The Aura of Art and the Web

John Haber
in New York City

Dutch Masters Enter the Virtual Museum

For years now, critics have been out to dismantle fine-art institutions. The right takes a practical approach: cut their funding. The left, like me, would settle for deconstructing them. Someday, art may need a place long on cash and short on ideology. It may already have found one—and for once I do not mean the modern museum. On the Internet, for all its air of chaotic populism, the religious aura of the arts is alive and well. Emanuel De Witte's Dutch Church Interior (private collection, Zurich, 1685)

I want to explore why, what that means, and what about art it misses. In a postscript, written many years later for a curiously secular holiday, I follow another critic's search for the religious aura of a work of art.

One news group held a scattered thread about a CD-ROM. It was a wonderful experience, someone wrote, as lovely as a painting. Something, however, was missing—the mystique of the museum. Any Internet art fiend will recognize the elements. Consumers look for news of multimedia, but rarely multimedia art; artists boast of the ineffable beauty of their work. But then I should know the close connection between computers and religion. I check for e-mail at least ten times a day.

The sense of loss

Understandably, the news group could hardly escape the mythology of art. The museum was missing, but the sense of loss was not. The message poster could still identify with the artist. She could feel his power; she could fill in for his creative absence. I do not use pronouns lightly. One day soon, his voice may be right online beside her, inviting her to a conference in progress. Probably, it will be a press conference.

Internet access, literally, comes with a price of entry. At least a few of its users will not be discouraged by the cost of an electronic coffee-table book. In exchange, it offers consumers a resting place, a "handle." Without one, social media (then, the Usenet) might be freer to see what is really missing—the concrete individuality and conventionality of the work.

No reproduction, of course, can duplicate a painted surface, colors, scale, and site. These and other factors create that relationship to art works that viewers have held special. They initiate relations among producer, purchaser, and critic unimaginable before. In the haste of a new CD-ROM to create a virtual museum, one can easily forget how much was never meant for display on public walls. On slides or online, the art world, too, is one fiction among many. What it contains, however, and what it implies may turn out to be real.

It is by no means cold, formal, inauthentic, or retrograde to think of art as a thing. It is enough to say that works of art are objects, sites, and theatrical creations. Into them, some have poured a lifetime and others open their own lives. To them, entire cultures have forcibly given the strength, frailty, cruelty, and contradictory energies of their own life. And some just enjoy them.

Existentialists often think of the work of art as a person, in all its richness, challenge, and utter mundaneness. It waits nervously for others to accept it as an equal, a sufferer, a lover, a brute, and a judge. I may not agree, but I too want nothing superhuman about my relationship to works of art. From art as from God, I want only the insight and patience to sustain the relationships, human and creative, that I so tentatively claim.

The humanity of a work and the aura of the museum might seem very much alike. Both pretend that nothing lies between artist and viewer but bare walls. At least the former is only one more metaphor. At least, too, it reminds us that the creative individual exists only as long as others sustain the fiction and reflect it back.

Art regained

If that fiction is seen as religious, think of all that it leaves out. Imagine grounding art in another metaphor, one as seemingly spiritual but harder to identify with a single creator. Critics have sometimes seen site-specific works as stand-ins for the artist. Think instead of a site larger and more diffuse than anyone alive. Think of those wonderful sixteenth-century paintings, by Pieter Saenredam and Emanuel de Witte, of the spacious interior of a Dutch city church. For Saenredam especially, I imagine it as the distant comfort promised in Vermeer's View of Delft.

The work may be said represent itself as a work of art, with the religious only one part of the ever-changing, humanly hypocritical display. Sure, art is in the high altar. It is in the song that can course through the organ's pipes. Yet it is also in the family crests along the walls. They proudly display their investment in ordinary human society. They anxiously reveal intricate, enriching, and burdensome financial obligations.

Art is in the people who stop to meet. In the Dutch society of these paintings, the large, well-lit spaces were like a village square. It is in the light that fashions inanimate spaces, majestic stonework, and un-self-conscious pet dogs alongside the high and mighty.

