My first exposure to fine art was through the pages of my high school art class textbook. The pages enlightened me through a broad assortment of work through the ages. Having drawn, painted and sculpted in art classes, when I actually went to a museum I looked at the thickness and intensity of the lines, the complexity of the mixture of colors, and the variety of brushstrokes. As an adult, I have been fortunate enough to travel and see many of the original works of art reproduced in the textbook.
I still remember seeing my first Mao painting by Andy Warhol at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. I felt my knees buckle as I looked at this gorgeous picture down the length of the former railroad building. A similar experience occurred when I finally came upon Thomas Eakins‘ painting The Gross Clinic at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walking into a very dark space with one light directed at this massive painting that enveloped me, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I had always admired the painting in prints, but its size and beauty touched me emotionally only when I saw it in person.
Holland Carter’s New York Times piece, “Tuning Out Digital Buzz, for an Intimate Communion With Art”, rightly reinforces the necessity of seeing art in person. His concern is about the ubiquitous habit of seeing fine art online and the sharing of selfies with art on social media. While a small amount of visitors may be impolite, museums are a public space. But I wonder if we are bothered not so much by the imposition of crowds as by the sight of people taking snapshots of themselves. They can’t possibly be appreciating the art as much as me, we might think.
Accessibility is paramount for museums and other arts organizations these days. The National Center for Education Statistics 2012 Arts Education report showed visual art education classes decreased almost 5% in a ten-year period. While funding for school art classes continues to get cut and pop culture is taking primacy in most young people’s lives, the fear is that a lack of awareness will continue to curtail art as a priority in the future.
The pages of Instagram and Facebook filled with friends’ selfies and pictures of art are the new high school art textbooks for most people. People need an introduction to something that is different from what they know. Having guided hands bring you something that they love will improve the chances that you will want to experience it, too. A friend who sees a painting on their Instagram app will more likely walk into a museum to find that same work of art. And who knows? Maybe they too will find a new favorite artwork, take a poorly composed and out of focus picture of it, and share it with their friends. Thus it is that the word (or picture) gets around in our world today.