There are important differences between experiencing something online and experiencing it in person. But there’s still something good that can come from virtual art.
Is there anyway online content can be made as effective as in-person content? Can it be anywhere close? I know school districts are wrestling with this question right now. It’s at the forefront of their concerns as the uncertainties of the coming school year loom just ahead. I also know very few teachers who think that online content comes anywhere close to the experience of in-person education.
It really doesn’t.
The arts world is facing the same kind of conundrum. Arts organizations from the Waco Symphony Orchestra to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—whose entire reason for being comes down to providing a way for the public to have face-to-face encounters with great art—have temporarily lost the ability to provide that encounter. So, what to do?
Well, in many cases performing arts organizations and museums have put their product, as it were, online for people to view, to watch, to experience. I don’t know anybody who would say that looking at a Matisse or a Rembrandt online is at all the equivalent of seeing it in person. Holland Carter, art critic for the New York Times, recently listed just some of the qualities that virtual visits can’t give: “the immediate experience of texture, scale and color; the sensual incidents and accidents of light, sound, scent, air; and opportunities for conversation” with other people who are with you and having the same experience.
I don’t know anyone who would say that seeing a play online is the equivalent of seeing it unfold in front of you live. Watching Hamilton on Disney+ is not the same as literally being in the room where it happens.
A reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jeremy Reynolds, recently described COVID-19 as an iron curtain that has descended between performers and audiences. What a wonderful metaphor that is. (And historically informed, too.) But what CAN online content provide in the face of that impenetrable curtain?
Christian Cox, the Pittsburgh Opera Company’s marketing-and-communications director, has said that its online offerings like performances and its recent gala are more about “keeping up engagement.“ In other words, reminding the public that the arts still exist. That they still count in our lives.
You will have noticed that we are a people who need constant reminders of almost everything— even those things which we think are most important. If online content can remind us that the arts still have their power, even in a crisis; if we can be reminded that the arts still can speak us right where we are, that would be enough.