THE writer C.P. Snow described the ''two cultures'' of science and the arts as irreconcilable. In the past two years, however, the distance between the two poles has narrowed. Museums are establishing outposts on the Internet and the World Wide Web, formerly domains of the white-lab-coat set.
''The Web has tremendous potential not just for science and technology, but for arts and humanities,'' says Linda Duke, education director at the Krannert Art Museum of the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill.
About 50 art museums in the United States now display their collections electronically. Not wanting to be left out of a cyber gold rush, ''most major museums are scrambling to get on-line,'' says Cynthia Pannucci, founder of Art and Science Collaborations Inc. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, by January 1996, all its 170 member institutions should be on the Web. (The World Wide Web is the graphic-display part of the Internet, a global network of computers linked by telephone lines.) Instead of thousands waiting in line for museum blockbusters, millions might view the shows at home, on-line.
''All it takes is a modem and a dream'' is the rallying cry of the new ''art ex machina'' movement. The potential audience for the new medium is enormous. According to a recent Nielsen survey, 24 million people in the US and Canada use the Internet, although reliable numbers are hard to come by. Sixteen million have access to the World Wide Web.
Already, significant numbers of computerati browse through museums on-line. Since June, the Andy Warhol Museum welcomed 6,000 visitors a month to its actual museum in Pittsburgh. In the same period, 10,000 viewed its collection on-line. In the most dramatic outreach, the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside, hosted 17,000 to 20,000 on-screen viewers compared with 2,000 on-site visitors monthly.
According to Anne Robinson, coordinator of media relations, the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Web site has ''put us in touch with an audience we could never reach otherwise.'' One of Indy's widely viewed projects was ''Couch Potato,'' by Nam June Paik, consisting of an actual robot sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner in the museum. More than 1,000 visitors who logged on to the Web site sent a stream of messages to Couch Potato, who held a working fax machine in his hand.
Journalists around the world - from Japan to California - featured coverage of the show. ''This was the only time Los Angeles was interested in what Indianapolis was doing,'' Ms. Robinson says. ''We don't get cultural travelers here, but in cyberspace, we're all equally accessible. Now it's a level playing field.''
Other benefits include increased access to art for the homebound or for those who live far from museums. Building a new constituency for art and increasing visual literacy are oft-mentioned goals.
In recent years, budget cuts have reduced arts instruction, often considered a ''frill,'' in the kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum. ''There are not a lot of art teachers left in public schools,'' says Scott Sayre, director of museum media and technology at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. ''Art museums are accepting an educational role. Our hope is to make our electronic resources attractive enough that kids who stumble on them on the Internet will suck them up.''
''By getting onto the Internet,'' says Glenn Lowry, director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, ''I'm dead certain we will diversify our audience.''
''People denigrate the Web's potential to reach an entirely new audience,'' says Jennifer Trant, manager of the J. Paul Getty Trust's Imaging Initiative, a project to ensure quality in digitized images. ''They say, 'Only 13-year-old boys are on the Web.' The obvious response is: Are there any 13-year-old boys in your museum? We need to break through barriers [impeding cultural access].
Studies show the Web attracts art neophytes. At the Krannert Museum Web site, 75 percent of visitors are male and 50 percent under age 35, according to a survey. Web viewers reported visiting real museums only several times a year but browsed virtual galleries weekly. Those surveyed praised the on-line experience, with comments like ''on-line art exhibits are never crowded.''
But while information about art may be just a point-and-click away, is aesthetic appreciation possible through a format with video-game gimmicks?
According to David Ross, who is the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, ''some Web visitors are interested in quick, easy entertainment, while others want more substantive educational opportunities. We deal in pictures and ideas. We don't want to shortchange the ideas side, although we do want to entertain.''
''What interests me isn't digitizing images and sending them out into the ether,'' Mr. Lowry says. ''It's developing programs that get people thinking about art, in which the images become the trigger for wanting to actually go experience a real object.''
All museum officials insist that a still life should be encountered in real as well as virtual life. ''The idea that these things serve as a substitute for personal experience with a real work of art is nonsense,'' says Evan Maurer, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
As Ms. Pannucci put it, ''Virtual reality can't replace reality. It's like in travelogs on television, you can see beautiful places you've never been, but it's not like hopping in a canoe and going down the Amazon.''
One way in which the virtual gallery can outshine physical galleries is in flexibility. Although gallery exhibits are planned years in advance, ''with the Web, we can be immediately responsive to changes,'' says Edward Earle, senior curator at California Museum of Photography. After the Kobe earth- quake in Japan, Mr. Earle posted images of that city in 1880 from the museum's collection of vintage photographs.
