The Imaginary Museum – Google Tries

February 7, 2011

Hoist by his own petard.

An article in today’s New York Times describes the new Google Art Project.  This is Google’s latest info/data binge, as it pursues its goal of organizing all the world’s data.  It harks back to a book I bought many years ago in which an artist created an imaginary museum that he would like to visit.  It’s an old idea, and an intriguing one for art lovers.

The article gives a review that is generally favorable, and enthusiastic, with several warnings about it being a work in progress.  The title makes a knowing reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.   I took a look.

These are my reactions:

  • Why would you want to ‘navigate’ through a ‘virtual 3-D’ museum as you do on Google street view?  It’s incredibly awkward, and the point is to look at the art anyway, not the museum.  Unless it’s a building with historical interest.  My stroll down Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors wasn’t very illuminating
  • A lot of museums and universities (here’s a favorite:  NYPL) have very good online sites that make much of their collection available, with a lot more information, context, and technological elegance.  I don’t see that the Google site offers anything.  The reviewer addressed some of this, but asserts that the United Nations aspect of the site – it brings together museums from all over the world – is a valuable feature.
  • I would much rather see Google funding the creation of sites by specific museums than trying to do it all itself, with the obvious publicity advantages accruing to their stockholders.
  • Some of the high-resolution images are truly incredible.
  • Although the images may be more faithful than what you can get from most art books, there is much to be said in favor of the book format over this sort of online browsing.  For doing research, as opposed to browsing, the Web and Google are magnificent.
  • The reviewer says:  From where I sit Google’s Art Project looks like a bandwagon everyone should jump on. It makes visual knowledge more accessible, which benefits us all.  Who would argue against the idea that the more that is available on the Web, the better? But I have my doubts about whether Google is providing an improvement on the current experience of reproductions, which are the “next best thing” to viewing the actual art.  Nor do I think that the dessimination of [visual] information is the same as the spread of [visual] knowledge.  That is a misconception of The Information Age, which is to say, The Age of Google.

This concludes yet another dyspeptic rant by yours truly.

Balzac pre-Benjamin

August 14, 2009

oil painting factory in China

Add to my list of overrated thinkers, Mr. Walter Benjamin.  Much is made of his arcane and metaphysical piece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production.”  In fact, my college senior thesis borrowed most of the title – “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Reproduction.”  Clever, eh?

Well, here is the gist of that esoteric work, en avance, in a sentence, from Balzac’s Beatrix, one hundred years before:

While working for the masses, modern industry progressively destroys works of art that had been as personal for the buyer as for the creator.  Nowadays, we have products; we no longer have works.

One of Many…

May 9, 2005

The printing press was the first machine to allow people to create duplicate images and pages of text as a mass produced item. Our word stereotype comes from a printing method developed in the 18th century, and the French word, cliche, is simply the past-participle of the French verb for the same printer’s technique. Thus, at the birth of the mass production of images, we have an awareness of their downside, the not-so-slippery slope into banality, kitsch, and meretricious junk. Flaubert again…

In the greatly overrated work (in my opinion) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Mass Production,” Walter Benjamin (also overrated?) tries to put this situation into some sort of theoretical framework, and fails, I think. He talks about the “aura” of a work of art, the aura which is dimished by endlessly reproducing it. And with that, comes the fetishism of the original. (Seems to me that the aura is increased the more there are reproductions!) We see this attitude all the time in advertisements for “original” works of art, that are, in fact, cheap knock-offs, not to mention the related fetishism of “hand made” articles. Isn’t a shoe made with the help of a machine better? I doubt there are any shoes that are entirely hand made these days. I recall an article in the NYTimes a few years ago about very expensive fashion boutiques in which sweaters sold for hundreds of dollars, only to begin unravelling the first time they were worn. Seems that a little machine mass-production might be a good thing there.

Much has been written about the modern cult of celebrity. It certainly has taken on new forms by virtue of the mass media, but at its core, is it any different than the awe in which kings and popes were held by the masses in times gone by? You could argue that those individuals were worthy of the response they would instill in people, kneeling by the roadside as they passed. On the other hand, if there had been four popes, would the awe have been as intense? Wasn’t that a reason why the Great Schism was such a disaster for the church? No, being the one and only has a cachet that is special in itself, and our celebrity culture coasts along on that, creating new one-and-onlys each month, each with a very short shelf-life.

As for works of art, the reason that the original is worthy of special interest is simply that it isn’t like the reproductions. No photo-reproduced image is the same as the original oil painting – just compare ten images of the Mona Lisa and you will quickly see that none of them is the same. As for other media, why do prints created by James Gillray in his lifetime cost more than ones printed from the same plates after he died? Well, the coloring is better, and it was done to his specifications, but still, collectors are driven by the fetish urge. Why else would pickle jars sell on eBay for large sums?

Meeting a celebrity can be a jolting experience, no doubt about it. None of us is immune to the swirling “frenzy of renown” in which we live. And then, we may actually admire some celebs for what they do. I rather doubt my heart would skip a beat if I bumped into Brittany Spears on the beach someplace, but I won’t vouch for my sang froid if I happened upon Bob Dylan. I’ve met famous people, famous in the narrow realm of academe, for example, and it’s not the same as a celebrity. Who cares if that guy is the expert on… I saw Kenneth Clark speak once on Italian art, and I was entralled, too timid to ask a question, but still, it wasn’t the same. No, the celebrity is one whom our culture has designated with all of its media and icon-generating apparatus as one of the unique ones, walking among us, the members of the mass. Of course, the individual is not the celebrity – it’s just a social construction. As I read in an interview with Jakob Dylan, “There was always Bob Dylan, and there was Dad.” All in all, celebrity seems like it would be a real drag for a person who has other sources of self-esteem. No sour grapes here.