Patrick Kelly on a treasure trove of art
Do you want to see the Cezanne exhibition at the Tate Gallery but can't face the train fares or the queues? Just sit in front of a computer and let the pioneer of modernism visit you. Cezanne: the Exhibition is one of hundreds of "virtual galleries" on the Internet.
Entering the words "art galleries" on an Internet search facility will open the doors to a vast treasure house of artworks, from the old and modern masters of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre in Paris, to the more esoteric attractions of circus owners John and Mabel Ringling's Museum of Baroque Art in Sarasota, Florida. Clicking on a section called Artserve gives access to 16,000 images from the history of art and architecture in Italy, France and Spain.
However, not one of the UK's major art galleries has a Web site. Only the National Portrait Gallery is set to follow the example of the Natural History and Science Museums in allowing electronic access to their collections.
Most galleries plead lack of resources as the main reason why Net users will not be seeing their art on the information superhighway, although the National Gallery admitted that it would rather computer buffs bought the CD-Rom of its collection. When it comes to the Internet, most art teachers are not so much speeding down the information superhighway as stuck in a service station with the bonnet up.
"I'm afraid that there is a lot of hype about the Internet," says Richard Selwyn of the National Council for Educational Technology, "Art as a subject is at the end of a very long queue."
NCET researchers visited more than 40 schools over the past few months to discover how art teachers were using the Internet. They found that art was very much a Cinderella subject. "A secondary school might have three or four access points to the Internet," Selwyn says, "but these will tend to be dominated by technology, science, careers or modern language departments."
Art departments which do have IT equipment find themselves making do with the computer equivalent of Stone Age implements. That means accessing what you want on the Internet is a slow and incredibly laborious process.
But despite the drawbacks, there is still plenty of interest in the Internet's possibilities. More than 120 delegates, most of them teachers, attended an NCET-organised conference, earlier this month, on IT, the Internet and art as a national curriculum subject. US digital artist Harold Cohen, whose work appears on the Internet, was a headline speaker. Representatives from the Slade School of Art and the BBC's education department spoke about the artistic and educational opportunities on the Net.
"Teachers are looking for something attractive to them in terms of the curriculum," says Richard Selwyn. "Does it supplement the work they are doing in the classroom? It's all very well being able to view the art treasures of the Kremlin, but what's generally missing at the moment is the critical assessment or the comparative study."
That's not likely to worry children at Robin Hood Junior School in Birmingham, however. They have had their own home page on the Internet for nearly a year and they are still as excited about using the Net as they were on the first day, according to deputy head Ann Aston.
The children have used the Internet to display their own works of art, exchange paintings with young Austrians and learn about African art and mask-making. "Many of our children don't get to see libraries and museums, " says Aston. "The Internet gives them access to new areas of learning. Everyone is very enthusiastic."
Rummaging through the pages of the World Wide Web can be an educational experience in itself - hundreds of artists are using the Internet as a display case for their work. The On-line Gallery, for example, has an exhibition spanning everything from native American art to terracotta sculptures and acrylic on slate.
Irish artists from Belfast and Dublin have set up their own virtual exhibitions and the London Contemporary Art Fair's Web site gives you a window on the latest creations of the UK's lesser-known names. You can also view the Turner prize-winning work of Damien Hirst, to form your own opinion about those dead animals.
Some of the Internet's service providers carry rich art resources. CompuServe's Fine Art Forum (Go fineart) has images from Michel-angelo to Matisse and holds regular conferences on specific art subjects.
This "interactive" side of the Internet is likely to be of most interest to the educational world. But it can be difficult to track down the dozens of groups who use its communications links and forums for discussion and argument, to seek help with a tricky essay on art history or even to find out more information about a favourite painting.
Teachers may find the Internet's anarchic melange hard to fit into a curriculum which demands the discipline of rules, tabulation and systems. But perhaps the Web's real value is as a tool for imaginative exploration. And isn't that what education is supposed to be about?
* For a useful index of art, galleries and museums on the Internet try World Wide Arts Resources on http:www.concourse.comwwardataskulptur.html.
* Artserve, with its treasury of16,000 images, can be found onhttp:rubens.anu.edu.au.
* The Louvre can be found on http:www.atcom.netpsmithlouvre or alternatively onhttp:www.cnam.frwmparishistlouvre.
* The Cezanne exhibition can be accessed via the Louvre pages.
* Damien Hirst's Turner Prize-winning opus is on http:www.illumin.co.ukturner * The London Contemporary Art Fair is on http:www.artcom.comartexpolondon.html * Robin Hood school can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org