Aesthetic Distance of Art Appreciation under the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic | Chih-Yung Aaron Chiu

by Critical Asia

by Chih-Yung Aaron Chiu, June 2021】

As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps the world, people have been mired in the global collective spectacle of “sheltering in place.” Offline events at schools, museums, and associated institutions in almost all countries have been consequently brought to a temporary halt, while “working from home” and “long-distance appreciation” have become realities thanks to technologies and social media services. Fortunately, during the global public-health emergency, the Taiwanese government’s preemptive preparedness against the pandemic allows people in Taiwan to live relatively normal lives and stage artistic events without suspension.

Defying the common stereotype of “art as nugatory,” artistic exhibitions and performances have indubitably served as the primary source of inner sustenance throughout the worldwide lockdown. Besides, the aesthetic distance of art appreciation has been gradually tackled from the perspective of physical space rather than psychology. Furthermore, digital technology has rendered long-distance appreciation possible. Therefore, this article seeks to examine how art appreciation, which used to be purely mental activity, metamorphosed with the assistance of technologies in response to the status quo of contemporary exhibitions, performances, and online curating.

Aesthetic attitude refers to the special viewpoint a subject takes towards an object that results in the subject’s aesthetic experience. In the article titled “The Modern Conception of Aesthetics” (1907), Edward Bullough argued that the studies of modern aesthetics should pay extra attention to the psychological dimension. Then, in his article titled “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle” (1912), Bullough employed psychological approaches to aesthetic attitude. He formulated the concept of “psychical distance” as a psychological factor as well as an aesthetic principle behind a viewer’s appreciation of a work of art. In his opinion, such kind of distance is neither temporal nor spatial in nature. We can genuinely appreciate an object only by detaching it from its utility and keeping our psychological distance from it. In the same article, Bullough further explained three kinds of distance in connection with art, including “actual spatial distance,” “represented spatial distance,” and “temporal distance.” He claimed that these concepts are little more than special forms of distance, whereas aesthetic experiences can be gained more easily from the “general connotation” of distance, namely psychical distance.[1] Accordingly, the distance in aesthetic activity refers to both the psychological (e.g., expertise, concept, emotion, and attitude) and physical distance between the subject and the object.

The Shift from Psychical to Physical: Telepresence and Long-Distance Appreciation

The state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new wave of online art on a global scale. People in quarantine and lockdown can thus find inner sustenance in using digital tools, such as “free access to collection data,” “digital curating at virtual museums,” and “remote control of display technologies.” For instance, the Hastings Contemporary and the Van Abbemuseum adopt remotely controlled robots to make themselves accessible to those who cannot physically partake in the museum events. Besides, the Lisson Gallery provides an AR platform that allows people to harness via their computers. Moreover, Google Arts and Culture undertakes the video project “Art for Two.” Thus, the users can wander all alone through a museum with no one else around, and engage in dialogues with directors and experts as well, in which they will find the alternative delight of virtual curating and online tour. The catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant boom in digital experiences like live streaming, online watching, free downloading, and open access. Leon Deng-Teng Shih coined the term “substitutional subjective-vision”[2] to denote this kind of digital avatar applications controlled remotely through digital platforms and cameras. Technological devices connect the users’ eyes and minds with the artworks in museums and galleries. Nonetheless, whether the pandemic-catalyzed “new experiences of virtual sites” indeed bring about a paradigm shift in art appreciation remains an issue worth our deeper contemplation.

The Next Rembrandt Project (Photo: Chih-Yung Aaron Chiu)

Unquestionably, technological advancement has not only altered people’s perception of spaces (e.g., public/private spaces, physical spaces, and even performance spaces), but also created the impression that different spatial experiences are determined by users’ specific awareness of the spaces in their quotidian existence. For example, new media technologies utilize spaces to generate consumption and usage. People interact with one another by identity construction. In this context, how do people apply the concept of space to the latest technologies and treat these technologies as the incarnations of their cultural life? “Techno-space,” a type of spatial practice, is embodied in the human-machine interaction. In the world of digital technology characterized by long-distance appreciation, images lay bare their mystical essence and (both material and immaterial) forms of existence in an extremely dazzling fashion. These forms of existence regain their dignity, and make their purity acceptable to us.[3] When digital technology users are watching digital images of art, the unique, digital way of presentation will not decrease their interest in art. There is one big reason why this digital form is tenable: its difference from the other representation forms. Here, let’s introduce art appreciation into the relationship between humanity and technology, hence a relational trinity of “humanity, technology, and art.”

