Virtual masterpieces

Our view: Google offers a new way to experience great works of art

February 05, 2011

Google, the giant Internet search engine, wants to put the world's great art museums and their artworks online. This week, the company announced the launch of its Google Art Project, which presents virtual tours of 17 of the world's most prominent museums using the "street view" technology developed for its online maps. Not only can site visitors stroll through the galleries of New York's Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, London's National Gallery or the Uffizi in Florence, they can also call up high-resolution images that display selected works in such minute detail that every brush stroke, scrape mark and paint dab of the artist's hand leaps out at you.

You'd need a magnifying glass to see the nuts and bolts of the painter's art so clearly on a work hung on the walls of a museum — if the guards let you get close enough to try. But, of course, they never would.

One might think the prospect of virtual museums that offer a curator's-eye view of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" could encourage some potential visitors to simply stay home, where they can enjoy the artworks with a click of their mouse. Will the digitalization of the glorious masterpieces of Western painting, from Giotto to Jackson Pollock, lead to a generation of art-loving couch potatoes?

The truth seems just the opposite, says Gary Vikan, director of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum. "What actually happens is what one of my colleagues calls the 'Mona Lisa effect,'" he notes. "The more widely an image is reproduced, the more people want to see the original."

It's a conjecture that seems borne out by the crowds thronging the Louvre in Paris, where "Mona Lisa" continues to draw thousands of visitors a day from all over the world, despite being one of the most ubiquitous images in history. The same holds true for Michelangelo's "David" at the Uffizi in Florence, where lines reach around the block throughout the year. People never seem to get enough of a good thing.

The Walters, which is not yet part of the Google Art Project (though Mr. Vikan says he's eager to join), has already put about 10,000 high-resolution images of its artworks on the Internet, mostly from its collection of Medieval illuminated manuscripts. And people are looking at them; Mr. Vikan reports there's a spike in Web traffic every time a new image goes online. Next year, the museum plans to roll out a revolutionary online tour of its fall exhibition, "The African Presence in Renaissance Europe," using 3-D technology to guide visitors through the galleries.

Joaneath Spicer, the curator for that exhibition, says the virtual visit isn't a substitute for the real thing but rather something more like a visual appetizer. "It's an enticement to get people interested, and it's also a way of giving people in other parts of the country, who would never be able to travel here to see the show in person, a way to experience how we are treating the subject," she says. The virtual tour will link to cascading levels of information that put the images in context for both casual viewers and scholarly researchers.

Not every museum can make the leap online as easily as the Walters. The Baltimore Museum of Art has put several hundred of its French drawings on the Web, but copyright laws prevent it from uploading some of its most important pictures. A foundation holds the rights to much of its famed Matisse collection, for example, and many of its works by living contemporary artists cannot be reproduced without their permission. Anne Mannix, the BMA's director of communications, says the museum would like to do more, but the issues are complicated and potentially expensive to resolve.

Still, the virtual museum seems like the wave of the future. In a famous 1931 essay entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the critic Walter Benjamin argued that the invention of photography had ushered in a new era of human history in which images would become infinitely reproducible and available to everyone. Benjamin hailed this development for its potential to democratize the experience of art, but his approval was tempered by a warning: Reproductions, he believed, eventually would strip the aura of uniqueness from the originals on which they were based. No longer considered sacred or capable of inspiring awe, the world's greatest paintings would be reduced to little more than pretty pictures.

That danger should have become even more imminent in the digital age. Yet happily, history has proven Benjamin wrong. If anything, the ocean of imagery our culture has produced has made original artworks seem more special than ever. Google's rendering of Van Gogh's swirling brushwork on "Starry Night" will inevitably make viewers more, rather than less, conscious of the difference between its online image and the magical experience promised by the actual presence of a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. That alone should be enough to get the most intransigent couch potato up from the sofa and off to the museum.

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