Google Art Project: Maybe Not Actually The Best Thing Ever

Starry Night, The Sleeping Gypsy, and a painting blurred for its own protection.

The big story this week is Google’s singlehanded revitalization of the social power of art – or at least that’s what you’d gather from the coverage of Google Art Project. It’s an extension of Streetview inside some of the world’s fancy-schmanciest art museums – MoMA, Tate, the Uffizi, and the Hermitage, among others – with navigable 3D spaces and gigapixel images. As Kyle over at Hyperallergic documents, it’s an interesting and well-made piece of tech. As anything beyond that, though? I’m suspicious.

The flood of reportage on Art Project gives the rough impression that art died and was resurrected. Art Project is getting a lot of credit for opening museums up and making their collections accessible, which of course is something major museums have been doing prominently since the dawn of the internet; if Google had a hand in allowing us to find images of artworks, it was back when they came up with image search. What’s new here isn’t the individual works, but rather the preservation and dissemination of the curatorial selection and display that frame them. Honestly, this works: having never been, I really enjoyed looking at how the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow was hung, and it was nice to revisit Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors in its surrounds at the National Gallery, because I remember thinking when I saw it that it was nicely hung. The reason this works, though, is that I’m an art nerd. Relatively few people are going to gain anything from seeing the works in their museum context other than a renewed appreciation for how important these museums are – which is, clearly, one of Art Project’s goals.

When they exist, the super-high-resolution images are relentlessly appealing. From Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom”.

As a way of viewing art, Art Project has definite downsides. The pieces that work best when viewed in this context are the iconic pieces, the pieces we’ve seen thousands of times before as JPEGs; what I see in the top image is Starry Night and Sleeping Gypsy, rather than anything to do with paint or canvas or technique or presence. That’s not a new problem, of course – people have been complaining about it as long as the Mona Lisa has adorned coffee mugs. Rather the issue here is that there’s no possibility of noticing anything else, no possibility of the redemption of the flâneur: it is difficult for me to notice a work which has not been intended for me to notice it, having now passed through a fourth filter of virtual reality that obscures what little survived the filters of criticism, curation, and history. That’s not just flowery bullshit, either; from a usability standpoint, I am actively dissuaded from experimentation by the need to spend abnormal time and effort moving around the space, and by knowing that I’ll have to wait for the page to reload when I click on a work. It’s an investment of time I’ll make when I know the result is The Birth of Venus, but not simply to idly see whether there’s anything interesting about that brownish blob over in the distance. Further, where in person I can focus on the particular of a well-known work, and hopefully lose my conception of the too-familiar general, here all the well-established weaknesses of looking at art on the internet stop this; the normal-resolution JPEGs available for most works are too blurry to make out brushstrokes, understand texture, and so on. The few gigapixel images go some way towards ameliorating this, but for the moment each museum only has one. So long as these images are exclusive to the most prized works, they only heighten the sense of looking at something the museums want me to look at.

Of course, a system that necessarily favors the existing canon only goes halfway to being useful to museums; for the other half, that canon needs to be explicitly and inextricably linked to them. When I find a work on ARTstor, for instance, it is offered as a free-floating cultural artifact, with information about its owner as a footnote; when I find a work on Art Project, I am unavoidably placed into the museum that owns it, and bombarded with information about nearby works, the museum’s mission, and so on. Actually, there is no option to find an artwork without browsing to it through the museum’s page – an actively regressive touch. Further, this means that while I can include La Primavera in a collection of my favorite artworks, visiting it means loading the Uffizi Gallery, where it’s just as easy to click on to the next work along the wall as it is to continue following my tour.

The Rijksmuseum is committed to giving the full museum experience – gift shop included.

These “collections” have potential, but more than a few limitations (it should be noted that the Louvre, among other museums and art websites, has done this before). You can share them with your friends, with notes on each work and the ability to save views of specific parts of the works, but as a feature it’s still a bit clunky, and there are a few bugs. Certainly, though, it’s an execution that has potential for art history teachers and museums looking to create online tours.

The problem is, the ability to share does not create the impulse to share: as web entrepreneur Jonah Peretti has pointed out, you have to intentionally design something to go viral if you want it to have any chance of gaining traction on the internet. I struggle to imagine when I’d use the social media functions of Art Project for anything other than “Hey look at this cool tech!”. If Art Project is going to be useful to art lovers, it’s going to be useful because of the social interactions it engenders; to create those social interactions, it needs to make sharing attractive. Exactly what works would move users to share? Viral sharing deals in a particular sort of novelty that canonical works in world-famous institutions just don’t have, so beyond Brueghel or Arcimboldo, what has the necessary qualities? What’s universal enough, funny enough, militant enough, novel enough to gain any traction online? It’s not a problem restricted to art plebes at the office, either: who, in the hipper-than-thou art world, is going to be impressed when I tweet a link to Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon? The problem is that Google hasn’t done anything to make art more interesting or more viral to the average museum-goer, and hasn’t done anything radical enough, hip enough, or even contemporary enough to appeal to the art world.

Ultimately, Google has created something which is irresistible to museum staff: it takes the ever-popular idea of the virtual exhibition and transforms it from something that requires a budget and a dedicated tech staff into something that requires a Google-provided camera and a few hours of intern labor. Not only that, the resultant virtual exhibition shows off the original display of the artworks in the museum space – something curators spend plenty of time thinking about, and would be loathe to set aside – and rewards the sort of brute-force canonization museums are expected to pursue. In exchange, Google is able to associate itself with the extraordinarily impressive brands of the Met, MoMA, the Hermitage, Versailles, and so on. So Google benefits and museums benefit, but the actual art public? I don’t know about that.

P.S. – I’m told by a friend at MoMA that the blurred-out work to the right of the Sleeping Gypsy in the lead image has already been replaced (Google visited MoMA sometime around March, as the images of the lobby attest). This both raises an interesting question as to how often museums will be updated, and leads one to wonder what will happen to the old photographs if an update takes place. As time goes on, that could become a fantastically interesting repository for the sort of nerds – me included – who eat up histories of display like the little photography curation retrospective MoMA has on now.

by Will Brand ,, on February 3, 2011

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