February 21, 2011

Gluttonous Art Consumers

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Earlier this month, Google launched Art Project, an expansive online collection of artworks and museum interiors from seventeen institutions across the United States and Europe. More than 1,000 high-resolution images of individual art pieces are available for viewing. In addition, each participating museum has highlighted a single piece for even higher mega-pixel resolution. The site also includes virtual tours of gallery spaces and an indoor adaptation of Google’s Street View program, allowing viewers to virtually stroll through gallery spaces with 360 degree navigation. In some ways, Google’s Art Project is just the last democratizing step of a process long underway. Many museums already have their own sites for viewing works online. However, their branding under a museum name targeted those who already had an interest in art, not the casual internet surfer.  As the most popular search engine on the Internet, the Google brand draws from a much wider pool, meaning Art Project could potentially expand and diversify viewership. This could generate increased interest in the arts. Or, it could make viewers content to sit by their laptops, unwilling to venture into the museums themselves, which could consequently lose revenue. Yet a diversified audience is not the only major change Art Project brings to the online art world. Unlike previous online art sites, Art Project allows web users to effortlessly travel between museums. While online art viewing previously existed in isolated and disconnected hubs, Google has brought them all together under one umbrella site. This permits entirely new ways of seeing the pieces. It’s like making a playlist that jumps from Lady Gaga to the Decemberists to the Killers. It’s different from listening to an entire album from beginning to end. In the case of the album, the artist controls the mode of listening, where as in the playlist the listener determines order and grouping. As anyone who’s listened to a perfectly constructed playlist knows, this mixing of songs creates an entirely new musical experience, one often built around a common thematic component. In the process however, we lose out on the album’s cohesive artistic expression, the sum of the parts. Songs become popular as stand-alones, not as parts of a larger whole. While either is a valid mode for listening to music, we must recognize each for its merits just as we must recognize the merits of different ways of viewing art. Certainly, the Google Art Project has added new dimensions to viewing art. Its high resolution and zoom, for example, allow us to view components of the work up close, perhaps closer than we would at the real museums. Like a microscope or X-ray machine, the technology allows us to see components normally invisible.  This technology also changes the works themselves, reformatting them in pixels and framing them on a computer screen. This alters the colors and textures from the original piece, making the digital file a new piece in its own right.  Perhaps more significantly, Google Art  Project also alters the way we interact with artworks. When these images are viewed in isolation, we lose out on the public discourse inherent to museums. It’s the difference between listening to a concert, surrounded by other music fan in the mosh pit, and getting weird looks while you jam out to your ipod on the way to class. The difference between a raging coffee shop debate and the passive clicking of keys as you post a comment on an online chat. And the difference between seeing a movie at the theatre, complete with the smell of popcorn and the obnoxious spectator unable to keep quiet, and watching Megavideo in your dorm room. If a hundred people log in to see the Mona Lisa, they see a hundred different Mona Lisas because no image is ever viewed in isolation. The web accelerates this trend, allowing us to see multiple browsers simultaneously and to click back and forth between links. When a hundred people open up the Mona Lisa image, they are projecting it across a hundred different computer screens, in a hundred different rooms, in a hundred different modes of viewing. There’s nothing wrong with these new modes of viewing. Such modes of viewing democratize viewership, make art more accessible and allow us to see the pieces as new artworks entirely. At the same time, we must weigh these benefits without sacrificing museum revenue, detracting from the original art pieces or impeding public discourse.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg