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Google Art Project Turns Art Appreciation into Content Acquisition

Google Art Project Screenshot

With the release of Google Art Project, millions of people around the world will be able to take a virtual walk through museums they will never be able to set a real foot in.  They will do this while reading about Lindsey Lohan's court appearance and lamenting their disappointment with last night's Top Chef elimination to their Facebook friends.  The most treasured artifacts of our civilization will be consumed instead of appreciated, and the entire notion of artistic reverie will expire like an old version of iTunes.

Google Art Project is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. It allows universal access to great art and it should be lauded for that. For as much as it does to solve the problem of access, it can create the problem of making art indistinguishable from content. It can make the process of creating the psychic space necessary for artistic appreciation more elusive. How can a museum create the same psychic effect, inspire the same interaction between psychic space and physical space if we’ve already toured the space virtually? I don’t believe it is possible for the physical space to have the same psychic impact when Google Art Project has already changed the viewing context to a level of familiarity on par with the living room sofa.

The appreciation of art is not the acquisition of art content. One cannot engage in the appreciation of art in the same manner in which one is engaged reading news online. It’s less important where an artwork is experienced than it is that a psychic place of appreciation has been made for it. Whether art is found in a museum or gallery, or a bus stop these physical spaces only help us create the mental context for appreciation. The problem with Google Art Project, is that though it gives access to art content, it divorces artwork from the experience of art by separating us from the typical frameworks for appreciation that help us create the psychic context for appreciation, and attaching it to activities which compromise the psychic space necessary for appreciation.

This is not to say that seeing art in a museum necessarily predicates one investing him- or herself appropriately, or fully, in the experience of appreciation. The world’s museums are full of tourists more intent on adding the experience of having viewed art to their collection of prescribed holiday experiences than on experiencing the artwork and allowing the poetic image its power. I could be truly optimistic and say that perhaps with the ability to experience art virtually in this superficial way, there would be no incentive to do anything at a museum other than engage one’s self in the moment appreciating art. I don’t think, however, that that will be the case. Instead, I think Google Art Project only reinforces content acquisition behavior allowing it to start before the trip to the museum begins.

Physical space is an incredibly powerful vector for preparing one’s mental state for experiencing art. The physical space of galleries, museums, and concert halls provide the context for this special moment of appreciation; so does the simple act of allowing one’s self to truly engage in the moment by pausing to enjoy street art or a subway musician. However, the nature of multi-tasking and Internet browsing, especially as performed by the Always-On generation, is fundamentally opposed to this type of appreciation. Since this is essentially an act of non-action: one passively allows the power of the image to work upon them; the act of web browsing and navigation clicking is at odds with the passive receptivity of art appreciation. Unfortunately, even the positive social aspects of sharing threaten this special experience when the act of appreciation is cut short, or competes with the act of sharing. That first browser tab, usually Facebook but really it could be anything, draws us away from the artwork and keeps us from interacting with it and experiencing the simultaneity between ourselves and the art.

In addition, by virtue of digitization, the act of deconstructing the artwork and it’s context and attempting to rebuild it with code and pixels, we reduce the artwork to metrics. No one thinks of his or her experience in a gallery as a “high-resolution experience,” but that’s what it is transformed into when we consider the resolution of individual pieces- worse yet when we compare art by how much resolution, how much data really, we are afforded by the scan. Furthermore, the kind of super-high-resolution images like those of “Starry Night” and “Birth of Venus” give us a super-human look at work. Brush strokes at this level of clarity are only important to conservators. This is a fetishization of technology and doesn’t add to the poetic moment the way say seeing the strokes of a Rothko in person for the first time does.

It also makes size unimportant. Simply supplying the dimensions does not communicate the power of scale. One could argue that books do the same thing, however no one would argue that one experiences a museum by virtue of flipping through a coffee table book the way Google Art Project is being touted as a virtual museum. So on one hand we lose a powerful medium of artistic communication with the loss of scale, and on the other we are distracted by the technologies that rendered scale irrelevant. This is what happens when engineers control art: not only is art transformed into content, but it is fetishized as literal bits of information.

Again, I want to be clear that I am not against Google Art Project. I’m really just trying to articulate what I think needs to be discussed, that we are losing something even as we experience a net gain with new technology. I want to stop short of trying to think of answers to these problems. It’s the jobs of curators to understand how the experience of museum and gallery will change and develop a roadmap for how to adapt to a public whose context for art appreciation is fundamentally changed by Google Art Project. However, we should all be thinking about how our own context changes and find ways to preserve and enhance our appreciation with, and in spite of, technology.

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