How to Save the Public Art Museums (A modest proposal!)

Image by Jessica Pamp.

To study visual art you need to travel. And although we have excellent reproductions, still we believe that there is a difference in kind between looking at the original work and seeing even the best copy. Public art museums have thrived by presenting extensive loan exhibitions and attracting many distant visitors. But covid made travel much more difficult, if not impossible. And the ecological problems created by extensive air travel are serious. The critical question, then, is what can be done. My goal, writing as a philosopher, is to offer a constructive analysis. Is there some way to preserve our vigorous public art museum culture without requiring so much travel? To discuss that question, let us consider a slippery slope argument with six steps. Each step in itself is apparently plausible, but taken together those steps lead to an unexpected conclusion.

Step one.

When the Louvre is crowded, seeing Mona Lisa is difficult. Here’s how to avoid the problem. Buy your ticket in advance, get to the Louvre early, enter at the side door and walk very quickly to the Salle des États. Then you will have a few minutes almost alone with her before the crowds arrive.

Step two.

You are very nearsighted, and so without strong glasses, you cannot see anything at a distance. But when wearing your glasses, if you enter the Louvre early in the morning you can view Mona Lisa.

Step three.

You can only get to the Louvre mid-morning, when there are vast crowds. Fortunately, however, you have brought a periscope, which allows you to look over the other people. Just as you can see the moon using the optical apparatus of a telescope, so you can view Mona Lisa with this simple technology.

Step four.

Webcams allow you to look at anyplace any time right from your computer. For example, a webcam allows you to see the grave of Andy Warhol in St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery, near Pittsburgh. . Try it right now! If a similar publicly accessible webcam were installed in the Salle des États, then you could see Mona Lisa from anywhere at any time.

Step five

Rather than leave the lights on in the Salle des États, the curators make a recording during daytime and play it back at night. After all, when the gallery is deserted, there’s no need to monitor every movement. There always is a short time delay involved in seeing what’s visible on the far wall, even if you are in the gallery. Now that delay is a bit longer. You see Mona Lisa at a distance some minutes or hours ago.

Step Six.

Imagine that a remote viewing system was installed throughout the galleries. Then we would have a fully virtual Louvre. All the works visible in Paris would be accessed on-line. A webcam allows you to see distant places. The webcam plus recorder allows you to see distant places at earlier times. When I look at my desk, which is right at hand, a very short time is needed for the light to reach my eyes. When using the Louvre webcam from Pittsburgh, slightly more time elapses. But of course light seen now coming from the stars has been traveling for a very long time.

To see Mona Lisa, you have to be in the Louvre. But you can see a representation of her anywhere. Our analysis undercuts that basic commonsensical distinction. Where if anywhere does it go wrong? If eyeglasses permit you to see her, then can you not also see her using a periscope? And if you can see her in that mirror image, then why not using a webcam? You can already see some things that are very far away: the moon, the planets and the stars. At present you can’t see Mona Lisa from Pittsburgh because there are many physical objects between you and the Louvre. But just as a mirror allows us to see around corners, so a webcam permits looking from Pittsburgh to Paris.

If the conclusion of step six is unacceptable, then at what stage is this argument unacceptable? Slippery slope arguments can be tricky. And philosophers devote a great deal of attention to perception. We can, for example, agree that the webcam allows us to view things at a distance. But does that experience constitute seeing those things? Perhaps viewing the webcam image is just like looking at a photograph. Maybe, however, it’s more like being a nearsighted person using strong glasses. It’s not obvious how to resolve this discussion.

Until right now, only philosophers would be concerned with this argument about perception. But that situation has changed. If travel is more difficult, and crowds in museums are unhealthy, then perhaps we should create virtual museums. And so right now there is real incentive to change our ways of thinking. There were two ways to gain visual knowledge about a painting. You can see it, or you can look at photographs of it. Sometimes photographs may provide additional or better information than direct looking. Because Mona Lisa is under bulletproof glass, now you get a clearer view from a good photograph than from direct observation in the Louvre. Still, to look at such a photograph is not to view the painting. But this situation might change. Novel technologies like the webcam may complicate our thinking about perception. The eyeglasses considered in stage two or the mirror in the stage-three periscope are also inventions, just more familiar because they are much older.

For several decades there have been anticipations of this virtual museum. In 1997 in New Zealand I reviewed an exhibition divided between one museum in that country and a gallery in Holland. Since most reviewers couldn’t get to both sites, we were given a CD-Rom allowing virtual walking forward, turning left or right, going ahead or back in the galleries of both hemispheres. And so I discussed both exhibitions in my review. The remote viewing system has been much improved, and so now the virtual museum is more appealing. When in 2021 I reviewed a Rembrandt exhibit in Basel, I was able on-line to easily move virtually through the galleries, see the floor layout and look closely at individual works from Pittsburgh.

In the public museum viewing art is a social experience. You may talk with a friend and overhear the conversations of other people. This is why the birth of the public art museum is linked to the development of the public sphere in the creation of modernist democracy. But today’s technology makes it possible to enter the public sphere from your study. Using Skype, you can talk with other people at a distance even if you are alone in your room. And you can share texts you are reading or images which you are seeing. If travel remains difficult and entering crowded public spaces dangerous, would people be willing to believe that seeing an artwork on-line counts as seeing that artifact? Would you still go to the museum just to see what’s better viewed on your computer? If you can look on-line at the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in London and the Hermitage, then would you still travel to Manhattan, London and St Petersburg? Museums depend upon admission fees. But if those sources of financing were drastically cut, then just as some news sites now charge for Internet access, so museums might adopt that policy. And if these museums couldn’t charge as much as they presently do for physical admission, maybe they make up the difference by larger attendance.

At present museum shows often are over-crowded. That problem could disappear, for on-line museums would be accessible to everyone. Of course, just as remote schooling only works for people who have good home access, so on-line museums would not work for everyone. Perhaps curators might be inspired to rethink the museum. Loan exhibitions involve the expensive, labor intensive moving of artworks. Museums require costly, fully staffed buildings, often in high rent districts. And even our largest institutions have only a limited space for permanent collections. But on line museums could display the complete reserves. They could be complete shows of any artist, including immovable or site-specific works. And the museum could be physically located anywhere. In the on line Edward Hopper exhibition in 2020 at Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland the web site had a good close views of the individual paintings, interpretations by scholars, a walk through both with visitors and in the empty galleries, and an eight-minute video by a Swiss rapper, Laurin Buser. The experimentation that I speculatively describe has already started.

When the coronavirus closed movie theaters, audiences turned to streaming. With a large monitor and comfortable seating, you might prefer viewing movies at home. Still, some people like to go out to theaters. But movies are not made to be screened in any particular kind of location. Paintings were made to be seen by viewers standing nearby. But of course for a long time changes in how art is displayed have taken placed. Starting in the late eighteenth-century, the art museum took old European altarpieces, African masks, Chinese scrolls and artifacts from every visual culture and turned them into artworks. That change involved detaching them their original context and focusing attention on their common features. Many people were skeptical about the capacity of these artifacts to survive this drastic change. Even if an altarpiece is physically unchanged, they argued, when it is moved into the museum, its original sacred function has disappeared. The change that I now imagine might be equally dramatic, and so its implications are not as yet easy to envisage.


My reviews cited are: “The World Over, City Gallery, Wellington,” Artforum, February 1997: 99. On Rembrandt, On Edward Hopper: My book on art museums: Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (Duke University Press, 2006).

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.