It’s self-evident that digital images are one of the most fundamental grounds on which contemporary people formulate the concept of embodiment. Therefore, images are by no means framed by their contents alone. This process is a direct result of what people do with images.[4] Digital imaging constitutes an unprecedented challenge for vision. Computers are able to produce completely artificial images that provide a reasonable mode of visual experience and differ in no way from photographs in terms of appearance. Digital technology has apparently become part of our quotidian existence and transformed our experiences into various presentation forms. It implies that an interdependent, symbiotic relationship exists between vision and images. The embodied relations among humanity, technology, and art in a technological space are also represented in the digital form of artworks. New digital communication technologies give birth to new spatial practice. Serving as the most powerful tool for reproduction, digital technology can easily turn artworks into images for people around the globe to admire synchronously.

Lisson Gallery’s AR Platform (Photo: Chih-Yung Aaron Chiu)

Along with this wave of the art online, it is clear that museums’ physical buildings are not necessarily a symbol of divine presence. However, as the art in physical spaces is digitalized, physical art plays a crucial role, because its physical existence offers artworks a context that registers their authenticity, facilitates their digital preservation, and attracts a wider audience. The authenticity and aura that replicas inherently lack can be found in precious originals. Although ritualistic meanings have declined in importance in contemporary society, the aura and ritualistic value of traditional art are still preserved in the original physical spaces of art, whereas the display of artworks in the virtual world sets great store by their exhibitory value, insofar as to mirror the political implications and authenticity of originals.

Accordingly, when people are experiencing art images online, digital platforms afford them greater opportunities to approach visual media. Meanwhile, artworks can be easily digitized through technological applications and made known via the Internet, that is, they become relatively more accessible. Nevertheless, physical buildings will eventually possess their own power and exhibition politics. The global dissemination of digital images of art does not always manifest itself at the level of vision. It often interprets artworks by reference to the contextual information external to art institutions. On top of that, digital images of art have not yet been detached from their original contexts, but stand in an embodied relation to the physical contexts of artworks, which makes it difficult to distinguish between “physical and virtual” as well as between “real and fictional.” Only by shaking off the shackles of these differentiations can art reclaim its original meaning and can physical artworks restore their authenticity. It is exactly the very essence of image politics in cyberspace.

Digitized Art Images in Techno-space

As Ron Burnett pointed out, visualization is about embodiment and the transformation of information into knowledge and understanding through human activity and the conversion of information into knowledge and knowledge by humans into material and aesthetic forms.[5] In this context, the role of a digitized art image is as a provider of meaning and as an aesthetic object. Images are mediators between all the different layers of what are increasingly complex image-worlds. No technology has had a greater influence on this unfolding history of images than digital form. Digitization of artwork combines all media forms and is a synthesis of language, discourse, and viewing. A digitized art image is not one isolated expression among many and is certainly not just an object or sign. In other words, digitized art images are the outcome of vast and interconnected image-worlds. Digitized art becomes controversial because of this problem that arises when the physical body of an artwork is thought about as a series of codes, pixels, and signals. Digitized images are one of the most fundamental grounds upon which humans build notions of embodiment. Images, for this reason, are never simply framed by their content. The excess that this process is a direct result of what humans do with digitized images, as they incorporate digitized images into their identities and emotions. Digitized art images are used as props to construct and maintain the legitimacy of originality by humankind. It is as if original works of art could not exist without the duplicated images surrounding most cultures. The translation of human sight into various forms of expression suggests that vision and images are interdependent. This “human-technology-art” relation is undoubtedly represented in the digitized form of artwork because new digital communications technologies initiate new spatial practices. Digital imaging capabilities open up unprecedented critical challenges to the visual field. The computer can produce completely artificial images that provide a logical model of visual experience and are indistinguishable in appearance from photographs.

