Do art historians have mid-life crises? I don’t mean the kind where you want to buy a motorbike and visit faraway galleries—I got over that in my 30s, thanks to the BBC—but in terms of no longer responding to art as viscerally as you used to. A dulling of the artistic senses. What do you do if looking at art becomes...boring?
I worried about this on my first visit to the National Gallery of Scotland for two years (since you-know-what), standing before Hugo van der Goes’s Trinity Altarpiece. Painted in around 1478, it depicts James III and his wife Margaret of Denmark. One panel shows the crucified Christ in that unsettlingly spiritual way only the best early Flemish artists could do, physically broken yet powerfully divine. It is Scotland’s answer to the Wilton Diptych, but better and bigger.
In times past I’d have swooned in front of it, pulling a face like one of Guercino’s ecstatic saints. Now I felt underwhelmed. For a moment I panicked. There’s little future for an art historian uninspired by art. But after a while I realised I wasn’t bored of the art at all. I was bored of the gallery. And I think it has something to do with the pandemic.
During Covid, when museums were shut, we got our art kicks digitally. It’s true, many museum websites were and are hopeless. But others, like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s, took the presentation of art to new levels. And while Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse looks like the sort of place art lovers would run a mile from, the possibilities for art elsewhere in the virtual world are exciting. I tried a virtual reality visit to the Sistine Chapel (Il Divino, on the Steam platform) and was astonished not just at the quality of the images, but the experience itself. You can zoom in on any detail at will, from Adam’s tiny penis to St Bartholomew’s flayed skin. It’s not as good as being in the real chapel, but you certainly learn more than being in a crowd of tourists shoved along by shouting guards.
And when you’ve flown like Supermichelangelo along the vaults of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it may be that shuffling quietly through an actual gallery from one glazed painting to the next, a regulation two feet away from the art, begins to feel a little ordinary.
How can museums compete in such a future? If my brief panic in front of the Trinity Altarpiece is anything to go by, it will be by pushing the limits of what the real world can offer instead of the virtual one. I think I was underwhelmed by the altarpiece because I have grown to expect more, and wanted to see it not plonked on the floor in a steel frame, but in the Trinity College Kirk it was commissioned for, part of which still survives less than a five-minute walk away. It is even used as an art gallery. A little imagination, and a whole new cultural attraction awaits.
I’m fantasising. Few works of art can be returned to where they first belonged. There will always be reasons for galleries to take the Golden Idol from the temple, like Indiana Jones, because “it belongs in a museum”. But sometimes a museum is the last place art should be. It’s the difference between seeing Bellini’s San Giobbe Altarpiece in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, cut from its frame and badly lit, and the same artist’s Pesaro Triptych in its original chapel in the Frari church, where even the most committed agnostic will experience something sacred. To attract the visitors of the future, galleries will need to work harder on the experience they offer. Let’s fire up that art historical motorbike!