Posts Tagged ‘digital art’

Although the features of the National Gallery digital collection, including the virtual tour and multiple access points, are excellent, so much more could be done to manipulate the nature of the digital and to allow users to interact with the digital paintings in a way they never can with the original artworks. Benjamin argues that technology should be used in a new and original way to create new pieces of art, and not to try and re-create artworks likes those from the past. When representing the collection digitally, there is no need to present them with the restraints and pre-conceptions of the physical National Gallery, and as such, there is a variety of ways in which the digital collection could be presented and interacted with. A way to accomplish this would be to create digital features that allow the artworks to be manipulated and interacted with, and for the users to create their own interpretations and pieces of art. The primary difference between the digital and physical art collection of the National Gallery is the seemingly infinite possibilities for user interactivity with the digital art surrogates.


You can never touch an original artwork, let alone change its colours to black and white, soften its lines or even simply paint a bright red stripe across it for no reason other than you simply want to… But you can with a digital artwork and an appropriate editing application. With the spread of Web 2.0 features across the internet, users increasingly expect to be able to contribute to websites by adding comments, tags, and creations of their own, rather than passively view websites as was the only possible way to experience the very early internet. As an art institution the National Gallery should encourage creativity.


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As a philosophy graduate, I have to briefly share my thoughts on some philosophical theories of art, and how I applied them to my experience of Turner’s Dido Building Carthage. The main, and most important, difference in experiencing the painting digitally and physically is the difference in what Walter Benjamin terms the “aura” (The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age, 1935).  On viewing Turner’s masterpiece in real life, there is an experience of something that is difficult to articulate; a sense of specialness, uniqueness and history. It is unique as you experience awareness that the painting has been created by a unique human being; a human being captured in a moment of time, space and history that can never be reached again. The original Dido Building Carthage has a historic significance which provokes an emotional and intellectual response that simply does not occur when viewing the piece online. The original painting projects a sense of history which evokes a sense of fascination and emotional awe in the viewer.

There is a famous saying that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. The digital surrogate of the painting is solely composed of code and data and not of a human being’s brush strokes; and this must surely be at the foundation of why experiencing the digital Dido Building Carthage is not as emotive as the real life work. Something is lost in translation between the physical and the digital. When the digital reproduction of the painting has been created, the historical context and unique value embedded in the very being of the physical artwork has not been successfully copied over.

Knowledge of context and one’s awareness that one is viewing a mere reproduction of an artwork may also have a greatChuck Close Self Portrait effect on the viewer’s experience. A very clear way of illustrating this is to briefly analyse this self-portrait by the artist Chuck Close. It looks very much like a photograph, but it is actually a painting. The knowledge and context that this artwork is not created by an automated machine, but has been painted by a human being, changes drastically the very way we emotionally respond to it.

The promotion of the digital as a valid format of presenting art makes the assumption that the viewing of art is a purely visual experience. But it is not, as the role of imagination is absolutely vital in our experience of art, as Benjamin observes, “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art” (1935, p13).  But what exactly is this interactivity that is occurring between the viewer and the original that is missing with the digital representation? Walton argues in his make-believe theory that artworks function as a prop, and prescribe fictional truth and propositions to the user, who then psychologically participates and engages with the artwork in a fictional world of a game. When we are visually observing the artwork we are using it as a prop, and as we are doing so our visual experience and our reactions to it become part of the game. The world of the painting becomes a microcosm and creates an illusory fictional world. For example, Carthage is not being built in front of me, but I am seeing the building of Carthage in the game, and I am engaging with the artwork using my imagination. When the real life painting projects its aura of specialness, uniqueness and history, the user creates a connection with the painting in their contemplation of it; whether it is an imaginary or game-like connection or simply a connection to the artist and the painting’s history.


Benjamin, W., 1935. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. [Online] Available at: <http://design.wishiewashie.com/HT5/WalterBenjaminTheWorkofArt.pdf> [Accessed 23/12/2011].

Walton, K. L., 1990.  Mimesis as make-believe: on the foundations of the representational arts. London: Harvard University Press.