Digital technology obviously is rooted in our Lebenswelt. Visual art scholars and other art viewers facing this challenge of digital technology may both like and dislike, or agree and disagree about, this most current means of reproduction. Most people like digital images because those images can easily be reproduced and viewed worldwide, especially during the global pandemic period. The same group of people, however, dislikes the limitation of digitized images because their visual presences somehow are not accurate, such as colors and scales of artworks are changed. As a result, visualization devices such as computers and other graphic tools make up one of the most developed digital areas, and are the fundamental technologies used to convert this expanded sensation to a form accessible to human beings. The digital simulation capabilities of the computer create a break with the paradigm of representation we have followed since the Renaissance. The digitized form has the capability of combining sound, text, and image within a single database. The image no longer resides in the visual field but in the database of cyberspace, and this system represents a major advance in providing new visualization in our contemporary Lebenswelt.

Google Arts and Culture Art for Two (Photo: Chih-Yung Aaron Chiu)

The new visualization undoubtedly develops a new way of connecting the environment to the human senses. The digitized artwork has significant characteristics by nature of its form. The computer digitizes electronically scanned information about a work of art and transforms it into numerical data, which can be made visible as imagery. In other words, a digitized work of art is then a representation made through encoding information about the lights, darks, and colors of reality captured and digitized through any kind of lens or scanning procedure. Once the lights and darks of a digitized artwork have been reproduced by the computer into its numerical data space, its picture elements or pixels can be controlled individually. They can be altered, manipulated, weighted, warped, or repositioned to create not only a simulation of originality, but also an artificial or parallel “virtual” reality. As a form of digitization, the digitized art image in cyberspace is the object it signifies in its subjects, beyond the screen, pixels, and virtual environment. As in the perception of digitized images themselves, it is a matter of contemplating, of perceiving the digitized work of art by way of the silent signals that come at us from its every part. These signals emanate from the traces of the image set down on the digital archive, until they come to form a tightly programmatic structured arrangement in which one has a distinct feeling that nothing is arbitrary. Thus, we cannot simply say that digitized art production exists only as an immaterial image structure or accumulation of data, without physical substance, because digitized artwork leads necessarily to the physical form of the artwork and maintains a physical presence within a perceptual field. A digitized artwork provides a logical model of visual experience. To this extent, the artwork itself is embedded in digital data and software in the digitized form of art, and it is embedded in the technological surrounding that is directly accessible to the human senses.

The aim of mechanical reproduction doubtlessly is to produce copies indistinguishable from an original in as many ways as possible. The gallery or the museum is fascinated by this technological advancement. The proliferation of mechanical reproduction helps these institutions reproduce art images. The spectator sees more advanced technology in today’s Internet. Digitized artworks give spectators more opportunities for seeing practice. The rise of seeing practice was also accompanied by the increasing emphasis on the visual since the end of the modern era. That is to say, a global shift toward a more pluralistic way of seeing with a broader perspective on political and cultural possibility.[6] Artists and cultural institutions then also become part of this rapidly expanding cultural exchange of exhibitions, performances, and special projects, a response to the worldwide public need for communicated aesthetic experience created by the new, more democratic conditions of the electronic age. As a result, the expanded public need for art imagery has been created by the electronic conditions of the postmodern era. Within the phenomenological perception, this seeing practice demands a bodily motion, a temporal fixed place for the object, an enhancement of the visual, and the privileging of an elevated visual position. This mode of seeing practice is implicitly taught and followed, but is never explicit. It becomes a way of “being-in-the-world,” especially within digital visual culture. We have seen this practice as a proliferation of ways of viewing, and it now becomes metaphorical of the image technologies of the present.[7]

