What’s not to like?” tweeted an angry northerner this week after I expressed doubts about Google’s new site connecting 17 of the world’s biggest art galleries in the momentous-sounding Google Art Project. Tate Britain, the National Gallery, Versailles, MoMA and the Van Gogh Museum have been joined up online, via Google, to create a “global art museum” through which anyone with a computer will be able to wander, digitally, and in which they can access, digitally, any artwork they fancy.
Isn’t it “an undeniably fab resource”, tweeted another angry person from outside London, “for those who can’t otherwise get near a painting”?
Fab? Yes. Useful? Maybe. The Google Art Project will certainly spin and pimp and advertise the joys of the biggest beasts in the art world — the Tate Moderns, the MoMAs, the Van Gogh Museums. They are already the most image-conscious museums in human history, as well as the best funded, and they can certainly afford to set up super-cool hi-res digital realities. But will the creation of the international supermuseum in any way help our smaller galleries, the ones hit hardest in the recent round of national arts cuts? Staying open, rather than ensuring the highest quality of computer reproduction, is the real battle they face.
The fact that the Tate, with its ravenous international growth habit, is turning into Tesco before our eyes is not, however, the biggest of the worries here. More worrying, in the long run, is the promotion of the view that shovelling lots of stuff onto the internet adds up to making it more accessible.
Art does not become accessible just because you can see digitised, high-resolution approximations of it at home on a computer screen. What actually happens in those circumstances is that certain kinds of art look good — Salvador Dali paintings, Van Goghs, Warhols, Magrittes — but others do not. There is no way on the internet, for example, to do justice to a white painting by Robert Ryman. Or a tiny piece of Scythian jewellery. Or one of Michelangelo’s inchoate Slaves. As another of my tweeters put it: “You can’t online emotions.” For art to work properly, you need to go mano a mano with it. You need to feel how big it is, to sense its heft, its thickness, its presence. You certainly can’t online the awe of the Sistine ceiling, or even of a Monet brushstroke.
What is true, though, is that the quality of digital reproduction has improved hugely in recent years. It has even grown, in some situations, awesome. Much is being made of this new quality. As someone who has spent most of my career in art filming pictures as closely and precisely as possible, I know full well what miraculous exactitude is now available.
Modern cameras can follow the journey of a single hair along a canvas, let alone the whole brushstoke. Most museums do not allow you to get close enough to see their art properly, so some of what the Google Art Project is promising, in its grab and zoom functions, and its dramatic close-ups, is exciting.
Right now, I’m making a series about the impressionists for BBC2, and much of the joy of it has been from getting within licking distance of Monet and Van Gogh and Renoir. From that close, their work looks completely unfamiliar and new. If you have lost faith in the impressionist revolution, get close and your faith will return.
Yet not all art was actually meant to be seen this close. If Monet painted something to make sense from 5ft away, you are actually doing him a disservice and betraying his wishes by poking a camera among his flaying brushstrokes. Precisely because I’ve done so much of this kind of stuff myself, I know that certain types of art looks good on video, and other types do not. The unbreakable truth remains: not all art is computergenic, and not all computergenic art is good. So what? you may be thinking. If bounding like Super Mario through the digital Tate Modern, looking at the art equivalents of Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, persuades me one day to go to the real Tate, that will be positive, no? Not if you arrive at the gallery expecting something that isn’t there, then go back to your own reality expecting art to be something it isn’t.
Real art experiences are not interchangeable with internet passions, any more than real Czech girls are identical to the ones pictured on dating sites. I’m not saying the Google Art Project needs to have warning signs plastered across it saying “Viewer beware”. But isn’t rule number one of digital behaviour “Nothing is what it seems”?