You’ve no doubt heard of Google Street View. How about the Google Art Project? Google is working with 17 of the world’s leading art galleries and museums to digitalise many of the world’s greatest art masterpieces.
So what’s not to like? You can wander down the virtual corridors of the National Gallery in London, MoMA in New York or the Hermitage in St Petersburg and gawp at anything that tickles your fancy. There are no queues and you can zoom in on any detail at the click of a mouse. And it’s free.
However, the project raises some important questions. First, is viewing art online a decent substitute for looking at art in a physical gallery and will the virtual experience ever be the same – or better – than the real thing? At the moment the answer is no. Looking at an image on a screen, even a very large screen, is no substitute for standing directly in front of the actual object. No doubt the technology will improve over time, but there is still no escaping the fact that the object is more than its image.
In real life a painting or work of art inhabits physical space and this somehow connects to us as physical beings, especially when we are looking at something in the presence of other human beings. The fact that the environments in which these objects are usually displayed are themselves beautiful cannot be discounted either. And then there’s the argument that scarcity creates value in the sense that museum and art gallery visitors have often travelled a great distance to see these objects and the effort is itself part of the experience.
Viewing digital art is therefore reductive, whereas viewing physical art is expansive. There is the point, articulated by Nicholas Serota from the Tate Gallery (a participating gallery), that digital visitors might connect in ways that are not possible in real galleries, but if this simply means the exchange of email chatter then I don’t think this amounts to a hill of beans. I suppose there’s also the argument that says you can look at a Rembrandt in bed at 3.00am, to which there is almost no answer. In theory such digital exposure should act as an advertisement for the museums and galleries supporting the project.
Let’s hope so. If cost and convenience turns out to be more important than emotion they may end up putting themselves out of business – forever.