Image credit: anemoneunterwegs
Last month, Google unveiled its second round of the Google Art Project, which now freely displays online high-resolution images of more than 32,000 artworks from 151 museums and galleries worldwide. You can browse the collection by artist; explore every inch of a painting (what is Leda doing with that swan?); or, using Google’s mapping tools, you can virtually wander the halls of the galleries themselves.
When Google first launched the project in February 2011, art critics sniffed that mere pixels could never compare to real brushstrokes, with The New Republic’s Jed Perl noting that the ‘impersonality of the old-fashioned museum is nothing compared to the impersonality of the Google Art project’. As someone who appreciates art without being steeped in its history or theory, I’ll give you an interested bystander’s view of Google Art. Is the project better or worse for casual art appreciation than visiting a real-world gallery or hanging a five-dollar art print on your bedroom wall?
Convenience. The urge to visit galleries is often strong on holidays, and it can result in unexpected windfalls: I once stumbled upon the most complete collection of Salvador Dalí’s work ever exhibited – including the privately owned Sleep – while lost in the maze of Venice’s canals. But it’s not always practical to fly to London simply to settle a debate on how many green dots Damien Hirst used in his Apotryptophanae. The German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, in his 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, argued that an original artwork emits a certain ‘aura’, a ‘unique existence at the place it happens to be’. But I’ve already chosen convenience over quality in other forms of media: MP3 versions of songs have an inferior sound quality to those produced as FLAC files – which you can buy from an increasing number of online music retailers, including Bandcamp – yet I prefer MP3s because they’re easier to corral and play through iTunes, which doesn’t accept the FLAC format. In many situations, I’d trade the aura of original artwork for the ability to keep it in my pocket.
Synergy. I’m a big fan of entwining sensory experiences: books with music, music with food. I usually amble through galleries with earphones firmly jammed in, partly to ignore the stern warnings of humourless guards, but mostly to give the art a soundtrack. But what if you could take that synergy to the next level? Using the Google Art Project, you could call up Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night on your big-screen TV, sip a glass of red wine, nibble on roasted chestnuts and let your gaze melt into the painting while Don McLean’s maudlin homage to Van Gogh, ‘Vincent’, plays in the background (slicing off your earlobe to pay a prostitute is optional – and not encouraged).
Privacy. The Louvre has yet to lend the Mona Lisa to Google, but I can’t wait for the day when I can ogle the enigmatically smiling lady without first fending off a horde of sweaty tourists. The Mona Lisa’s surprisingly diminutive size makes for depressing real-life viewing. Even once you’ve elbowed your way to the front, someone’s bound to sneak their camera-clutching hands over your shoulder, intent on capturing a tourist-free shot. That’s the kind of aura I can certainly live without.
Lack of perspective. It’s impossible to appreciate the scale of an artwork from a digital image, unless you’re viewing it on a cinema-sized screen. I was shocked when Michelangelo’s sculpture David towered over me in Florence – I’d imagined him as life-size, but he’s a good five metres tall. For sculptures, or even large paintings, Google Art lacks the gobsmacking surprise that comes when you round a gallery corner to find an enormous artwork (and, in David’s case, oversized genitalia).
No curation. Google provides detailed notes for each artwork, and you can create personal collections of artwork on the site. As an interested bystander, however, I crave the invisible hand of a curator to push pieces of art together, whether by theme, time period or artistic technique. A list of artists or museums gives me no easy access point, and Google’s gallery street view, which allows you to digitally move through gallery spaces and see where the art is placed, is still too rickety to provide a comfortable browsing experience.
I’m on board with Google’s aim to bring art to the digital masses. It suits my antisocial tendencies and allows me to display art in my home without the hassle of carrying a print back from an overseas trip. Just as I’ve continued to see live music despite being able to play songs on demand, I’ll probably supplement my Google Art with gallery visits. But, as it currently stands, the Google Art Project limits me to the art world that I know, while a properly curated collection could expand my horizons. Is a Google Curator too much to ask?