Our Art and Images on the Web: An Uneasy Conundrum, Part One

Peter J. Blackburn explores the hoodwinking tendencies of technology and the web in relationship to art and the artist.

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

Will the real Madame Matisse please stand up? Color discrepancies are among a handful of shortcomings artists face when posting artwork on the web. Does it matter to you? What are the ramifications of your answer?
Will the real Madame Matisse please stand up?
Color discrepancies are among a handful of shortcomings artists face when posting artwork on the web. Does it matter to you? What are the ramifications of your answer?

Yesterday, on a whim, I visited not just one, but three art venues previously scribbled on my ever growing bucket list. First stop was the Louvre in Paris. There among the treasure trove of breathtaking pieces in the collection was recent work of a well-known French photographer. In a rather conceptual approach, he photographed Neo-eastern sculptures and bass reliefs already in the collection of the Louvre, reinterpreting art from antiquity and placing each piece within the confines of a new, contemporary perspective. Second stop was the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California where delightful vintage platinum prints by a noted portrait photographer caught my immediate attention. I lingered there for quite some time. Finally, I headed westward to Tokyo and paid a visit on the Taka Ishii Gallery where I was treated to several amazing abstracts by Irving Penn. Each stunning photograph delighted my eyes and my imagination.

Whew! What a whirlwind gallop across the globe! How educational. How thought-provoking. How inspiring! Having now inserted three more feathers in my cap, each one representing a holy shrine of sorts where art resides in sacred spaces, I can scratch them off my list and venture onward toward other extravagant ports of interest.

Today, perhaps.

Sure, why not? After breakfast I’ll double-back to Chicago.

It’s a bet by now you’re probably rubbing your head in utter disbelief.

“Yeah, that Blackburn must really be binging on the bichromate this time. Sure, he went to all those places yesterday. And I’m dining with purple fairies tonight! No one could possibly attend all those spots in person in just one day.”

Relax friend. I saw it all with my own eyes—on the web!

And everyone, even my Auntie Mabel, knows if you’ve seen it on the web… you’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!

Surfing the web is just as good as being there, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it?

Hmm. You be the judge.


Exhibit A

Go to Google and type “Monet Impressionism Sunrise” in the search field. Then, click on “Images” which should fill your screen with thumbnail representations—scores of them, in fact, of the painting by Claude Monet entitled, Impression, Sunrise. There it is (hmm, there they are?) in a mind-boggling array of shades and hues! I find it all astonishing, bewildering—but most of all, concerning.

Could someone please tell me which one is the real Sunrise? Could it be possible that none of them are? Certainly, all of them can’t be.

Goodness gracious. I had no idea Claude cranked out so many variants of that one painting.

(Here’s a press release. He didn’t.)


Exhibit B

Go once again to Google and type “Jackson Pollock Blue Poles” in the search field. Repeat the procedure described above in Exhibit A and rinse well.

So I ask you once again, “Which one is it?”

So many web variants. Only one solitary work.

Oh, silly me! You’re right. Site surfing certainly is the same as globetrotting. Like when I drive to my local museum of art to enjoy River Bank in Springtime by van Gogh. There it is (er, there they are?), dozens of Springtimes, each one rendered in an altered color cast stacked up one wall, down the next, meandering through the café, and terminating near the revolving door.

[chirping crickets]

Once upon a time, back in the day, most folks would just grimace at my remarks and count them as absurd. You remember, back in ancient times (technology-wise), at the birth of the twenty-first century, when looking at photos and art on the web was a novel, even extraordinary experience. Back then, lower quality screens and first-generation technology served as a reality check. The original was still to be preferred over any screen representation. Obvious pixelation and resolution issues aided most connoisseurs in retaining a deeper appreciation, even respect, for the original, for the actual work created and intended by the artist.

They realized the art displayed on a computer screen (now, the phone screen) paled in comparison to the actual piece.

Not so today. If you’ve seen it on the web… you’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!

