Mechanical Resolution: Benjamin, Google Art Project, and the Digital Humanities

One of the first things that I saw this morning was a tweet from Andrew Hazlett pointing to a Washington Post article by Philip Kennicott about the new Google Art Project. Art Project takes a “street view” approach to 17 art museums, allowing you to walk through some of their galleries and see the works as they are hung on the galleries’ walls. For those who are interested in how art is presented to and consumed by the public, this proves to be an invaluable resource (and shows how far we’ve come since the 2001, when Shelley Staples’s digital version of the 1913 Armory Show came online).

As I tweeted (part one and two), the line that I find most interesting in the coverage from the Post is this assertion from Julian Raby, the director of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington: “Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing.” This passage naturally reminded me of the claims that Walter Benjamin makes in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In the essay, Benjamin considers the effect that photography, phonography, lithography, and more have on the “aura” or authenticity of an art work. In essence, a reproduction frees us from the need to go somewhere to see a particular piece of art, engaged in a pilgrimage of sorts; we no longer have to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa: “…technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” (As an aside, my public library in Nebraska, where I lived from ages 8-11, allowed you to check out framed reproductions. My brother’s and my favorite was the Mona Lisa. Ironically, we had seen the original when we lived in Europe. But I don’t think we had quite understood at the ages of 5 and 6 that it was something that mattered. Accordingly, we enjoyed our reproduction much more than the original.)

But Benjamin writes, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” So while we no longer need to go to art, the reproduction’s lack of place reinscribes the aura of the original. The result?

By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

So while it’s true that I no longer need to go to the MoMA to see Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, seeing it in Google Art Project may very well strengthen my desire to see the original, which is what Raby and the other museum directors must be counting on. And of course, all that Art Project appears to show at the moment are works that are no longer in copyright. So if you want to see a Warhol or a LeWitt, you’ve still got to go to the MoMA itself.

While acknowledging the complicated co-dependent relationships of original and reproduction, Benjamin is clear that reproductions are better than originals in at least one concrete way:

…process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction. For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision.

Mechanical reproductions, then, surpass the original by showing you more than your own eye could see, even if you were with the original. And it was precisely this issue of how much one can see in Art Project that our art history librarian, Kim Collins, asked me this morning when I showed her Art Project. After all, we pay a hefty subscription to ARTstor every year to get high quality images. So in the interest of seeing how much I could see, I pulled up The Starry Night (a work that I’ve never seen in person) in both ARTstor and Art Project. Using each platform, I zoomed in as far as I could on the church in the lower middle of the painting. And here is what I saw.

ARTstor (clicking on picture links to a larger version)


Google Art Project (clicking on picture links to a larger version)

The Starry Night  Vincent van Gogh  MoMA The Museum of Modern Art  Art Project powered by Google

That’s quite a difference in resolution and depth. Art Project is using what the Washington Post article calls a “‘gigapixel’ process,¬†which stitches together multiple high-resolution images.” To get a sense of exactly how much more you see in Art Project, here, is the ARTstor image highlighted with the area that I’ve zoomed in on with Art Project:

Starry night artstor

Of course, the museums are the ones that provide the images to both ARTstor and Art Project, so there’s every chance in the world that the former’s images will be updated sometime in the future.

As I finish writing this, Art Project is a trending topic on Twitter. Although Google tends to have this effect on things, it’s apparent that people are interested in this project–or at least in talking about it. Towards the end of his essay, Benjamin writes, “The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.” By throwing a tremendous quantity of pixels at Art Project, Google has produced something of quality that will shift how the masses see art.

And perhaps a key lesson to take from Art Project (if we can extract a lesson on launch day), is that it’s a clear demonstration of the opportunities that the digital humanities have to reach a larger audience, provided we can show them something new or something more in a (visual) language they understand.

3 thoughts on “Mechanical Resolution: Benjamin, Google Art Project, and the Digital Humanities

  1. Interesting post, Brian. One thing I’m wondering: How much of what a viewer sees in a high-res reproduction is informed by what s/he has seen in real life? In other words, how much can you appreciate what a Google Art reproduction tells you about the thickness of paint, say, or the texture of brush strokes if you haven’t seen those things on an actual canvas in front of you?

    Tangentially related anecdote from the world of textual scholarship: A couple of years ago, I wrote about a scholar who was working with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” notebooks. He was not at all averse to high-res digital images of manuscripts; he used them and liked how they expanded access to manuscripts that many people couldn’t travel to see. But he also said there were some questions he was only able to settle by laying eyes on the original manuscript. The example I remember was an ink blot that could have been a punctuation mark or could have been bleed-through from the other side of the page. He had to go look at the actual notebook pages to figure out which it was.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. I think you’re right that our understanding of the high-res image must be shaped by what we’ve seen in real life. I don’t know if we have to have had the experience of seeing a Van Gogh in person, however, so much as having seen them on, as you put it, “an actual canvas.” The specificity of the canvas perhaps doesn’t matter as much as the knowledge of how oils move against a canvas and one another. That being said, as someone who lived in The Netherlands, I will begrudge no man or woman the opportunity to see as many Van Goghs as possible.

    I had a similar experience in need to see the original documents when working on one of Hemingway’s manuscripts. To lessen the wear and tear on the notebooks, the JFK provides researchers with photocopies. In most cases, that’s all that is necessary to do one’s work, but one page of A Farewell to Arms was so crowded, that only looking at the original was able to resolve the question for me.

  3. -maybe less about mechanical reproduction and more about the figments of art or pigments- Benjamin’s descriptions of the streets of Paris meets Klee’s views of paint.

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