Art is in the saints or gargoyles on the pillars, even when they appear to come alive. The carvings turn their back on religious dogma to let in a sense of play and natural diversity. It is in a child's graffiti on the stone, thumbing its nose at the whole sermon going on elsewhere. It is in the grave markers, attesting to a human tragedy that no religious sensibility can ever fully explain away.

Art too is in the detachment and provocation of the painter. Thanks to willing viewers like myself, a painter or performer can pretend to see and absorb all this. Along with the artist, I have agreed to imagine that art is only about sharing it among men and women.

Well before Internet art made the Whitney Biennial, artists have been agent provocateurs, flawed collaborators, and double agents as often as spiritual guides. Either way, they know that there is no short cut, soulful or otherwise, to going about their work. This difficult age looks to an imagined past for shortcuts; think of the American elections. I look at art just because it is no less a pretense or an institution. In its precision of sentiment, it knows better.

A postscript: no thanks

On the very day before Thanksgiving, The New York Times had a perfect gift for the holiday: it remind one to be more thankful. Michael Kimmelman, then the head art critic, wrote about his day in London museums, which he presented as a long, nearly thankless slog in search yet again of art as a substitute for religion. He wanted his "epiphany."

It did not come from a large, crowded show of Hans Holbein the Younger, including the full-length portrait of a prospective bride for Henry VIII. It did not come when the artist managed in just three hours to capture at once an offering, a queen, a study in Protestant reserve, and a child. It certainly did not come from the Turner Prize finalists or the "remarkably awful" Italian Renaissance, including poor old Filippo Lippi. It did not come from Carsten Höller at Tate Modern. Her sliding pond sounds just the thing to append to the University of California at Berkeley Art Museum, which leads one up the architectural equivalent of a five-level parking garage.

It did not come from Peter Fischli and David Weiss, although the Swiss artists did make him laugh at their seemingly endless Rube Goldberg contraption. I admired their video, too, at MoMA in 2005. Thankfully, the manifestation of God to the wise men came at last from Adam Elsheimer, a German-born painter who worked in Italy up to his death in 1610. The weary magus had first to "trudge" to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. He also had to use his clout to gain entry on a Monday. However, he came to appreciate how Elsheimer's small, intensely lit night scenes and landscapes color Nicolas Poussin and Jan Vermeer.

I, too, have had that kind of epiphany, although without the special powers conferred by our paper of record. I had it on my own field trip just weeks ago, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, when I almost walked right past a tiny nude by Jean Antoine Watteau. Between its scale and flurry of highlights, it appeared a sudden revelation meant only for me, the same illusion that Watteau created for its first owner—perhaps himself. However, museums hold more than epiphanies. They hold works of craft, confrontation, insight, imagination, success, and failure, and sometimes it take you to approach them. An epiphany at day's end may mean only that the viewer has reached a state of exhaustion.

I wanted to scream at Kimmelman as he demands two unfortunate myths at once—bourgeois certainties and, once again, the religious aura of art. I wanted to scream as he marches through half a dozen shows with total detachment, before something catches his majestic eye. I wanted to scream as he admires Elsheimer without taking care to explain how the artist, along with Peter Paul Rubens and the Dutch Caravaggisti, could supply that bridge from the 1500s to the Baroque. As part of his job, he should be teaching me how to look. He should learn to look himself, especially if The Times is paying him to visit Europe. Rather than waiting on art, one might better be thankful for it.

I could thank today all the artists who keep going year after year with little hope of recognition and little sign that art itself is going much of anyplace. I could thank the dealers, often including the wealthiest and most powerful, that maintain their enthusiasm amid the clutter of Chelsea and the "battle for Babylon"—or those that seek to survive in galleries and studios well past Manhattan's margin of safety. I could thank the occasional museum that goes beyond playground equipment, blockbusters, and institutional empires. I could even thank people like you, who pay admission or slog through quite a bit yourselves. I could stop waiting on art and start looking for it, thinking about it, and learning how to see it. If I want an epiphany, I am better off praying.

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I wrote this, I believe, in the earliest days of planning this webzine. From the reference to the American elections, I suspect 1994, after the "Contract with America." The postscript came on Thanksgiving 2006, following a New York Times article of November 22.


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