The world has been abuzz with talk of the Google Art Project. There has been some interesting discussion about its impact on the world of art history, with the overwhelming sentiment being a positive one. This is primarily because Google and their partner museums have created something which did not exist before, and enabled access for free to anyone with an internet connection and a supported browser.
It has been interesting to note the reaction to the project and its global impact. It appeared on mainstream media and online, even becoming a worldwide trending topic on Twitter.
There has been some grumbling however. One of the more surprising of these naysayers has been none other than Waldemar Januszczak, UK art critic and documentarian, mentioned frequently here at 3PP.
Waldemar Januszczak encourages people to look at paintings very closely, and compare them to similar works around the world... this is also another way to describe the Google Art Project!
I have often promoted Januszczak's work here at 3PP. This is not because I agree with everything he says but I enjoy how his programs are presented with a general audience in mind, and inspire people to look for answers beyond what the museums and catalogues tell you.
The way he confidently disregards traditional art history readings is something which admittedly spurred me on to create this site. It is this questioning bravado that I would like to now turn back upon Januszczak.
Below is a short clip from my most favourite of his series, Every Painting Tells a Story. This sub 2 minute clip is snipped from the lovely episode featuring Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait, in which Januszczak is essentially acting as advocate for the memorial portrait reading famously proposed by Margaret Koster of the Courtuald.
What is most poignant about this clip is how he uses examples from 3 separate galleries and includes deep close ups of the works in questions to prove his point. Is this not exactly what something like Google Art Project, or any online resource would be absolutely delightful for? For someone working in such a visual medium as film, making works aimed to promote interest to a wider audience, I would imagine these parallels would be quite obvious!
Januszczak uses gallery globetrotting and deep zoom in his own program, but seems to think Google promoting everybody being able to do this from their computer is a bad idea?
These are some of his comments on Twitter, in response to an article posted at the Telegraph.
It must be noted Januszczak is not an art scholar in an academic sense. You won't hear him chirping on about his theories on Giorgione's Tempest at academic symposia. Januszczak has always dwelt in the public eye, as a journalist, film maker and occasional author. He also served at Channel 4 and co-curated a 2008 show on sculpture at the British Museum. His laid back style, which attracts the ire of old school art critics like Brian Sewell is refreshing and engaging.
My greatest praise for him is that his work in popular media has brought art to the people - and it is the people who watch his shows and read his columns that are the basis of his success. I wonder if he has forgotten that?
Hence, his comments adopting the rather elitist stance that the Google Art Project is not worth getting excited about seem somewhat reactionary and short sighted. I would like to submit that the target audience for both the Google project and Januszczak's programs are the same - a broad cross section of the community, ranging from academics to curious punters(I proudly count myself among the latter!)
Of course, seeing a work in person will never be the same - but this does not always mean it will be better! Last year I stood in a crowded Uffizi and gaped at Botticelli's Venus surrounded by dozens of other people. It is stuck behind a greenish tinged glass and the room is poorly ventilated. Tour guides talk over one another and spin the usual trite descriptions of these works.
As I previously reported, I did enjoy being able to see Raphael's self portrait in person, but its setting was far from grand and ideal, and gave me ZERO extra appreciation for the young master from Urbino.
My beloved Raphael in a scuffed, dingy corner in the Uffizi. Size, scope, grandeur in situ?
Is this really the ideal that the "you must see it in person" crowd are trying to promote? I'm more in favour of the example of the project used by a student, in any part of the globe, looking at a painting in its exquisite detail. The student may be working on a school project or browsing independently.
I commonly receive feedback from students. Formative experiences in art are primarily through media and movies, not always a museum visit. The internet has also become a strong primary resource for people of all backgrounds to improve their knowledge.
Such an experience will pique interest and lead to a search for more information - most commonly via search engines such as Google and Microsoft's Bing. The whole point of Google Art Project, and art history blogs is to promote interest in art and provoke discussion and collaboration. Considering the kicking the humanities have been getting in both academia and the public eye, it is supremely clear the advent of digital media is doing a better job at promoting art and history than the average jaded critic or art historian.
Google Art Project will never be substitute for the real thing - but it is also a valuable new tool for art fans and educators to utilise. Unlike Januszczak, some of us do not have the luxury of having a room cleared for a documentary filming, or live in a country where access to some of its greatest museums is free.
Apparently, Januszczak is planning an article expressing his deep dismay at the Google endeavour. I sincerely hope he brings more to it than "it isn't the same as the real thing." This is not the stated aim of the project. Just like his wonderful programs - they are a resource that can be used to enhance learning and engage public interest. Simple as that.
Edit: Januszczak did eventually get around to writing about the Google Art Project in a piece dated February 15th 2011. Persons interested in reading it can do so via this link. To summarise, it seems Januszczak is caught between the emotional experience of seeing art in context, and the usefulness of having access to high quality images, which he admits are valid in the context of research and educational endeavours, including his film presentations.
Despite this admission, he still has difficulty tearing himself away from the emotional experience of seeing art. This carries the assumption that everyone has an emotional experience to art, or is required to be in its presence to have an appreciation of it. If anything can be stated with a degree of certainty, it is that the range of human emotional response to such phenomena are almost infinite. Why cheapen them by claiming one type of response is less than valid than the other? It is akin to saying one must sit through a performance of Hamlet performed at The Globe to properly appreciate Shakespeare. Still, Januszczak is steadfast:
Real art experiences are not interchangeable with internet passions, any more than real Czech girls are identical to the ones pictured on dating sites. I’m not saying the Google Art Project needs to have warning signs plastered across it saying “Viewer beware”. But isn’t rule number one of digital behaviour “Nothing is what it seems”?
What Google and their partner agencies make of this initiative is of course entirely up to them. Anyone interested in having free access to high quality images will find the project useful. Anything beyond this however, enters the realm of the subjective and rhetorical. Of course Google can never replace an art experience, though I think it has been clearly stated this was never their aim - despite what its critics say.
If you are looking for 3PP's recap of the updated Google Art Project unveiled in April 2012 - please visit this post: link