GOING DIGITAL Maps of paint

Google’s venture into the art world is enticing … but is it art?

4053 googleart
Google Art Project brings users up-close and personal with famous works of art and inside 17 of the world’s most renowned museums. But are these now-digital masterpieces as the artists intended them to be seen?
Screenshots from

Google Art Project was only unveiled in February, but already it has professional artists and amateur art lovers alike raving. It’s no wonder that people are impressed. A visit to the home page gives a crystal clear close-up of a famous painting. In the introduction video, painting after painting presents itself in proper Google Maps style as a voice tempts us to “discover hidden secrets, or get in close to see the most miniscule details, like the brushstrokes of van Gogh.”

But wait — there is something slightly unnerving about the way Google Art Project turns the microscope on each painting so indiscriminately. Those smears of muddy brown and golden mustard colors that first greeted me on the home page turn out to be only a magnification of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. A close study of The Harvesters (Pieter Bruegel the Elder) yields a fascinating amount of detail; Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge is nothing but a few isolated mountains of color, albeit with an incredible amount of three-dimensionality for a computer screen. I don’t mean to say that every brushstroke does not count in a work of art, but were we ever supposed to look at an impressionist painting from less than two feet away?

To give Google Art Project some credit, not all of it is full of strange close-ups. The museum tour feature appeases context-seekers like me. Flying down the corridors of London’s National Gallery is like a special after-hours tour on a broomstick — flying that works perfectly well until you have to turn a corner. Luckily, there’s a floor plan feature for the (virtual) navigationally inept among us.

Broomsticks and microscopes aside, Art Project has proven to be an invaluable resource to art history professors who have neither the time nor the resources to take their classes on cross-country or transatlantic museum field trips. The question at hand, then, is to what extent we should be turning art appreciation into a science. I’m not sure we should be spending all our free time speculating over the wonders of a half-glob of paint on a screen until our eyes begin to water.

So go ahead, go online and see Google Art Project for yourself. Enjoy magnifications of great works and breeze through famous museums that you may or may not ever visit. Browse through paintings individually (the best way, in my opinion) and create your own collection of favorite works. But please come back to earth (this earth, not Google Earth). Call me old-fashioned if you will, or one of those delusional romantics who goes to art galleries in the hopes of meeting a prince in front of a Manet, but my mind is set. Pixelated paint still hasn’t won me over.