Googling the Louvre

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Googling has taken its mapping equipment indoors to some of the world's great museums of fine art. In place of a picture of your own house seen from the street, you can dial up a bird's eye view of a Botticelli or a Van Gogh. The Boston Globe today carried a story on this new marvel of the Internet.

Launched Feb. 1, Google Art Project provides access to more than 385 rooms in 17 world-famous museums, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the National Gallery in London, the Frick Collection in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Palace of Versailles in France. (Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which already offers sophisticated access to its collection online, is keen to get involved down the track.)

Google allows you to zoom in on super-high-resolution photographs of particular works of art — one in each museum. You can also see reproductions at lower resolutions of more than 1,000 other works in the participating museums. And using navigational tools similar to Google Street View, you can go on a virtual tour of dozens of the museums’ rooms.

The technology allows one to glance at a painting pixel by pixel, but is that how art should be seen and appreciated. I do not think so. Neither did Sebastian Smee, the author of the Globe story. He takes a technically based so what attitude claiming the Google's project isn't up to the level that the museums are already doing. But I think, while that may be so, he misses the more important point. Is what the Google watchers get on their screens art in the first place? I don't think so.

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Art is all about beauty and truth. What separates art from technique, which is what Google reveals, is a holism that can be gathered in only in the presence of the actual object. Beauty or truth, criteria that put artifacts in museums in the first place, are emergent qualities, seen only by one who gazes on the object. The minutiae of brushstrokes may be of great interest to an art historian, but not to one who simply goes to be enthralled and entranced. I have often said it is impossible to create a masterpiece using a paint-by-number kit. The Google Art Project goes in the reverse direction, reducing a masterpiece to a paint-by-numbers kit, where the numbers correspond to individual pixels. The images here are of a real Vermeer and a kit to reproduce it.

Smee goes on to say,

It also strikes me as a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Technology is getting confused with art in ways that do little to advance the cause of either. . . If you live far from some of the world’s great museums — and we all do — Google Art Project can give you tantalizing glimpses of their galleries and of individual works of art.

Yes, Google's pull is tantalizing, but that's not so wonderful when you recall Tantalus's fate. For crimes against the Gods, he was immersed up to his neck in water. Each time he tried to drink, the water drained away. The same fate caused the luscious fruit that hung on trees above him to exceed his reach when winds blew the branches away. The Google project is another, albeit interesting, example of the unintended and overlooked power of technology to diminish reality through its inherent ways of dividing what is a whole into parts. Missing the forest for the trees as Smee writes. Beauty and truth come only by capturing the whole in our perceptions. These qualities always and only become present through the utterances of a human speaker.

Smee hopes that accessing these works of art on the Internet will motivate them to visit the real thing. I hope he is right, but I am not very sanguine about the prospect. Screens take up more and more of our leisure time, especially for the young. This leaves less time for visiting a museum, seeing a play or doing something that cannot be duplicated via a screen. I attend the Metropolitan Opera HD performances in the local movie multiplex. It's a boon to be able to enjoy the opera so easily. But the hosts always reminds the audience that, as wonderful as our experience is, it is not a substitute for being in the same space as the real thing. Maybe Google will add a similar reminder to the bottom of their images. Sure.

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