''Word spreads through the Internet like a party line,'' says Mr. Earle, and record numbers logged on from Japan to view images ''of a much happier time.''
The Web is also a venue for new art. Although the medium is in its infancy, roughly equivalent to video art in the early 1970s, artists are flocking to hypermedia.
Rather than just showing digital reproductions of traditional works, many museums have commissioned autonomous works that exist only on the Internet. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum site is Douglas Davis's ''World's Longest Sentence,'' the first Web work to be sold to a collector. Begun in late 1994, the sentence was ''the first interactive piece on the Web,'' according to its creator, who is ''trying to make the screen a two-way exchange.'' At least 75,000 individuals from as far as Australia, South Dakota, and the Malawi Islands have added words. ''Be intimate, be universal'' are Mr. Davis's instructions. The only rule: no period. The art work is intended to grow forever, as future browsers post messages.
''Engaging viewers is a major passion with me,'' says the New York artist. Although traditional artists require the squish of clay or smell of linseed oil, Davis relishes non-material art composed of bytes and bits. ''The sacred essence of art doesn't have anything to do with formal objecthood.''
The interactivity that is the Web's trademark makes it an ideal platform for arts education. By clicking on electronic links to related information, Internauts customize their exploration. In the Krannert survey, one user characterized this choice-driven exploration as ''diving below the surface of a painting to discover more art.''
''This is a reversal of the usual museum and visitor relationship,'' says Matthew Drutt, associate curator at the Guggenheim. ''People choose the material they want and how they view it. The Web empowers the audience, which has command over how to digest information.''
'Isuspect the standard museum visit will be preceded routinely by on-line viewing,'' says Maxwell Anderson, director of the Art Museum of Ontario in Toronto. This electronic preview could overcome the fear factor.
''We know people are intimidated by art and museums,'' says Phillip Johnston, who is the Henry J. Heinz II director at the Art Museums of Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. ''It could be simply that they don't know the protocol. With an advance cybertour, the visit to a museum is demystified.''
Others point out that interactive engagement with a subject increases educational intake. The more the learner makes choices, the more he learns, Dr. Maurer says.
Ms. Robinson wonders if art's exposure on the Web might even shake up the canon of hallowed art. ''What makes a masterpiece a masterpiece?'' she asks. ''It could be an issue of familiarity, and that could change with the Web.''
With so many Brave New Web notions transforming museum practices, skeptics warn of what Frank Biondi of Viacom called the information ''superhypeway.'' A. Michael Noll, professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, calls the frantic Web building ''cyber-overload.'' With artists and museums showcasing art on-line, Dr. Noll says, ''Too much information is coming at you. There need to be gatekeepers and some sort of review mechanism to ensure quality.''
Even performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose multimedia CD-ROMs are viewable at the Whitney Museum site, fears that ''technology is taking the human race on a drive to nowhere.'' Warning against worship of high technology, she says the constant push for more equipment and software can be ''our own version of the arms race.''
Mr. Ross is alarmed at ''the government's censorial impetus - those who want to tell others how to think and what to do,'' as calls for regulating the Internet escalate.
Marcia Tucker, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, questions the solitary nature of communing with art on a screen. ''I'm concerned to get the museum to be a social space,'' she says. She also doubts the new medium will enfranchise the masses, as supporters claim.
''A new power hierarchy is taking place,'' Ms. Tucker says. ''What troubles me is, you get a sharp division between those who have access to the new technology and those who don't. For all the talk of democracy, it's the wealthy, white, upper-middle class that has access to the Internet. From a feminist perspective, it's a male-dominated arena.''
Since even computer novices can download images, others worry pictures will pop up in inappropriate or undignified contexts. To discourage misuse, many museums place headers, copyright symbols, or translucent watermarks on digitized art images.
Rather than losing money to picture pirates, museums hope the Web will generate revenue. ''The prospective benefits of the Net are increased cash flow from the sale of merchandise on-line and ultimately from allowing viewers to subscribe to the museum,'' Dr. Anderson says.
Some in the art world fear precious cultural icons will be debased if they become consumer commodities or are overexposed. Others want to be at the starting line to ensure the stampede toward the electronic frontier includes a modicum of humanists.
Pointing out that ''cyber'' derives from the Greek for ''to steer'' or ''control,'' Ms. Tucker says, ''It's not a question of technology being good or not good. It's here. It's a tool. It depends on how we use it.''
While information about art may be just a point-and-click away, many ask: Is aesthetic apprecia- tion possible through a format with video-game gimmicks?