Anthony Lee Looks at Google's Art Project

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 13:44

Anthony W. Lee, chair of art history at MHC, is an art historian, critic, curator, and photographer. Questioning Authority recently asked Lee for his assessment of the Google Art Project, which allows online visitors to virtually examine a select group of artworks in some of the world’s leading galleries and museums.

QA: What are your initial impressions of the Google Art Project?

AL: What a slick thing it is. Like other online visual resources, the Google Art Project is a portal to digitized collections of works of art, in this case to works held in world-class museums like MoMA and the Met in New York, the National Gallery in London, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. At least for now, there aren’t that many works available through the project, just a sampling of the vast and deep holdings at these places. And the search function is pretty clunky. You can only search within museums, not across museums. But the quality of what is available is pretty stunning. There’s a great zooming device, so you can get your nose into brushwork or to details you might not normally be able to see. And there’s a metadata window, which includes brief but helpful info.

QA: How can this program help you as an art historian, and by extension, your students? Is this something that you would like to use in your classes, and if so, how would you use it?

AL: We’re always looking for images to teach with and for students to have resources for study. In the past, we scanned our old slides and put them into PowerPoint lectures. This was always a risky proposition--a reproduction of a reproduction where every imperfection in the copying process was blown up large on the big screen. Sometimes it seemed that every painter had a Neo-Impressionist phase, where dots ruled the day. So nowadays high resolution images are a requirement for us. And Google is making a claim in that market. We presently use a lot of images from ARTstor, though sometimes the images vary in quality. Google gives us another good option.

One very helpful teaching tool is the ability for users to curate their own collections. So a student can pick and choose works and organize them into a little virtual exhibition. How a student arranges such a collection--the themes, problems, questions, solutions she proposes as an organizing principle--can help them think in scholarly terms. I can imagine a day when these virtually-curated shows are put into dialogue with shows organized by museum professionals.

QA: Given the all-access tour that the program provides, do you think students and the general public still need to see these works of art, and the museums where they are housed, in person, or is this a good enough substitute?

AL: You’d think seeing virtual images makes seeing the real thing a waste of effort, but in my experience, it’s just the opposite. There seems to be an even more palpable desire for the original among students and museum-goers. And there’s so much in the way of serendipity in the viewing experience. I’ll give a quick example. I was in San Francisco some time ago and was looking at this enormous work called Isis and Osiris by the German artist Anselm Kiefer. It’s made of all kinds of things that have no business being on the surface of a painting, like dinner plates and wires and paint built up so thick, four or five inches, that whole chunks are cracked and about to fall off. Well, as I was looking, indeed one of the ceramic shards and a big slab of paint fell off and landed splat on the floor in front of me. I had no idea what to do. Should I scoop the pieces up? Should I nudge them to the corner with my foot? Should I call the guard? Should I quickly walk away? What a dilemma, but how great was that!