Google's Art Project and the Perennial Crisis of Objecthood

A screen shot of Google's new foray into the world of art museums
As soon as I first heard of Google’s plans to do for art museums what it had done for the navigation of city streets with Google Earth, I couldn’t help but wonder how this newest digitization project would push the conversation started so many decades ago with Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this key text, written in 1936 by one of the most influential cultural critics and philosophers of the Frankfurt School, a pivotal argument is made about how the modern age of technology facilitates in removing the “aura” of original art works through the process of mechanized reproduction. In other words, Benjamin persuasively argues how the reproduceable image of an original art work (such as a postcard of the Mona Lisa for example) results in a loss of authority for the singular work of art itself, leading to further questioning of the artist genius model upon which notions of “authenticity” and “authority” are imbued in traditional understandings of the art object. In this sense, there is an apparent freedom or democratization of the art work gained in the process. Even so, Benjamin goes on to warn that the contemplation of these new modes of technologically mediated images (such as those seen in photography and film, or today on our computer screens) signals another kind of dynamic caught up in a distracted and uncritical state of viewing fuelled by the speed and technological processes of contemporary image circulation.

Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay predicted many of the
concerns we face with technologically
mediated imagery today.
His concern, shared by many who work in critical media studies, relates to what happens over time when mechanically reproduced images change the very structure of perception itself. Are we able to gain a critical distance to understand the difference and stakes involved between identifying the “real” world of objects and their many many “doubles”? What is at stake in this process, and how does it effect how we perceive ourselves and the objects around us?

Not surprisingly, the launch of GoogleArtProject has not necessarily been met with the kind of immediate praise that one might expect of art historians. This past week, I began to pay closer attention to the discussion on art history discussion boards, blogs, and reviews to gauge the immediate response. On the one hand, it is undeniable that many art historians (particularly those working in North America) teach almost exclusively with digital reproductions of original works in the form of PowerPoint presentations or with the older variation of this idea, the colour slide. In this sense, the added gain of being able to zoom in and show the brush work of an Impressionist painting at the level of detail one would expect if in the presence of the actual object cannot be entirely ignored. As several art historians noted, this feature is an added bonus to punctuate arguments about the degree to which artists were attempting to efface or bring attention to their brush work and what that signals for the moment. On the other hand, concerns were raised that the obsessive level of detail achieved by GoogleArtProject will return some degree of overdetermined focus on the art object's form. Ironically enough, this brings us back to a strange reappearance of the "aura" in precisely the way Benjamin originally talked about, fostering a fetishization of the original and placing an emphasis back on the formal qualities of objects. What results is a kind of art appreciation and connoisseurship of the art object at the expense of the contextual and social/political underpinnings that so many art historians privilege as a key component of their pedagogical approach to art history.

While seeing Van Gogh's paintings up close is fascinating,
it can be argued that this carries a critical value only when it is
contextualized. Without that, we risk privileging a kind
 of obsession with form at the expense of engaged reflection
It will be fascinating to see how the project unfolds and what kinds of debates are sparked from within my discipline, but for now the GoogleArtProject exists as a kind of cabinet of curiosities that has been assembled without any clear program or curatorial vision. As Roberta Smith, the art critic for the New York Times concluded Sunday in her review of the project echoing Benjamin,

"In many ways this new Google venture is simply the latest phase of simulation that began with the invention of photography, which is when artworks first acquired second lives as images and in a sense, started going viral. These earlier iterations — while never more than the next best thing — have been providing pleasure for more than a century through art books, as postcards, posters and art-history-lecture slides. For all that time they have been the next best thing to being there. Now the next best thing has become better, even if it will never be more than next best."
For now, I think it is also significant that the majority of the images in the database are paintings from the most popular of the host institutions' collections, and also the most pleasurable to look at. In many ways, this only serves to perpetuate the discourse and frameworks of certain historically constructed art history “isms”, key favoured artists, and mainly Western European artistic developments. It is no doubt a concern then for many art historians that the main function of the initiative appears to foster a kind of online art appreciation devoid of any critical reflection. If nothing else, it will certainly help us remind students of why we make them read critical texts and histories alongside the study of pictures.

You can check out the tour of GoogleArtProject in this YouTube clip below: