Pity the poor aesthete stuck in the sticks. I once had a spirited online argument with a film critic who insisted that I couldn’t say I’d “seen” a movie unless I saw it in a theater, projected from celluloid. I argued back that if he carried this idea to its logical conclusion, then no one who lived outside of a big city could be a cinephile, or any kind of serious art-lover, because without ready access to repertory theaters or museums, he or she would be consigned to a life of reproductions. And as someone who’s lived far away from the action for most of my life—with no plans to change that—I found this contention insulting, and possibly classist.
Of course it’s also true, more or less, which makes it all the more annoying. I wouldn’t say my colleague was correct about movies, necessarily. Especially now, with widescreen HDTVs and surround sound and Blu-ray, it’s possible to come fairly close to the theatrical experience at home. (And frankly, given what I’ve seen of some arthouse facilities, home video is sometimes better.) But all it takes is five minutes in any halfway decent art museum to grasp that a picture of a painting isn’t the same as the real thing. The scale is frequently off, for one, as well as the dimensions. And even if you have a life-size print hanging on your wall, you’re missing the texture of the piece. You can learn a lot about art from looking at a book, just as you can learn a lot about cooking from watching a TV show. But you can’t really taste a dish unless it’s sitting right in front of you.
That’s the insurmountable obstacle facing MoMA: 50 Masterworks From The Collection, a DVD and Blu-ray set from Screen Dreams that brings 50 well-known paintings from the collection of the Museum Of Modern Art into the homes of ordinary schmoes, via our TVs. The basic idea of the disc is fine. It’s reminiscent of “the house of the future” in old cartoons. Rather than one boring painting, imagine some kind of televiso-screen, which can transmit images from the greatest paintings of history into your living room, on a regular rotation. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”! Monet’s “Poplars At Giverny”! Kandinsky’s “Panel For Edwin R. Campbell No. 2”! All hanging on your wall—or at least sitting on your TV stand.
But a video screen can’t (yet) replicate the tactile quality of a great painting, or the scope. When reproduced on a flat screen, the Jackson Pollock paintings on 50 Masterworks look like the mess that Pollock’s critics have always claimed them to be. They have no visual impact. And say what you will about Pollock, but in real life, his paintings are nothing if not eye-catching.
And that’s not even taking into account how ill-conceived the 50 Masterworks DVD is on a functional level. The disc has two options: Users can either play a 25-minute program in which each painting stays on the screen for 30 seconds each, or a 25-minute program in which the paintings are broken up by screens sporting a few historical facts. Unless the viewer wants to pause and/or fast-forward the program manually, there’s no way to hold a painting on the screen for an indefinite amount of time and then skip to the next one. Also, in both cases, the program is backed by annoyingly “relaxing” music; and in both cases, the paintings conform to the size of the TV screen, regardless of their original shape. Significant pieces of some images are absent. (But I suppose that’s to be expected when you treat masterpieces like screen-savers.)
What’s unfortunate about the MoMA disc is that it squanders a real opportunity, because sometimes technology can illuminate the qualities of a piece of art in ways that the original presentation can’t. With movies for example, as transporting as the theatrical experience can be, there’s something to be said for the power to pause and rewind and even slow down a shot, to study it more closely. Even fast-forwarding can have an unexpected effect. I’ve frequently fast-forwarded through some old movie I recorded off TCM, and discovered that with the sound stripped away and the image moving more rapidly, I spot camera moves I might not otherwise have noticed.
When it comes to paintings, some software programs and CD-ROMs have made a strong case for technology as a way to experience art in a new way, by allowing the user to get a closer look at a canvas than a museum might afford, or by supplying substantial historical and critical context. Properly curated, the home-video version of an art museum can make connections and tell a story that one person alone in a building with a guidebook might miss completely. Or, conversely, in much the same way that computers have changed the way that we do research—allowing us to hop merrily from one link to the next, following a path more freely than we could using books alone—so a well-assembled DVD or CD-ROM could allow a fledgling art-lover to move in near-infinite directions, unfettered by the rigid arrangement of a museum.
And that’s not the only potential advantage to a collection like 50 Masterworks. When I first started watching the program, I was briefly excited by the effect that the glow of my plasma screen was having on the work. One of the reasons I enjoy reading comics on my iPad is that the colors pop when a page is backlit the way it is on a tablet computer screen. Unfortunately, the reproductions on the 50 Masterworks DVD aren’t vivid enough for the light to add much.
In fairness, this MoMA collection isn’t attempting to redefine the way we look at art, or to impart serious scholarship. The little data-points on each painting are skimpy and the selection itself is paltry. The disc is meant more as a conversation piece for guests in someone’s home than as an opportunity for deep study.
And maybe that’s fine. Maybe it’s more honest to acknowledge the limitations of one medium to replicate another. Because while I’d still argue that some flexibility is required for people who are trying to be cultured without spending a lot of money or moving to New York, I acknowledge that a film of a play is not a play. A picture of the Chrysler Building is not the Chrysler Building. And 30 seconds of a Renoir set to tinkly new-age music ain’t art.