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In the end, Google’s closeups intrude on the art experience

Google Art Project allows users to navigate through leading museums, zooming in on works such as Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. Google Art Project allows users to navigate through leading museums, zooming in on works such as Rembrandt's "Night Watch" at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. (google Project)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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Just how wonderful is the new Google Art Project, which allows you to navigate through galleries of the world’s leading museums and get microscopically close to masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night’’?

Like Google Earth, with its ability to spy on homes halfway around the world, Google Art Project uses technology that is initially astounding — and then weirdly disappointing. You are able to see the blue and gold brushstrokes of “The Starry Night’’ at greater proximity than Van Gogh himself. It’s exciting, for those who fetishize “the hand of the master,’’ to feel oneself so close to genius.

But we’re deluding ourselves if we think Van Gogh’s brilliance can be subdivided into pixels.

Launched Feb. 1, Google Art Project provides access to more than 385 rooms in 17 world-famous museums, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the National Gallery in London, the Frick Collection in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Palace of Versailles in France. (Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which already offers sophisticated access to its collection online, is keen to get involved down the track.)

Google allows you to zoom in on super-high-resolution photographs of particular works of art — one in each museum. You can also see reproductions at lower resolutions of more than 1,000 other works in the participating museums. And using navigational tools similar to Google Street View, you can go on a virtual tour of dozens of the museums’ rooms.

Museums around the world are terribly excited, as are quite a few art critics.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I remain underwhelmed. It’s not just that Google’s interface is frustrating, or that the choice of viewing possibilities is constrained and seemingly arbitrary. It also strikes me as a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Technology is getting confused with art in ways that do little to advance the cause of either.

If you live far from some of the world’s great museums — and we all do — Google Art Project can give you tantalizing glimpses of their galleries and of individual works of art. It’s exciting, for instance, to see the confident lightness of touch and the richness of color in Whistler’s “The Princess from the Land of Porcelain’’ in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Similarly, under magnification, the brush marks used for the rug that covers the table in Holbein’s great “The Ambassadors’’ in London’s National Gallery seem amazingly loose and uneven; so when you see what an impression of detailed exactitude they make at a distance, you can’t help but marvel.

But it is still much more interesting to see all these things up close with your own eyes.

Why? Because, to start with, human vision is binocular; digital photography is not. The human eye can grasp the thickness, weight, and texture of the yellow impasto Van Gogh used for the stars and moon in “The Starry Night’’ much more effectively than a camera.

What’s more, it is because your eyes are attached to your body with all its nerves and weight and appetites. They can rove around as they like, independent of the movements of a handheld mouse. They are sensitive to changing light conditions, to atmosphere, to space — in short, to what people like to call “aura.’’ All of this is what gives the experience of looking at art so much meaning and interest.

I’m not for a second suggesting that new technologies, from photography to the Internet, should be kept apart from museums and their art. As an art critic, I rely every day on art books and museum websites and the amazing ease and speed of Google Images.

The Google Art Project is one more development in this story and, at the very least, it is likely to increase the appetite of people to get off their padded swivel chairs and hightail it to a museum. (And that is exactly why some of the world’s leading museums have agreed to take part in the project.)

But in the end, art stands apart from — and is in many ways an antidote to — our contemporary tendency to succumb to techno-lust, our hang-up with “virtual’’ experience, maximum visibility, and infinite reproducibility. Art gains its kick from its palpable presence (ask any collector). It is about those immediate, untranslatable experiences that take place in our souls and not on a pixellated screen. At bottom, it is more concerned with what cannot be known, about what gets lost in shadows, than with what can be illuminated by means of higher and higher resolution and by multiplying phalanxes of pixels.

It’s interesting to compare Google Art Project to Google Earth. Speak to people in the high-tech world of mapping and they find Google Earth’s virtual travels almost laughably primitive.

It’s the same with Google Art Project. Art historians and conservators scrutinize paintings with X-radiography, infrared reflectography, ultraviolet illumination, laser scanning, and various kinds of examination under raking, specular, and transmitted light. What sort of secrets are they unlocking? Nerdy matters of attribution, technique, and dating, for the most part. Nothing to do with art. Their functions are important, their powers impressive, but with very few exceptions, their discoveries need not detain us. And the levels of magnification and detail provided by Google Art Project are nowhere near as sophisticated even as these established techniques.

Indeed, not for the first time, Google is getting credit here for promoting a newly presented version of technology that was already widely available. Hundreds of the world’s top museums, in addition to the MFA, already provide Web users with the ability to get up close to images of works in their collections. Some also provide 360-degree views of art objects or particular galleries.

So Google is simply aggregating, facilitating, popularizing. This is what they do.

They do it very well, of course, and we’ve seen in the world of news and information that relatively simple innovations can have huge and profound consequences. So why am I skeptical about the ultimate impact of Google Art Project?

Because I don’t believe it answers to what people really want from art, or, indeed, from art museums.

Every year, millions of people go to art museums all around the world. This, despite the fact that almost every popular work of art will come up on your computer if you type its title into Google Images. They go for any number of reasons, from looking at art to hooking up.

But one thing almost all the reasons have in common is that it gets people away from their computer screens.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.