Details and Ambiance

To fully appreciate this week’s topic, I chose to focus my perspective of the Google Art Project through the lens of the artwork included in the Art Institute of Chicago section. Of all the museums listed in the Google Art Project, I am particularly fond of this museum because I have visited it at least once a year since my early childhood, and it features a work of art that I find to be particularly fascinating.

Georges Seurat’s, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, is an amazing work of art not only in its technique, but also in its scope as a part of the context of the museum. As a child, I remember reveling at its size and wondering how many points it took to create the images before me. Thanks to the Google Art Project, I can now zoom in as far as the interface will let me, and (if time were no object) I could even count exactly how many points the painting contained.

This type of detail is an incredible feat of technology and creativity since it eliminates the diversions a traditional museum setting imposes on its patrons like crowded viewing areas or protective measures that prevent you from seeing a work of art as close up as you would like. To view the Seurat painting in person, I would typically have to wait for crowds to clear out or fight my way to the front of the group. The Google Art Project’s ability to give viewers control over their viewership demonstrates what Emily Magnuson refers to as “releasing an object from its ritual” as the phrase was previously applied to art photography. Releasing famous art from its ritualized form seems to give the art a new dimension – it allows viewers to see texture and discover new details without ever leaving their home. In this sense, the ritual of visiting a specific location to view art is eliminated.

As captivating as these features of the Google Art Project may be, the Project should not be treated as a replacement for the ritualized museum despite Google’s inclusion of the street view option, which tries to simulate a “real” museum visit. Additionally, the art included in the exhibitions is not all-inclusive, and is therefore somewhat framing the viewer’s perspective on the museum’s art collection. For example, a particularly interesting exhibit I recall at the Art Institute of Chicago included a collection of miniature dioramas of famous rooms. This exhibit would most likely not be included in the Google Art Project because of the huge amount of detail and resources that would need to be poured into the documentation of each shot in order to make it seem as organic as a ritualized museum visit.

From a semiotic perspective, attending a museum represents the mental entrance into a world removed from reality that pushes individual understanding of art. Like Baudrillard’s Disneyland analogy, entering a space that represents a certain cohesive mentality forces you to escape the reality of the outside world. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling like I’m re-entering “reality” upon leaving the special soft lights of a museum and entering the brightness of the world outside of the museum’s walls. This feeling is difficult to replicate in an online sphere because you are technically stuck in reality since you are sitting in a room somewhere while surfing the Internet for art.

To further illustrate how Google cannot fully replicate the museum experience, the aura of a museum must be compared to that of the Google Art Project. Most museums are sparse in their decoration, thereby forcing patrons to concentrate on each work of art. The spacing of the artwork also insinuates a necessity of deep concentration and reflection. In the Google Art Project, art is listed in a way that definitely recalls a search engine—one exhibit is listed after another in a virtual list that seems to go on forever. In this sense, one institution is replaced with another—the institution of a museum is replaced with the institution of Google, which may frame a viewer’s perception of are more than a traditional museum.  As mentioned in Nancy Proctor’s post, “the interface in effect plays a similar role to the frame, the glass, the label, the map the wall and so one in the gallery.”

Based on this discussion, it seems like the Google Art Project would serve best as a gateway point to develop an interest in art, rather than a total museum replacement. Going back to the Seurat example, I can get a more technical scope of detail of the artwork via the Google Art Project, but I would need to see the painting in person to fully experience its emotional impact and understand why it is “museum-worthy”. Although convenient and innovative, the Google Art Project risks forgoing challenging the audience to “rethink what and why.”