I remember traveling to Florence and seeing Michelangelo's David: on a pedestal in a cupola, alone, lit by a sunbeam from above, much larger than I expected, and oh-so-beautiful. The detail in the hands bringing marble to life and inspiring all sorts of cliched reactions. But - there was a copy out in the piazza, where the original used to live, was meant to live, sculpted as a replacement when David himself was getting too weathered (or something like that, my memory's fuzzy and I haven't bothered checking out the story). Nothing special, really. A little dirty, and just one of a whole row of statues. But put them side by side, cleaned up, and I probably couldn't tell the difference. Or swap them, and the copy in the cupola would seem superior to the original outside.
Context is everything. We see what we expect, and react in ways we're taught. It's really hard to trust ourselves to have a true opinion because of all the baggage. And most art is (or was) meant to be seen in a living setting, a home or a church or the side of a building. Sterilizing it and hanging it in a room full of art changes things. (and hey, all those pristine white Greek temples? were really painted in bright colors) Especially when you're fighting for elbow room with hordes trotting by, video cameras at the ready, recording something they'll never actually watch at home, missing what's right in front of them, and getting right in front of you.
Even so, the chance to see all that is well worth it, and just got better, thanks to Google's Art Project. A video we'll actually watch. It just appeared, but I'm already taking it for granted, planning on using it with students, assuming I can find anything I want online. I like to look at familiar places, and to explore new ones.
It's hard to remember when we didn't have the world at our fingertips. Let's be sure to get the rest of ourselves out there and transform a virtual experience into reality.