In fact, I would bet the ranch house, all the pigs, and a barn load of bacon that many of you reading this bit of bluster would shrug your shoulders and remark, “So what? Who cares? So the colors in those web samples are a bit off. So I can’t figure out which ones are the real ones. At least I get the idea. At least I’m inspired. And the pictures look amazing!”

Oh, if only it were true— if only it would all stop at inspiration and basic insight. But I don’t believe it does, at least, not any more. As I said, “If you’ve seen it on the web… you’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!

To be clear, I’m not writing to the masses. And to be crystal clear, I do champion the web as a valuable and appropriate platform for a wide range of artistic application and expression upon which I will expound later in this blog series.

No, my initial commentary is intended for artists and the like who hail the web as a be-all and end-all for art education, art evaluation, and art appreciation, all of which presents disquieting dilemmas which I hope to bring to brighter light as we progress though this series of thought. If you’re an artist working within the sphere of alternative processes, these issues should be of particular significance to you.

By the way, it’s not just color which suffers in the electronic translation—uh, make that electronic paraphrase. Oh, good heavens no! Other ailments and deficiencies abound. But the patient chart for that discussion must wait until our next visit.

Oh, and one more note—in case you’re wondering. None of those images are the real ones. They can never be the real ones. It matters not how accurate they appear. Web images can only be representative of the originals which physically reside elsewhere. The real ones are elsewhere. And while on one hand I am stating the painfully obvious to many of you, the other hand flails in frustration as to how many artists and the like truly don’t get it.

“If I’ve seen it on the web… I’ve really, honest-to-goodness, cross my heart and spit on a nickel, seen it!


Let me close our blog segment with the following collection of words upon which I will develop further in my next entry or two. Like a photograph itself, the web can only ever, at best, portray a partial truth. Some of the time it is a deceptive truth, even a twisted truth, and occasionally an outright lie. The intended (even if only partial) truth the artist reveals or proposes in the original work, not what is replicated on the web, is where any true celebration of art should center. But that celebration seems to be waning at warp speed with every Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook snap we post. It’s reduced with every iPhone improvement, every photo app wedged in your mobile, and each enhanced display arriving at a mega-gadget store nearest you.

Hang on; it’s going to take more words to unpack this idea. Until next time, cheers.

Your comments are most welcome.

Peter J. Blackburn, MA, has been working in gum and casein bichromate printing for over thirty years. He is represented by Afterimage Gallery, Dallas, Texas. You can also see Peter J. Blackburn’s gallery or read more articles he has written.

3 thoughts on “Our Art and Images on the Web: An Uneasy Conundrum, Part One”

  1. I have often experienced this “the other way round” – so to speak. When I go to museums and really like a piece, I want to have the opportunity to look at it again some time in future, and instead of buying a book for each picture I often try to find a reproduction online.
    It has been a frustration many times to see just how different most of these are from the original piece, how much they fade in comparison because they are at a different size, in different colors, without texture… Frankly, many of the pieces completely lose the appeal they had when I first saw them in their original shape.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Martin. Yes, I plan to address printed media, such as books and artist promotional cards, as I delve further in this series. I suppose that, luckily for some, images scanned for the web (and especially seen on a pocket-sized phone screen) will not show some of the flaws of dust and dirt as the image is too small to reveal them. But, as you illustrate so well through your example of Strand, all of what we see on the web or in print is at best, a partial truth.

  3. This is not a new phenomena. Years ago, before the internet, I saw a museum exhibit of Paul Strand photographs. I was familiar with his work from books and magazines, and I wanted to see the real thing. The images from six feet or so were fine, much as they were in well-printed expensive books. But ion close inspection, the actual prints on exhibit were full of dust spots. Either Strand wasn’t very good at spotting, or he didn’t believe in it, or simply didn’t care. But the book and magazine editors did care. The publications removed the spots that were on the prints.

    I can’t decide whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. The point is that what you saw in books is not what was seen in the gallery.

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