07/09/2010 02:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

TECHNOLOGY IN ART: Clicking Michelangelo's Ceiling

Not long ago, I posted a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel on my Facebook page. This isn't an online slide show or video guide through a Rome museum but a Vatican-sanctioned, Google Earth-style viewing tool. With the click, you can zoom in on Jesus or Moses or Noah. You can examine the minute details of The Creation of Adam or The Last Judgment or cracks in the wall. You can study the floor tiles if you want.

The question I posed with the link was: "How do we feel about virtual art?" One of my friends commented: "Sorry, I'll never get there, so I really liked this."

The comment gave me pause. What if we know art only online as a virtual tour? Does viewing the Sistine Chapel on a computer screen qualify as an art encounter? What do we make of this site that allows us to sit at our desks in our pajamas and see the Sistine Chapel without so much as a glance upward to the Heaven implied beyond the walls of the ceiling?

It is possible that online consumption of art may force us to reconsider the art experience for the 21st century?

The dilemma of live or Memorex has been around since, well, before Memorex. Nor are mass consumption and reproductions new industry issues. Most of the art I saw in the first half of my life was in a history book, and I think most people see art primarily in reproduction - in books, on postcards, through advertising, on a coffee mug. Probably the next most frequent experience is in museums, community settings designed, like churches, for the public to gather for a dedicated purpose.

But with the sophistication of technology - oddly, the medieval Catholic Church has chosen this one way to keep up with modernity - and without the expense of traveling to Rome, Paris or even New York City for that matter, might the virtual art tour be providing an encounter that our old history books couldn't? And if we then talk about it on Facebook, is the "social" part of the experience addressed?

The answer is yes. And no.

First of all, it's true: My Facebook friend is never going to make the trip to Rome. She's more likely to go to Disney World, which, for the record, I have also visited. But I marveled in the fact that she took the time to zoom in on art in the midst of her day. I'm not thinking of tweeting the site: Spend 10 mins w/Michelangelo's Sis Chap right NOW!

But this is also true: A more laborious pursuit of beauty has its benefits.

Two years ago, I took my daughter to Rome in part to see the Sistine Chapel. It takes a massive amount of patience and physical dedication to do this. You sign up, you wait in lines, you don't understand Italian, you get lost, you get hungry, you have to go to the bathroom, but eventually there you are standing beneath what may well be one of the wonders of the world. And it gets worse: Like Michelangelo who spent four years on a scaffolding 60-some feet high, you have to crank your neck in the most painful way to view the paintings. But you do all this because it is art, and you understand that this comes with the territory of the art expedition. Catholic or not, you agree to suffer for beauty. And it is worth it.

In part it is also worth it because, along with the experience of seeing the art, you are absorbing the echo of human history. This is where Michelangelo worked in the 1500s, for God's sake (literally). The Sistine Chapel is also the private chapel of the pope, as well as where the College of Cardinals meets to choose new popes. That makes it one of the most powerful spots on earth, art or no art. The air is thick with the aroma and aura of gravitas.

Art, after all, is not only about content. It's also about context.

Last winter, Helen Molesworthy, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston made her first trip to the Prado in Madrid. For the last 20 years, she has had a postcard of Velasquez's Las Meninas on her desk. She had read widely about the artist and about the work. Surely she has also seen it online. None of this prepared her for what happened when she stood before the real painting.

"I thought I knew what was going to happen. I didn't," Molesworth told me recently. "I was stunned by how unbelievably overwhelmed I was by the feeling I had in front of the picture. It was that kind of wonderful moment in which art really does crack you open, and you say: OK, how do I even get my bearings? And I'm a quote-unquote professional! I look at paintings. That is my job, and Las Meninas can do that to me. Now that says a great deal about that particular object. Maybe it's the best painting ever made. But it also says something about the experience of making the pilgrimage to a place. I think we forget that the art experience begins when you get your bag ready, you lock the door and drive to the airport. There's a runway to art, and the longer the runway the more intense the experience."

In his 2009 book Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon says the Chapel's paintings "represent one of the highest pinnacles of creative achievement - an equivalent, in the visual arts, to the poetry of Dante and Milton, or the music of Bach." He goes on to say that Michelangelo's innovative approach to the ceiling blazed a stylistic trail that compares to nothing less than Shakespeare establishing literature's first fully imagined inward-looking character in Hamlet.

Of course, you can find Dante, Milton, Bach and Hamlet online, and each click enables education and scrutiny. And I would not presume to state that inspiration, understanding and Molesworth's "crack you open" moment absolutely cannot happen online. But education and scrutiny aren't exactly love. And my guess is that Molesworth is talking about just that in her "crack open" moment. What she felt that day may well be the equivalent of falling in love but with a work of art, with an encounter of beauty so profound that you suddenly recognize the depths - or in this case the heights - of humanity.

"I work in museums because I am in love with the kind of experience you can have when you cross the threshold into a place that says you are not in real life any more," says Molesworth. "You are in this other place that's set aside in our culture so that you can slow down and think and walk and talk in different ways than we can when we're outside this building. I believe in that."

You can, of course, slow down at your computer. So in the end, the experience of art may be about decision making on what you're willing to give up (a sore neck) and what you are willing to invest (your soul).

Lots of non-arts lovers may explore the Sistine Chapel site and come to appreciate something about the real sight - or maybe will use the link as a gateway to an increasing desire for art. Novelists, painters, designers and procrastinators - all creative people - may also find the site a useful tool. Like Molesworth, I can't deny that I spend a good portion of my day taking in some form of art online. That is our modern world at work. But let's hope the virtual contact enhances our falling in love in museums and other public spaces. Like Facebook.