Google Art Project and the Museum Cannon

What I notice in the Google Art Project is not how revolutionary it is but how embedded it is in the forms and structures of the traditional art museum developed over the 19th and 20th centuries.  It relies on these already culturally meaningful structures for its own meaning.  Whether or not this was part of the conscious choice of the Google staff involved in the project is less important than the fact that Google Art Project does not so much change the way we look at art, but reinforces the museum function.


Each artwork you click on to examine links you easily not just to the other artworks by that artist, but to the museum collection that artwork happens to come from.  In fact, the other artworks from that particular museum that are digitized on Google Art Project run in a scrollable line across the bottom of the screen.  In many cases, you can click to a “street view” to bring you to a digitized interface of the museum space itself.  Via this interface, you can scroll around the museum, see which works are hanging next to which other works, where benches for visitors have been placed; you can even move through hallways into the next museum gallery.


That works of art usually to be found on the walls of museums is such a given for us today that we may not realize that linking artworks to museums is not the only way Google Art Project could have organized itself.  It could have prioritized linkages between artworks and the original locations or eras they were produced, for example.  In that case, the page for Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises would be accompanied by a scrollable row of other works produced in late 19th century France, rather than a row of other works that can be found at the Getty Museum.  This is only one of the most logical other ways Google Art Project could have, but did not, choose to organize art.


Another way Google Art Project reinforces the museum function is by continuing without question the high-art/low-art divide and featuring almost entirely works that are already well accepted by the cannon.  I ponder an idea like Google Art Project and I instantly think that it could be a great opportunity to put works by women, works by minority artists, works from less central regions, right next to the old museum favorites, usually works by white males from Paris or New York.  Google Art Project does none of this.  In fact, Google Art Project seems to take a step back from the progress even traditional museums have made in furthering equality in the art world and questioning the validity of the cannon. Even those non-white, or non-male artist who have been lucky enough to be generally accepted as part of the high art cannon are underrepresented on Google Art Project:  Van Gogh has 154 featured artworks, Mary Cassatt only 17.  One could argue that Van Gogh was more prolific than Cassatt, but he was not more prolific than Japanese artist Hokusai, and Hokusai has only 22 featured works on Google Art Project.

To be fair Google Art Project is still in its infancy, and, as the web is such a capricious medium, perhaps we will see more radical choices about which artworks to include and how to organize the project as it matures in the next few years.  There are some exciting indications of this, in, for example the digitization of Australian Rock Art, definitely not a usual part of the cannon, and definitely interesting and worth studying and valuing.


Google Art Project is an “Imaginary Museum” like that envisioned by Malraux in the 1950s.  Malraux argued that photographs of artworks equalize their value by turning all works of art into the same size and shape.  However for photography (and digitization) to be a democratizing force, we need to take the first step of digitizing images that are not already part of the cannon.