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This is a series of blog entries summarising my thoughts on an assignment given to me while studying the Digital Resources in Humanities module at UCL. This was to compare and evaluate my experience of a digital item with its real world surrogate; and I chose Turner’s Dido Building Carthage housed at the wonderful National Gallery.

The painting itself measures 155.5 x 230cm, and is hung at eye level. The size and scale of an artwork is intentionally decided by the artist and can be a focal point, which can be lost when viewing a digital surrogate on a screen. When viewing the Dido Building Carthage in the National Gallery, what strikes me personally is the very large size of the painting, and an experience is simulated of viewing the ancient scene of the building of Carthage as if I was standing on a balcony. It is specifically the size and scale of the painting that creates this profound impact on me. However, no similar interactivity happens when viewing the same painting digitally on a laptop screen, which is approximately seven times smaller than the original artwork. zoomThe sense of size and scale present in the real life painting is completely void in the digital representation, and as such, the viewer is not seeing the painting as the artist intended, and a great deal of the emotional impact and awe felt when viewing this masterpiece in real life is lost.

However, the digital surrogate does offer a zoomable image interface, which can enhance the user’s experience of the artwork and can reveal details that may be difficult to see on the real life artwork, particularly when the artwork is large. On the digital surrogate of Dido Building Carthage it is astonishing how much detail can be seen when zoomed in fully. This feature of the digital surrogate allows the viewer to experience the smallest details of the painting and provides them with a greater understanding in this respect than can be achieved by the original artwork, and this is extremely important when considering the qualitative difference in between the physical and digital experience.

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In studying the Digital Resources in Humanities module at UCL, I was given the assignment to compare and evaluate my experience of a digital item with its real world surrogate. Instead of choosing a book to write on, as you may expect, I chose to focus on my favourite painting; Turner’s Dido Building Carthage housed at the wonderful National Gallery. Due to vast improvements in image-capturing technology and the increased access to the internet, cultural and heritage institutions are increasingly presenting their collections digitally for users to view online, without ever visiting the Dido Building Carthagephysical site of these items. The rapidly growing digitisation of art collections by cultural institutions around the world create a need for certain questions to be explored; are these virtual tours and digital surrogates of artworks intended to be ‘good’ enough to replace the user experiencing the artworks in real life, and if they are not, then what exactly is it that the digital surrogate is missing?

The first aspect compared was the digital and physical arrangement of the art collection, as the arrangement is extremely important in providing a history and a context for the artworks, and can provide the viewer with a more enriched experience. In the National Gallery, the collection is arranged geographically by time periods. These allow for the user to progress through the gallery and view how the artworks change and progress both in subject matter and technique as the periods change. It also allows the user to compare paintings and artists with their contemporaries, and provides the user with an impression of art in Europe at different time periods. However to view Dido Building Carthage physically, access points are limited to the ones available from the adjoining rooms.  While on the website there are not only numerous, but very useful access points for the user, such as through “Artist A-Z”, “Century”, “30 highlight paintings”, “Latest arrivals” where you can view acquisitions by year, and “Take a chance!” which randomly generates 10 paintings from the collection for you to view. The experience of the digital regarding access points is extremely superior to that of the physical, which is restricted to only being organised in a single way. Through the virtual tour the website offers the option to view the collection arranged exactly as it is physically, but it additionally allows the user to view the collection arranged in other scholarly beneficial ways. The very nature of the digital enables multiple narratives to items, such as Dido Building Carthage, which not only creates enhanced access for the user, but can also create a greater understanding of the painting. For example, the user can choose and follow the particular narrative of the artist Turner, so that the user will have had the opportunity to read a short bibliography of the artist, and view other paintings by him and also by Claude before viewing Dido Building Carthage. Unfortunately, this extent of information is not available at the physical artwork in the National Gallery, presumably due to aesthetic considerations. By creating different learning paths to the painting the website greatly enhances the experience of the digital Dido Building Carthage. It provides context and historical and bibliographical information to the viewer who can perceive the digital artwork with a greater awareness and knowledge, which may reveal aspects of the artwork that otherwise may not have been noticed.

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