Google: art on the line?

The invention of the internet has brought books, maps and even our friends to the tips of our fingers. At the click of a button, encyclopaedias of information can be accessed, online shops browsed and now museums visited virtually. Yet with the juxtaposition of paintings by ancient masters and twenty first century technology, perhaps the Google Art Project has gone one step too far in its quest to bring the wealth of the world’s cultural prowess to our living rooms. Launched in February, the collaboration between some of the world’s most prestigious art museums and the internet giant Google allows everyone to become armchair curators, visiting museums and galleries across the world without moving and creating their own collections of their favourite works.

The project widens access to art to everyone. People who may not have the means or ability to travel in person to the world’s premier museums and collections can now see works from New York, Madrid and London in one place.

The danger, however, is that people will become complacent and neglect to visit museums on their doorstep, content to view the work online through the pixellation of a computer screen. They mayno longer feel the need to go and see the work in its original form, and the numbers of those frequenting museums could dwindle. With funding cuts already eroding resources given to  the  arts, galleries cannot afford to suffer any further losses.

While the Google Art Project allows you to zoom in and stare closely at the brushstrokes, the digitalised image is no substitute for the naked eye. The texture of the paint cannot be truly appreciated, and it is difficult to stand back and admire the work from a distance. Navigating virtually through the rooms of the museum is awkward. The atmosphere of reverence and awe inspired by seeing great art in its original form is lost by touring the museums virtually.

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The architecture and layout of the physical museum often also contributes – deliberately or otherwise – to the way in which the paintings and sculptures are viewed. The industrial façade of the Tate Modern helps create the effect produced by the abstract paintings displayed within, while the National Gallery’s imposing columns fill one with a suitable sense of awe before any paintings have been viewed. The moment of standing in an empty room in the Courtauld Gallery, with Manet ‘s original Un bar aux Folies Bergère all to oneself is one that cannot be replicated online.

Nonetheless, admiring works of art online is surely better than not seeing them at all. For some it may serve as an introduction to great works of art, thereby increasing entrance to museums in the long run. If this does happen, maybe the Google Art Project should be viewed as a complement to museums, rather than their replacement.