My wife and I usually visit art museums wherever we live and wherever we travel. I can easily conjure up memories of halls and stairwells in museums in Chicago and Milwaukee and Detroit, the ones we visit most often, and imagine positioning myself in front of an artwork, shuffling among other viewers, squinting at tags identifying title, artist, composition elements, and date. Different sizes of squares or rectangles on the wall require shifts in distance for better viewing. Sometimes we purchase reproductions to hang in our household among photos and paintings by family and friends. Sometimes I'll step near one of them before I leave a room, almost close enough to step into the image or help it spill out into the space before me. We are silent and static as we face one another.
Our European travel always included museum visits: the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery in London, the Uffizi in Florence, the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, everywhere amidst bustling tourists clattering from room to room, audio guides pressed to their ears listening to explanations of selected artworks. I appreciate having immediate access to the history and provenance of artists and artworks, but more often I simply gaze at the paintings, as I do photographs of my family on bookshelves and cabinet tops in our home, noting moments frozen in time. Any chance of interaction or interpretation depends on the viewer's memory or imagination. Conversation with a work of art depends not only on what the artist determined should be viewed but also on what the viewer brings to the painting.
Most of us are accustomed to more dynamic means of communication. As readers we expect to interpret texts that offer verbal cues, a process equivalent to viewing artworks, but more often we are audiences interpreting performances, what we hear on radios or audio sites, what we see on television or computer or theater screens, not only videos and films but also live interactions with family and friends and associates. Dog-walkers pass by our condo daily, communicating aloud with distant listeners they may see on their cellphones or only hear on headphones, barely aware of the animal guiding them along the sidewalk. We Facebook and Zoom and Google those we share personal and business gatherings with, sometimes a diverting panoply of faces, sometimes more intimately one person at a time,
During the recent pandemic year, we've often relied on remote digital interaction. Sometimes it's a plus, communicating with people from a distance, seeing faces of those whose voices we usually only heard on the phone or whom we seldom saw in person because of travel expenses or scheduling. Bookstores now post interviews and readings with distant writers who would never have appeared locally. Our laptops let us participate, even post "chats," as if we were an audience in a live television program. Our chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance conducted some monthly meetings that way, the safest way to keep in touch.
The art museums we're familiar with have been cautious about determining what would be the most prudent approach to allowing the public to visit in person. Many have found ways to display some of their art online, generating either internet tours of certain exhibits or posting special digital programming. In the past I've appreciated that kind of access to works of special interest to me. The Museo Del Prado has an extensive internet site for Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych, one of my favorite artworks; it lets online visitors view the triptych both as a whole and in multiple close-ups of its parts and offers abundant multimedia links with closed captions (in English). For anyone who is unlikely to ever make it physically to the Prado, it's a thorough and engaging use of digital technology, ultimately more informative than standing among a host of other visitors to look at the actual painting itself. (Example: My son's photo of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre beyond a row of hands holding up cameras.)
But having digital access is not the same as scanning the original artifact itself, developing an awareness of the artist's presence in the design and the execution, and gaining a realization of your own presence next to it. Some of us need to discern the brushwork up close in hopes of understanding what the artist saw emerging on the canvas, while others of us resist thinking about how the painting came about and consider only the totality of what's visible before them. Sometimes the medium is the message and other times it deflects the message. I often ask myself what I'm responding to and why I'm responding that way. The answers may depend on how I see the art.
Note: Bosch, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych. Museo Nacional del Prado. Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23. Madrid. 2801