Even as digital technology revamps most cultural experiences, museum-going has remained relatively static. There is something sacred about making that trek to a gallery to stand with an art piece. But there’s also a clumsiness involved in navigating the crowds, children, security guards in the museum obstacle courses. Frustrations like these usually provide perfect openings for the innovations of companies like Google. In this case, Google Art Project provides online tours of galleries the world over, including 26 pieces from the newly added SFMOMA.
Taken as a sensory alternative to the museum, the program is flawed. As a resource for education and study, it is exhilarating. The process of viewing evolves into something more like dissection. Extensive background information is provided. Zoom is so much more powerful than the human eye that peering at a piece can feel almost intrusive.
However, Google Art Project inadvertently lumps museums into the internet’s pile of image saturation. There are so many artworks on display and so many ways to share them that it’s easy to be deterred from significant engagement. Perhaps the biggest impact of Google Art Project is the unexpected power it gives to the art viewer. The act of curation is democratized with the ability to collect images into “user galleries.” And it is no longer fully possible for an artist to overwhelm his visitor with the size and spectacle of a piece. Size and closeness are both in the hands of the viewer. As a whole, Google Art Project is charting exciting territory in terms of artistic intimacy, albeit an intimacy that can feel somewhat sterile.