Virtual Art Museum, Virtual Art?

I note that navigation, at Google Art project or elsewhere, seems to be a ubiquitous problem. I can say from personal experience that the technology exists to do virtual museum with full free movement through the horizontal space. For the moment it would seem that this would not be a web-based game but rather a download. It would be possible to mod existing engines, like Valve’s Source engine, for free or make one using any of several different 3D engines available for licensing.

Another question is what effect this type of access would have on the world? Pretty clearly it would be good for students and teachers of all ages. This kind of full access from home would simultaneously drop the barriers to art viewing to nearly zero and make this possible across geographic distances that would otherwise restrict access to the elite who can afford the trip. The democratic aspects of this are marvelous.

However, like all free internet stuff, it is not immediately clear whether this is positive for anybody except the consumer. Are visitors more or less likely to visit actual museums in a world of instantaneous virtual access? Do museums require revenues from visitors or are they generally endowed by “patrons” who support any kind of exposure of art? What of books containing artwork? Will people buy expensive coffee table art books when they can download (or “collect”) art online for free – especially since many purchases are in the museum store after an inspirational visit?

Most interesting, what art will emerge from this new virtual world? It stands to reason that virtual museums might well host virtual art – art that doesn’t exist except in virtual space. For sure, most of that art will be terrible and derivative to begin with (Mona Lisa with a goatee). But I have no doubt that, in time, art will emerge that is either or both wonderful and/or a brilliant use of virtual opportunities to make art. A criticism could be made that art made virtually is not “real” and therefore not art. However, these days, for example, most sculptors don’t “make” their art. They make blueprints and construction teams or metal specialists to make the actual art for them. If that is “art,” then, I would argue, so is this (whatever “this” turns out to be).

How’s this for an art project for tech savvy older students: visit a virtual art museum and them create a piece of virtual art. The professional tools to do this are not cheap but they are not expensive in the scope of school budgets (at least in normal years). There are free downloadable tools like Blender and Google Sketchup that might provide a starting point. Younger children can share this experience with results commensurate to their age.

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Field with Flowers near Arles

I love this painting for both its volatility, even recklessness, and the beauty of the result.  I love it for the fact that it hides these contradictions, leaving them to be discovered with careful viewing and a reading of history.  I love the complexity of the seemingly simple composition.  The flowers, the fields, the trees, the buildings and the sky are each portrayed differently and offer unique rewards for exploration and contemplation.  There seems to be a message too, looking from the flowers to the fields to the town – all under a crude and powerful sky.  Is he thinking about nature versus human settlements or the attractiveness of those human settlements as seen from a distance and from a field of flowers?  What of his violent, crude sky?  Is he thinking of a primal and all seeing God looking down on his pitiful struggles for peace and beauty?  All this is made far more poignant knowing that within the year he would cut part of his ear off, be hospitalized for depression, and flee Arles for Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Within two years he would be dead.

The Elephant in the Museum

I am totally committed to the idea of teaching children meaningful connections to literature, math, history, culture, art, music, dance, athletics, and the rest, and knowing that the “fundamentals” will follow from that. I am totally committed to the idea that the future will require independent, emotionally wise, problem solvers. We are taking time away from the arts to teach long division to students with calculators on their phones. We are taking time away from classes teaching physical fitness to teach students cursive who’ll be keyboarding to communicate.

It is the elephant in the room. Art isn’t something we should teach when time permits. It is the core of a progressive, emotionally mature education. It serves the students incredibly well. It would no doubt be of comfort to our children to know that Mozart lived through the American Revolution and saw the beginning of the French Revolution. Beethoven lived and created through both and the global conflagration that was the Napoleonic Wars. This period saw regular devastation and a see-sawing of German fortunes on a scale unknown today. Understanding how life and art coexist and give meaning to lives in turbulent times is something our children need to know.

Teaching Art

Impressionism is “real” enough to be recognizable by students. Yet it is different enough that it clearly challenges the viewer to think differently, to adopt a different perspective. At least for me, it’s the most approachable type of art. I understand the break they are making with tradition and I am persuaded by the esthetics they create. It is challenging enough to freeze me into contemplation but familiar enough to be comfortable. It is also something students can emulate easily. I have seen amazing versions of Starry Night and Vase with Twelve Sunflowers done by preschoolers at my wife’s school. A room filled with Starry Nights done by 4 year olds is breathtaking.

The area I would move gingerly as a teacher is contemporary art. I cannot help feeling that much of it is a joke at my expense and I remember deep resentment when I was exposed to it in the 70’s. This leads to two thoughts: One, when presenting modern art it is critical to create a cultural context, an understanding of the process of art in all it’s glory, human flaws, economic aspects, and experimentation. Second, and more important, we each (and our students each) need to be allowed to find value where we do. If we don’t, we risk ending up like Mr. Karp in A Chorus Line. We can only encourage students to explore the possibilities of art, not impose our meanings (or even expectations) on them.

Modern Art

I think we can all find ourselves unpersuaded by art if we don’t see the point. I wrote an entire post on my lack of appreciation of a modern art piece appropriately called “Red Plank,” on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. I wrote more, about trying to see art as an artist’s communication. Honestly, I still don’t get Red Plank, try as I might. I am comforted by a quote I read in a recent book on modern art. According to the book, Jerry Saltz from the Village Voice said “85% of new contemporary art is bad.” The problem is, he continues, is while most of the art world agrees with the percentage, they just can’t agree on which is the good 15%.

Notwithstanding this, I think it’s important to try to see the unique perspective in each art piece. I think this is one of the important things art can contribute to a child’s education. It challenges us to see life from different perspectives. Like philosophy, it can make us question and force us to develop the ability to adopt different perspectives. In particular, the impressionists were interested in light and color. That is what they try to capture. They show us a way to see objects that is not the normal way we see them. It reminds us that there are other ways to see things. This is good for adults, and even better for children. The children almost certainly do see things differently, having not yet been training into conformity. Art can be an important link to their unique personality and their ability to sustain and embrace that personality.

Red Plank, Again

Truth be told, I was pretty pissed off when I saw Red Plank so many years ago. It seemed like a ridiculous farce and the idea that my art teachers were presenting it as something worthy of admiration and that it was in a prestigious art museum stripped my gears. It seemed like lunacy and I resented what I thought was an affront to my common sense and the perceived implication that if I didn’t see its value, I was an uncultured boob.

I was maybe 14 then and have gotten much more accepting of being and/or being perceived as an uncultured boob. I have learned that standing for my truth, with as little confrontation as possible, is the best way to honor me and the other parties to the conversation. It such a joy to be able to discuss wonderful things and not get tripped up by all the silliness that often surrounds such subjects, I am very grateful to have mostly learned that lesson.

Back to art, the idea that the artists creates art as a conversation with the audience fascinating. It never occurred to me that the viewer is considered by the artist. That makes a difference in my understanding. For example, I better understand Jackson Pollock’s cigarette butts. Not completely, but I have an inkling.

I wonder why the interactivity is sucked out of the art in museums. There, the cold placement and historical context seems to powerfully fix the visitor in the “observer” role, passive and mute. Wouldn’t it be interesting to be an artist who silently asked questions with art and had viewers fill out questionnaires, fine tuning the art to the way it’s perceived? Really, if you want to provoke an conversation or an emotional connection with the viewer, what better way to refine that process than with feedback from a survey?