New Image Politics of Arts in the Digital Age

Maurice Merleau-Ponty pointed out that every human experience is one of a kind.[8] As an integrated entity, digital images of art per se in long-distance appreciation faithfully reflect the status quo of the new technology of digital reproduction and its relation to the late-capitalist society (or post-modernity). In the new order of digital culture characterized by image reproduction and salient intertextuality, the focus on technology and form has taken precedence over that on substantial contents, and images have become intensely controversial. Following Walter Benjamin’s discursive context, we may wonder whether digital images of art have also become a symbol that peddles the new cultural values of our society. People begin to present artworks with display technology, and the viewers’ participation in meaning interpretation is a necessary commodity if we are going to produce and embody the symbolic value of artworks. As long as the concept of symbolic value is intimately related to our socio-cultural practice, we must contemplate the meaning of digital images of art as a symbol and how they obtain their symbolic value equivalent to the value of originals.

Artists’ originality is the most fundamental prerequisite for revealing the nature of art. Many debates revolve around art in order to work out a way of survival for it. Debbie Hall held that the new technology-based reproduction had altered the nature of artworks and our perception of them.[9] New media and digital images have become the primary mechanism of virtual spaces. They create a virtual environment in which all visual, audio and linguistic elements are consumed, transformed, and interconnected ambiguously. The general public starts to approach traditional artworks through digitally reproduced images, so that virtual exhibition spaces are turned into special yet easily accessible environments. However, what concerned Hall is twofold. On the one hand, replicas replace the aura and authenticity of originals, extend the display ritual, and disenchant cultural values. The consequence has become apparent in people’s aloofness from how the textures, lines, and colors of artworks stimulate their senses. On the other hand, the emergence of digitally reproduced images enables originals to regain their sublimity.

Undoubtedly, new technologies have affected not only the electronic dimension but also the emotional and spiritual ones, because contemporary society will eventually incubate a perfect fusion of technology, art, and culture. In this unique phenomenon, electronic media and computer science integrate cultural aesthetics with the concept of mechanically reproduced data, while cultures are constructed as reproducible information or data.[10] It indicates that, since the age of mechanical reproduction, visual arts are no longer what they used to be. Images of artworks are thick on the ground around us, but not images of originals. As print media get increasingly popular, capitalists have attached great mystique to artists or artworks. Thus, electronic media again appeal to people’s senses and transform visual arts into a symbol. In the 21st century, the Internet serves as the primary channel for people to exchange information and find satisfaction. Today, the representation of visual arts even transcends that in the age of mechanical reproduction, because visual artworks can be reproduced and circulated online, and nearly all physical museums in the world have their virtual avatars on the Internet. Reproduction technology has facilitated the popularization of art, and artworks have been taken to the new frontier. However, the authenticity and aura that replicas lack can be found only in precious originals. Even though ritualistic meanings have declined in importance in contemporary society, the ritualistic value of the aura that surrounds traditional art is retained in the original physical spaces of art, whereas the mechanically reproduced art and the artistic display in the virtual world still put a premium on their exhibitory value, so as to reflect the political implications and authenticity of originals.

Chih-Yung Aaron Chiu, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan


[1] Edward Bullough, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” in Marvin Levich, ed., Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Criticism (1963), pp. 233-254.

[2] Leon Deng-Teng Shih, “A Brief Stop at the Museum: The Application and Imagination of ‘Substitutional Subjective-Vision’,” (retrieved on 6 Feb. 2021).

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception, trans. Oliver Davis (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 93-95.

[4] Ron Burnett, How Images Think (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 20.

[5] Ron Burnett, How Images Think (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 2004), p. 202.

[6] Margot Lovejoy, Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 270.

[7] Don Ihde, Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1993), pp. 86-87.

[8] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962), pp. 410-411.

[9] Debbie Hall, “The Original and the Reproduction: Art in the Age of Digital Technology,” Visual Resource 15 (1999): 269-278.

[10] R. L. Rutsky, High Techné: Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman (MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 121.

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