A reproduction is a reproduction. And a high resolution image on a computer screen brings you no closer to the reality of a work of art than a halftone in a newspaper. That is pretty much my response to the Google Art Project, a new collaboration between the online behemoth and some of the greatest museums in the world, including the Hermitage, the Uffizi, the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, and a dozen others. Frankly, you don’t need me to describe the Art Project. Just go to www.googleartproject.com and see for yourself. A few paintings—they include van Gogh’s Starry Night and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—are presented in such high resolution that I felt like a dermatologist examining the pores on a patient’s skin. And much of the rest consists of little more than virtual walks through selected museum galleries, with walls at times weirdly angled and paintings going in and out of focus. Museumgoing is turned into a computer game. The museumgoer is the robot.
I am not against the Art Project. I am not for it, either. If you slow down and focus on some of the works on display, you can, at least up to a point, experience the sensuousness of paint on canvas and the erotic chill of beautifully carved stone. Some may prefer this to turning the pages of a picture book. Some may be fascinated by what the Art Project does to works of art, the extent to which the technology enables you to sharpen the image or break it up into bite-sized bits. I still prefer the stability of a reproduction in a book, which comes closer, at least in my view, to paralleling the stability of the painting hanging on the museum wall. The Art Project is said to send anybody with access to a computer into the great museums of the world, but a reproduction is a reproduction, even if it is in the highest imaginable resolution and you can move around it with the flick of a fingertip. I have never been to the Hermitage, and I am no closer to experiencing that legendary Russian institution after fiddling around with Google’s newest toy. The opulence of an Old World museum cannot be contained by a computer screen.
Perhaps the most important thing to be said about the Art Project is that despite all the talk of interactivity and the application of Google’s street view technology to the museumgoing experience, what we have here is just a new version of an old dream—the dream of bringing an ever expanding audience into contact with works of art. The greatest museums, some of which are featured in the Art Project, are dedicated to that democratic promise, which is a promise not that everything is for everybody but that anybody should have the chance to experience anything. I am passionately committed to that principle, but even when more people do indeed have access to more works of art, we are still left with the nature of the individual’s experience, which is finally the only experience that matters. Some will say that the Art Project allows users to customize their experience, at least up to a point, by deciding which galleries in which museums they will visit, and how they will circulate around the rooms. But advances in technology do not necessarily make art more democratic. And in any event Google places severe restrictions on what we are able to see. At the Museum of Modern Art we gain access to a gallery of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century works, including Cézannes and van Goghs, but the adjacent gallery, full of Picassos, is just a blur, because his work is still under copyright, and thus not available for this particular tour. The Google Art Project may have the same relationship to museumgoing that Facebook has to friendship. It will take you only a small part of the way.
What the Art Project produces is an illusion of democratic experience. Google has scooped up the works of Botticelli, Rembrandt, and van Gogh and done with them what it will. Of course many people have argued that museums by their very nature turn works of art into pawns in some artistic or social or political scheme. In a famous essay, Paul Valéry complained about the chaos and coldness of museums. And Picasso said museums were just a bunch of lies, and speculated that a painting was best experienced when hanging crooked on a wall. What frustrated Valéry and Picasso was the authoritarianism of the museum, a sense that experiences were regularized, codified, depersonalized. They may well have been playing devil’s advocate when it came to discussing the trouble with museums, highlighting the worst in order to make space for the best. I have spent some of my happiest hours in galleries full of Old Master paintings, but after spending a little time with the Google Art Project, I found myself revisiting Valéry’s and Picasso’s arguments. I’m not sure they were right about the trouble with the museums. But the impersonality of the old-fashioned museum is nothing compared to the impersonality of the Google Art Project.