March 9, 2011  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Tech
The Real and the Virtual Art Museum

Screenshot of Google Art Project featuring Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night

So much of the press and discussion around the Google Art Project has focused on comparing the experience of the virtual gallery with the real, in-person experience. The question seems to be, will the Google Art Project replace or somehow despoil the experience of the museum visit? But I think this commentary overlooks an important part of the Google Art Project: the way it allows users to—in a way—remix and share their experience of so many great works of art.

At the recommendation of a colleague and fellow teacher, I began reading On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard. The book begins with a few sentences that reminded me immediately of this aspect of the Google Art Project, and of our remix culture generally:

Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.

We’ve all felt this, right? How many times have you come to MoMA and wanted to draw something, paint something, or make something something afterwards? How many photographs did you take during your last visit? How many postcards did you buy in the MoMA Store? Don’t we all know what it feels like to see a particularly beautiful passage of paint and color, or a remarkable turn of a line, and want to hold it in our minds forever? We know we can’t, but turning away is difficult.

James McNeill Whistler. The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (detail). 1863–65. Oil on canvas. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian. Located in: The Peacock Room

For me, what is most pleasurable about the Google Art Project is how it lets me do what Scarry describes. The Project brings together works of art from 17 museums (including MoMA) in an interface that encourages you to explore and look closely, but it also allows you to save particular details in your own collection, which you can then share through e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook.

So what do you think? Does the Google Art Project make you want to visit museums more or less often? Or does it have no impact? Does the Project inspire you to collect and remix, like it did for me? And FYI—here’s my collection. Please share yours.