistication of a digital experience can reproduce the actuality of seeing a work of art in front of you. Partly, it arises from physical differences, from the importance of texture and size, qualities inherent in a physical object but not in an image on a screen.
More importantly, perhaps, there is what the American curator Ann Mintz calls a “metaphysical” quality in viewing an actual object that is absent from a virtual reproduction. One relates to a physical work of art in a different way to a virtual object. Studies have shown that people spend more time viewing a physical object in a museum than that same object online and often have an emotional response to it in a way that rarely happens in a virtual space.
It’s a distinction not confined to art. There is an analogous difference between listening to music at home and experiencing it at a live gig or in an opera house. The music would undoubtedly be far better sonically at home, but there is an inexpressible quality to watching music being produced and performed live, and in the company of others, that no record or CD or stream can imitate.
Or take the distinction between watching live sport and watching on TV. There is much to be said for TV sport; not just the comfort of one’s sofa, but also the ability of the camera to pick out moments and details that you would never have seen in a stadium. And yet, nothing can take away from the emotional charge of watching a match in real life, of seeing Mo Salah or Venus Williams perform their miracles in the moment, crammed with thousands of others engaged in the same pursuit.
Or even, in its own way, consider the importance for so many people of ritual and physical connection that we have seen this past week. All this tells us something about being human; of the significance of the materiality of our world to our appreciation of it. The importance, too, of the social context in which we engage with the world, of being able to engage with it not as individuals but as part of a crowd or a collective.
The internet has transformed our lives and democratised our relationship to art. But in doing so, it has also revealed the significance of the physical and the actual. It has shown us how, paradoxically, the materiality of life embodies an ineffable quality that the virtual cannot match.
Now I’m comparing the experience of leaving a ten-dollar tip for a trivial purchase – something I make a point of doing as part of the ritual of meeting a friend for coffee – with “clicking” even a quite large donation on-line. Has an immediacy of physical sensation – even to handling the note – that the virtual experience just does not.