When Appreciating Works of Art, Being There is Always Best

Yesterday, while clicking around on the HuffingtonPost Arts page, I came across David Galenson's blog "The Genius of Damien Hirst." Because I have my doubts about Hirst, by the 3rd paragraph I was already thinking about what kind of clever or insightful comments I could post at the end of the blog to set Mr. Galenson straight and broadcast my own views.

Then, I realized there was a problem: I have never seen a work by Damien Hirst in person. With that being the case, am I really entitled to criticize his creations? One reason that I have tended to think of myself as an "arts writer" and not a critic is that I often write about art that I have seen only in photos.

Shark Attack

Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living " on display in Bregenz, Austria, February 2007. Photo by Kecko

I live 2 hours from Los Angeles, and when the traffic is bad -- which it nearly always is -- it can take me nearly 3 hours to get from my driveway to Bergamot Station, The Getty, MOCA or LACMA. I haven't been to New York for years, and London, where Hirst's work can often be seen, is out of the question for me, at least until the riots are over and my 4 year old agrees to take a 13 hour non-stop flight to Heathrow. For me, seeing important and/or current works of art is a pilgrimage that involves at least 6 hours of driving, 2/3 of a tank of gas, and a nightmarish parking experience.

Still, I make an effort to see actual works of art in person as often as I can. I also ask that my art history students visit an LA area museum when they take one of my classes, and although they grumble when I give them the assignment, they come back to the Inland Empire glowing. "Mr. Seed," they tell me, "Your class is OK, but the Getty blew my freakin mind."

I love hearing that. Remarks like that remind me why I ask my students to pay $3.74 per gallon and make them drive to see some art. In fact, I think that my students, who are often on tight budgets, get better dollar value out of the field trip than they do out of reading through over-priced art history texts filled with printed images of works of art. My students, who spend so much time staring at screens and textbooks come home vitalized by the actual interaction with actual things.

There really is no replacement for experiencing works of art directly. In his blog on Hirst, David Galenson quotes critic Arthur Danto who says of Hirst's shark suspended in 5% formaldehyde solution: "The work has in fact the power, sobriety, and majesty of a cathedral." That comment really bothered me -- I've been to Chartres, and feel that I know the majesty of a great cathedral firsthand -- but since I have never stood there in front of Hirst's mummified shark, which carries the portentious title "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," I have to leave open the possibility that maybe Danto's comment is justified. He saw it in person, right? He felt it.

So much of the visual information I have gained about art in the past decade has come to me via the internet. In fact, most of my ideas of what contemporary art looks like is based on seeing photos in magazines and jpeg images on the net. Unless you live in a major city, and are devoted to visiting museums and galleries, you likely have the same problem. The web gives us access to a vast supply of art images, but we are allowed very little of the experience of art.

Seeing a work of art on the web is like having a Facebook friend you have never met. Seeing that same work of art in person is like sharing a beer together: it is a much more revealing experience.

When I log onto Facebook every morning I see virtual themed galleries that my artist friends have put up, and I enjoy them tremendously. When viewing paintings on the web, I try to keep in mind that the actual works, experienced in person, might surprise me, astonish me, or disappoint me. Of course, on the web I can see works grouped together that might never hang side-by-side in real life, so virtual galleries have an advantage on that score.

Many contemporary artists have decided that their work has to look compelling in photos and on the web. Not surprisingly, their works, when seen in person, don't offer any surprises. The consciousness of reproduction is one of the big problems of Postmodern art, and I have a tendency to like things that were made to be singular. That said, I want to see works in person to maximize my understanding of them, engage my senses, and give them every possible chance.

When it comes to viewing historic works of art, the internet has opened up astonishing opportunities. The Google Art Project, which offers close views of works of art in museum collections across the world, is a miracle. It allows you to see, for example, every thin sinuous stroke of tempera paint delineating the blonde hair of Botticelli's Venus. The Uffizi Gallery is much more difficult trip for me than Los Angeles, and when I did see the "Venus" there fifteen years ago I remember being jostled by other tourists and not getting a good look.

The virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel put online by the Vatican is so good, and the crowd management at the actual chapel so bad, you have to wonder if tourism to Italy is going to suffer. Maybe the French made a big mistake when they spent 4 million euros on the re-design of the Louvre website. In an era when most of us have more Facebook friends than actual friends its tempting to think of museums as places that can be visited virtually. In truth, nothing beats standing right there with a work of art: it is the most precious experiences that museums will ever offer.

Museums, and their physical collections allow us to literally feel close to an artist. One painting in Los Angeles that I have visited time and time again is Rembrandt's "Raising of Lazarus" in the Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A breathtakingly theatrical painting, its subtle lighting needs to be seen in person, and there are whole areas and aspects of the painting that simply don't "read" in reproduction. It may sound mystic, but Rembrandt is there in the painting. "Lazarus" displays a level of skill, and nuance that is earthshaking in person, but on the web, even in seen in large format, the painting seems weirdly sanitized and emotionally muted.

You have to be there, physically with a work of art, to experience it fully. The aesthetic theorist John Dewey, wrote that "An experience is a product, one might almost say bi-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world. There is no other foundation upon which aesthetic theory and criticism can build."

One of these days I hope and expect to experience something by Damien Hirst in person; maybe the platinum skull he encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds will travel sometime. In photos it looks mesmerizing and diabolical, but that is based on a photo, so don't quote me. Apparently the shark, which was on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York from 2007 through 2010 is off in storage, or perhaps being restored.

I'll be holding my tongue until then, but if I ever do see "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" in person I promise to blog my thoughts and let you know whether it had the power of a cathedral or the ennui of a giant pickled herring. A 2007 commentary in the New York Times states that "Mr. Hirst often aims to fry the mind (and misses more than he hits), but he does so by setting up direct, often visceral experiences, of which the shark remains the most outstanding."

Standing next to the tank will give me the right to comment. I need to be there.