I have to admit: a little part of me was rather saddened today to see the launch of the Google Art Project.
The arguments in its favor make perfect sense, in the abstract. It offers easy access to a lot of art, globally (or at least, for those with a good internet connection and a good computer). In mapping galleries and providing scanning options of the space, it can help someone understand a work of art in its museum context – what works are adjacent, what surrounds it, etc. – as well as get a feeling for a place they may be planning to visit. Providing selected works for high-definition, very detailed viewing offers some joys, too; it can be hard to see most paintings at this level of magnification while they hang on the walls of a museum.
And then there’s the broader trend: museums are digitizing their collections, developing online companion pieces to 3-D exhibitions, creating Smartphone apps, developing teaching tools, and more. All of which – I can say unambiguously – is the right thing to do, and must be done. The museum person and the technologist in me are in agreement on the need to embrace this challenge.
Still, I felt sad by the digital rigor mortis of this art, and those clinically captured galleries. For one thing, it’s hard to see even a small work of art effectively on a computer screen. (In my office set-up, I have two; that is, one computer running two, new, 19″ flat panels. Even with that luxurious arrangement, I still don’t feel like it’s adequate, not least because Google compresses the viewing picture into an inset box.) Zooming in on specific works of art shows you much detail, but you lose the three-dimensionality to which the human eye responds so well in person, as it moves back and forth between different zoom levels and focal points in nano-seconds.
You might (rightly) ask yourself whether my perspective means much, as an insider: that the value of this system is for the people who cannot get to these museums in person. But if you are a regular museum goer, it’s hard to see this really taking the place of an in-person visit. And if you’re not a regular museum goer, either because you don’t like museums or you don’t find art particularly stimulating … well, I just wonder how much allure – or benefit – there is to seeing works of art you probably are not familiar with as they hang in galleries you haven’t visited. In fact at some level, this is a very elite take on the idea of accessibility: you need to be able to appreciate art in order to appreciate art in this context.
I admire Google for trying this out, just as I appreciate so many of the company’s Beta and Lab initiatives; Google has the resources to test out solutions to problems real and imagined, and I consider myself generally better off for their experiments. Certainly the museums that participated made the right choice: why wouldn’t you want to collaborate with Google on such a project? If it had been my client, I would surely have recommended they move ahead. But this whole thing feels cold to me, demonstrating once again the challenge of trying to replace (or even supplement) the in-person experience of an authentic work of art with a simulation, where so much detail and context is lost. Untangling the gordian knot of digital solutions for art museums is not going to be as simple as one slice through the center with the Google Art Project.
Update: Also read this piece by Menachem Wecker on the Iconia blog, with other perspectives (as well as mine) on Google Art Project. Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee weighs in. ArtInfo has a piece on another company that created and deployed a similar (perhaps better) technology.