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How Google Is Remaking Art History

A critic and historian wonders about the unintended consequences of viewing art at an ultra-high-resolution.

When Bruegel painted more than 500 years ago, could he have imagined that one day, a dozen generations down the road, his paintings would be viewed on a practically microscopic scale? Such is the wonder of the Google Art Project, the two-year-old platform that now houses more than 30,000 digital versions of famous artworks—some of which are viewable at a radically high resolution.

On the Daily Dot yesterday, art professor James Elkins asks an interesting—but probably unpopular—question: Is Google Art Project bringing us too close to art? He reasons that many of the artists never imagined their works would ever be viewed in such detail. For him, seeing is an indulgence—almost akin to eating. Would suddenly being able to consume any amount of food without the ill effects be necessarily positive? Or would you lose your ability to enjoy a chef-prepared plate, with flavors planned for maximum delight? In the same sense, Elkins argues, being able to zoom into a painting at the microscopic level makes it more difficult to experience the work as the artist intended. Am I supposed to know that a tiny person in the background of a Bruegel painting is actually just a couple of random-looking brushstrokes? Did he mean for me to see it as abstract, or was it meant to be read as a representation?

The Google Art Project image is a zoo of oddities. That cute little white dog in the distance, for example, also turns out to be a monster—something like a cross between a spider and a rhinoceros. There are many things in this painting, as in most, that Seurat did not want people to notice. They are all effects of his 'dots’: if you look too closely, they don’t combine in your eyes, and as Goya once wrote, 'the sleep of reason produces monsters.'

Elkins calls this "over the top seeing." Another big problem is the common trope of non finito painting—that is, works that were left intentionally unfinished. With infinite zoom, every stroke and dot becomes a potential non finito detail—it’s impossible to tell which are intentional and which aren’t.

Peering at art on the Internet is far from just a useful tool or a simple diversion: it produces an entirely new set of problems. It’s fascinating to zoom in to the Google Art Project and wonder when you have passed that invisible boundary between historically appropriate seeing and inappropriate peering … Perhaps one day we’ll think of the endless seeing of the Internet as a kind of cultural illness—a compulsion that future generations will find amusing. Our seeing may be pathological, but if it is, it is our pathology, our way of looking at the world.

Elkins isn’t really anti-Google Art. Rather, he’s pointing out that Google Art explodes the canon of 20th-century art theory—which mainly dealt with ways of seeing—by letting us see everything. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a complete and utter transformation in how we view art. In the future, we may talk about Art History BG (Before Google) and Modern Art AG (Anno Google).

Read Elkins’s full critique here.

[IMAGE: La Meninas via Wikipedia]