Art abroad: Viewing the image vs. the authentic

By Charles Campbell

Though I’ve read my share of Edward Said, the prospect of spending J-term with the Classics department in Turkey stirred visions of magic carpet rides over a sea of sand dunes. But enough of my cultural prejudices.

To the more informed tourist, Turkey is no Agrabah. Simultaneously vying for political acceptance into the European Union, contending with a genocide the government does not acknowledge and combating a viral endemic crisis to boot, Turkey stands before a historical crossroads, making it an exciting country to visit on both the political and social level.

But what drew me across the Atlantic was the opportunity to interact up close and personal with the sites I studied in my art history classes. Indeed, it is remarkable to think that the events transpiring in modern-day Turkey are set against a backdrop of architectural monuments from ancient civilizations whose dust settled thousands of years ago. The wealth of ruins and relics—spanning from the white marble remains of Hellenistic temples to the palaces of the Ottoman Empire—rivals that of existing sites in all of Europe. To say the least, Turkey has a lot to offer.

For students studying abroad, the chance to see art and architecture fleshed out from the cramped photos in the tomes of Gardner’s can be an anticipated experience. Within Turkey, the ancient Greek and Roman cities remain in various states of ruin, but all lend a sense of the city layout and architectural style: “You see the pictures and you read about ancient civilizations in textbooks, but until you see the temples, the market areas, the theaters and the homes, the people remain static and trapped in history,” said art major Kelly Seacrest ’08; “seeing something that was created in 350 B.C. standing right before you, seeing the skill and creativity in these artworks cannot compare to a photo of the same thing. It made everything so much more accessible, so much easier to interact with, to experience.”

The personal interaction with works of art as opposed to studying them through photographs maintains a higher importance within the realm of art education, a phenomenon drawn upon by the German thinker, Walter Benjamin. Photography made art accessible to the masses, enriching a visual culture that crossed boundaries of space and class. Yet upon the onslaught of “Mona Lisa” postcards available to the everyman, the value of the original work rose to astronomical proportions.

Thus, the art viewer privileged enough to study works face-to-face must contend with this altered viewing experience. As senior art major Nick Wallen commented, “Experiencing a piece of art in person does offer a different view of the piece. That said, there is often a surreal element to seeing something in person that you’ve seen reproduced so many times; it’s hard to shake the idea that you’re not looking at yet another image, and the crowds around many famous pieces can sometimes further the sense that what you have before you is more an icon on a pedestal than a piece you can really engage with.” That said, standing in front of the ornate tiles that give the Blue Mosque its name is an incredible experience, but perhaps just as remarkable is the act of viewing in an age of image bombardment.