Something life enhancing happened just the other day, February 1, 2011 and, as so often, Google is the innovative source. That day Google launched Google Art Project, something so useful to this planet, it can only be called brilliant.
Google Art Project provides access to more than 385 rooms in 17 world-famous museums, including these gems: 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.
The purpose of Google Art Project can be summarized in a single word: access. Access to some of the world's greatest achievements and the museums which house them for every electronically connected individual.
Google cannot be said to have invented the concept of online access to museums and their collections. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, for instance, offered such access to its world-class collection before Google, yet they applaud what Google has done, will be added to the mega-museum shortly.
But Google, being Google, had a grand vision that every art museum in the world and all their collections should be, in due course, included. They consider, and rightly so, the launch of Google Art Project as a down payment, an indication of what is to come, and of their commitment to this breathtaking notion.
Google uses the zoom feature to zero in on each aspect of a picture, just like Sothebys, Christies and other art auction houses have been using for some time. Again, Google is not the originator of this feature, which allows for microscopic high resolution viewing of featured paintings. They simply use it effectively. Selected works from each museum are given super-high resolution photographs. You can also see reproductions of more than 1,000 other works. You are also able to use Google technology to visit dozens of museum rooms in virtual tours.
Museum directors, art teachers, collectors such as myself, have greeted Google Art Project with pronounced enthusiasm. As well we might.
Few of even the most fervid art students and conoisseurs have been to all the museums in Google's first installment, much less had the leisure and the travel budget to peruse each work featured. Google Art Project, then, literally opens the world of art to everyone in a way that uses the best of the technology Google is famous for.
The time could hardly be better for this idea. Schools around the United States, around the world, are slashing art budgets and art teachers, too. Such ill-advised reductions open the very real possibility that fewer and fewer students (prospective museum goers all) would have even the basics of art education, yet another baleful consequence that comes as a result of the general assault on the humanities which is now such a feature of grammar and secondary schools curricula, and even at the proudest institutions of higher learning. For far too many, the arts and humanities are thought dispensable, unnecessary, elitist, and are therefore amongst the first casualties of budget cutting Neanderthals. These folks, devoted to restoring to themselves the pittance the humanities cost, are weakening not merely each student's individual education... but the very basis for a civilized life and all to save a few pennies.
Google Art Project is a welcome, and powerful, addition to the assailed humanities and its supporters, who need (as those of us fighting this struggle know) all the help we can get.
This being the case, you might suppose that everyone who believes in the crucial life enhancing features of the arts and humanities would welcome Google Art Project with hosannas and public thanks. But, of course, one aspect of those very arts and humanities is the occasional crankiness of certain of its members and their incomprehensible tendency to criticize, belittle, demean members of their own congregation, because that ally is not perfect in every way, as of course they are.
At the opening of Google Art Project the role of skunk at the picnic was performed by one Sebastian Smee, a member of the staff of the Boston Globe newspaper. 'Call me a curmudgeon, but I remain underwhelmed', he wrote in his review of Google Art Project, published February 10, 2011. His reasons for attacking this major enhancement to existing arts education and for heartening the efforts of arts lovers worldwide?
Item: Google Art Project's interface is confusing.
Item: The choice of viewing possibilities is 'arbitrary'.
Item: Sure, Google allows you to zoom in and see every single brushstoke... but it's better if you see the works in person.
Item: Human vision is binocular, but digitized photography is not, hence available technology doesn't provide as good and complete a vision as the human eye.
The recherche Smee might be right on all these points (he isn't), but he seems to be a critic more interested in his elegant demolitions than praising Google and its Art Project, first for the idea itself, then for its useful implementation.
And here Smee goes seriously off the rails, a critic who misses the point.
First, Google has made clear that the Google Art Project is a work in progress. They have never said one should not strain every muscle and mortgage the homestead to go to Paris and dwell for a day or two in the Louvre (which by the way is not included in the first batch of museums.)
Google does not claim that its technologies supplant or obviate the work of museum curators, arts researchers, conservators or even collectors. They will still use X-radiography, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet illumination, laser scanning, and various examinations under raking, specular, and transmitted light. (With thanks to Smee for this list of technologies, techniques, and tools.) No,indeed.
For Google Art Project does not claim to be or even want to be the Most Important Thing in the arts. It is, instead, a useful tool, an intriging tool, and most important a developing tool with many changes and incarnations to come.
This means the most important thing about art remains what it has been since the concept of art was born: to see the work, to stand before an achievement in human history, and to think about what you are seeing and be glad such a glorious thing exists and is appreciated. The importance of this vital experience will never change and which Google Art Project augments so well.