Visual Wednesday: In Situ versus Virtual Art Viewing

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All humans, we are art viewers, whether we are aware of this reality or not. Presently, there are a multitude of methods to view art. Viewers may choose an “in person” viewings using their sight, visually impaired individuals view through touch, or still some may tour virtually online amongst other options. With so many available ways to look, is their a best method when looking at art?

In the past the original art viewing method was in Situ, Latin for “in position”, referring to a viewer’s physical presence in front of art in its intended site. For example, some of the very oldest art in known existence is found in caves, and a contemporary viewer (aka another cave dweller from the artist’s time) could only view the art’s abstract designs of human figures and animals drawn directly onto the rock wall by visiting the cave itself. There were no printed reproductions, photographs, or Google Image results online. In Situ viewers have the privilege of a first-hand, primary experience of art in its proper context.

Thanks to the primary experience and context, in situ is regarded as the ideal way to view art by art professionals. In my experience, countless art curators, lecturers, and historians have passionately exclaimed, “If at all possible, go see it for yourself!” regarding art. While I agree and parrot this recommendation often, I also see great value in exploring the expansive viewing possibilities because in situ is not always possible or feasible.

One of my preferred viewing methods is virtually online. Sure, it’s fine to view images of art using slide projections, textbook reproductions and so on. I happen to have a special taste for online viewing for two reasons. First, the zoom features are fantastic tools for exploration, and secondly the rich content that accompany some websites is extraordinary. Often, one is able to explore finite details using zoom that would set off alarms or illicit an uncomfortable look from a museum guard if it were an in situ viewing. Other sites specialize in offering content on the micro and macro level about the art and its context.

Here are three excellent, albeit mainstream, sources for virtual viewing:

  1. Smarthistory
  2. Google Art Project
  3. Your nearby art institution site may have zoomable images of art from their collection. I like the Portland Art Museum site!

If you are like me, you may find yourself lost in virtual art land for the next few hours.

I hope you enjoy and are compelled to view art in the manner you feel suits you best. You are the viewer, so you have the power!

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