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computerizing the 
art experience

by Jed Perl

Art addicts, computer nerds, and anybody 

who's interested in art-and-technology took 

notice a couple of years ago when Bill 

Gates bought Leonardo da Vinci's Codex 

Leicester for $30.8 million. Now the 

American Museum of Natural History has 

announced that next fall it will exhibit 

the 72-page manuscript that contains 

drawings on topics from hydrodynamics to 

astronomy, along with interactive computer 

displays designed to explicate Leonardo's 

mirror writing and scientific ideas. 

At a time when works of art are turning up 

on home computer screens just as fast as 

computer screens are turning up in museums, 

it's generally agreed that there's some mad 

logic to the Microsoft czar's eagerness to 

snare the last privately owned manuscript 

by the most technologically savvy aesthete 

that the world has ever known. Although the 

Codex Leicester, scientific in nature, 

isn't exactly a work of art, I think it's 

fair to point out that there's an emerging 

art-and-computers gestalt, and that 

masterpieces that we prize for their 

uniqueness and magical immediacy are 

becoming hot currency in a worldwide 

information system.

Bill Gates himself is busy acquiring 

reproduction rights for his Corbis 

Corporation, which has entered into 

agreements with the National Gallery in 

London and many other institutions, to 

provide international distribution for 

works in their collections. The crowds that 

find our museums turning into pressure-

cooker experiences may wonder if they're 

not better off buying the CD-ROM, and 

looking at Cézanne or Vermeer in the 

relative peace of their own homes. They 

better think again.

Inveterate optimists may imagine that we're 

near achieving instant access to the 

masterpieces in the museums. But the 

difference between a work of art and a 

reproduction is absolute. The computer 

screen captures some of the feel of 

brilliantly colored painterly paintings by 

Rubens or Monet, but it turns a Rembrandt 

into a black hole and the matte surface of 

a fresco into shiny plastic. There's an 

irrefutable logic to reproducing oil paint 

on canvas with printer's ink on paper--the 

materiality of the original is respected. A 

computer screen gives works of art the same 

weightless, disembodied feel that artists 

and art historians have long decried in 

color slides, and having come to accept 

slides as a necessary evil we are under no 

obligation to be less critical of the 

computer screen.

Scholars are going to benefit from CD-ROM 

catalogues of the great collections. And 

the school kid who goes on line may stumble 

on some art reproductions, feel an 

immediate attraction, and head for the 

museums--where permanent installations, far 

less crowded than the special exhibits, are 

still the place to go. Obviously, we all 

want to give people the maximum amount of 

information, but it does seem that when 

technological considerations dominate, art 

is all too often regarded as a matter of 

education rather than experience.

Nobody gives any thought to what 

"interactive"--the adjective of the moment-

-means in the museum context. The Micro 

Gallery, which opened last fall at the 

National Gallery in Washington, has been 

described as "the most comprehensive 

interactive, multimedia computer system in 

an American art museum." The selling point 

with all the new interactive material is 

that the images will change whenever you 

want them to, but what on earth does that 

say about looking at a painting, which 

simply hangs on a wall?

Masterpieces extend our imaginative reach. 

The artist dreams up a universe and we 

dream ourselves into it. In a sense we're 

reinventing the painting as we react. 

There's no way that the new computer 

programs are going to prepare you for this 

kind of experience, because clicking on an 

icon has nothing to do with letting your 

mind zoom into a mysteriously interactive 


Even people who can't define authenticity 

can feel its attraction, which is part of 

what pushes museum attendance into the 

stratosphere. Although Bill Gates is the 

showman who bought the Codex Leicester, 

it's Leonardo's show. This High Renaissance 

master is the father of all techo-nerds, 

but when you're looking at one of his 

drawings--even if it's just a diagram--you 

know perfectly well that you're not on the 

information highway. It's a clarifying 

experience. Nobody is ever going to pay $30 

million for last year's CD-ROM, and that 

would be true even if there were only one 

copy left.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New 

Republic. This essay appeared in slightly 

different form on the Op-Ed page of the  New 

York Times.