Open Art

“Are the artworks ours to give? Are they ours to withhold?”

– Peter Samis, Associate Curator, Interpretive Media, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

On my most recent blog post, I contended that the pervasiveness of artspeak—the unnecessarily convoluted manner of speaking and writing that dominates discussions in the art world—is a social justice problem. Artspeak allows art insiders, comprised primarily of people from more privileged backgrounds, to separate themselves from outsiders who aren’t familiar with such language. But it doesn’t matter what kind of language we use to discuss art if access to art is also stratified along socioeconomic lines. As I mentioned last month, museum attendees are overwhelmingly skewed toward the privileged—which isn’t all that surprising, considering admission prices are so high these days. So how can people learn about art if they don’t have access to museums?

Well, of course, there’s the internet, that marvelous invention that has revolutionized the way we communicate, consume, and collaborate. It’s no exaggeration to say that the internet has provided easy access to knowledge and resources that were nearly impossible before the 1990s. But cultural institutions such as galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (also known, quite fabulously, as GLAMs) are woefully behind on the transition. GLAMs often publish only a fraction of their collections to the web, and often only through tiny thumbnail images. Educators cite the lack of hi-resolution images to study art in classrooms as a common frustration, and many projects that do offer hi-res options require some form of payment. In an age in which sharing images and information should be as easy as a click of a button, technophobia stunts these institutions’ digital growth. Naysayers bemoan everything from the somewhat bogus excuse of copyright infringement to the fear that the experts won’t be able to control discussion on their objects once collection images roam freely in the world. When so much other information is freely available on the internet, it signals to the public that enjoying art is only for those who travel to museums and pay an admission fee.

Of the exciting web initiatives that aim to connect art collections with the public, Google Art Project is perhaps the best known. Since 2011, Google has partnered with 151 GLAMs (and the number is growing), providing one-stop-shop access to images and information from collections around the globe. You can take a virtual tour of certain institutions, find educational content, and view works of art “at the brushstroke level,” allowing users to zoom in close enough to witness more into the details than one could see in person. Google Art Project’s April 2012 revamp allows users to create their own collections, onto which they can add commentary and upload corresponding videos. Personal gallery titles like “Dissertation,” “Things That Move Me,” and “The Teenage Mind” indicate the kind of curatorial playground that the website has provided users.

Google Art Project (source)

Of course, individual GLAMs, too, can contribute to the cause through their own websites. Certain places, such as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, are committed to sharing their collections—and then some. On November 28, I had the privilege of hearing William Noel speak about this process during a panel discussion on digital humanities and museums at the CUNY Graduate Center. Noel, previously the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters, presented on the process and philosophy behind releasing the entire contents of the Walters’ manuscript collection to the web. In addition to creating a platform that is sustainable (that is, cheap to maintain and built to last), Noel advocated that online collections must be useable: well-documented, free, and most of all, available for anyone to take and do with it what they’d like.  The result? The Digital Walters, a website that catalogues images of manuscripts and is publicly available, no strings attached.

By releasing the museum’s digital assets, other people have been able to take the collection and innovate independently. The Google Art Project has integrated all of the images up, for starters. The collection was also uploaded onto T-PEN, a crowd-sourced manuscript transcription website. Users are invited to browse through a massive database of manuscripts from around the world and contribute to the gargantuan task of transcribing the texts. Noel is a curator that doesn’t see himself as a gatekeeper of hallowed objects, preserving their legacies that shield them from the misinterpretations of the masses. You could say that Noel is, instead, a gate opener. He recognizes that digital resources are important, but only insofar that they gain access to what’s even more important—an entire community out there, scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike, that can contribute to furthering knowledge.

Illuminated manuscript on Christian Romance (source)

Pages from the Walters manuscripts have been spotted everywhere, even on Christian dating websites (“We’re really contributing to the iconography of Christian love,” Noel quipped). Similarly, I’ve stumbled upon images from art history on other non-art focused websites—in other words, websites that are probably closer to mainstream life. In a photo essay on the women’s interest blog The Hairpin, Lili Loofbourow assembles a curious medley of artworks that depict breastfeeding (unfortunately, the author did not include my favorite example). The post is primarily meant to elicit laughs, but I also find it a smart compilation on Loofbourow’s part, demonstrating the depictions of a universal relationship—the mother nurturing her child—across cultures and time periods.

Details from Isis Nursing Infant Harpocrates and Francois Clouet’s A Lady in Her Bath (source)

On Pinterest, images of works by Andy Goldsworthy and Ana Mendieta, contemporary artists known for their environment-based works, sit alongside images of home decor on a pinboard titled “Driftwood. Twigs. Willows. Grapevine. Bamboo.” I can imagine some people rolling their eyes at such a sight, bemoaning the desecration of high art. I’m not a Pinterest enthusiast myself, but I believe this confluence of fine art and everyday imagery is something to be relished, not criticized. Firstly, the interpretation is now in the hands of the public, and it’s not as vapid an interpretation as we may initially think. The juxtapositions in the Goldsworthy/Mendieta/interior design pinboard focuses our attention to the formal elements, such as construction and the use of natural materials, that these objects share.

“Driftwood. Twigs. Willows. Grapevine. Bamboo.” (source)

There is also something to be said for realizing that art isn’t the end-all-be-all. Sure, we entrust great works of art to galleries, collectors, and museums because we hope they will be preserved and appreciated for generations to come. But there is a reason we call artworks “objects”: they are objects, after all, just as a cereal box and a hairbrush are objects. Marcel Duchamp, the father of modern art, the proto-conceptual artist, that great inventor of Dada to which much art today is compared, would probably be the first to agree in the absurdity of keeping art images out of the hands of the people.

In 1919, Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to a postcard image of the ever-iconic Mona Lisa, proclaiming this as a work of readymade art. Since then, artists high and low have endlessly riffed off of his riffing off of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting. Contemporary artist Sherrie Levine reduced a color version of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. down to 12 pixels; advertisers and web users continue to Photoshop the Mona Lisa into thousands of mocking iterations. (, a web resource devoted to researching and documenting internet phenomena, considers Duchamp’s vandalized Mona Lisa as “one of the best know pre-internet memes.”) I’d like to think that Duchamp, of all people, would be a supporter of internet resources that make images from museums readily accessible for whatever creative purpose an individual may have in mind.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 (source)

Sherrie Levine’s After Duchamp from the Meltdown series, 1989 (source)

Mona Lisa memes (source)

Perhaps we should look to initiatives outside of museums and the Google Art Project for ways to open up art and its interpretation. The Open Utopia, developed by NYU media professor Stephen Duncombe, is a digital open-source version of Thomas More’s Utopia that is accessible in different formats, open to modification, and allows for dialogue and exchange on the web platform. This way, Duncombe says, we are able to truly enact More’s vision of utopia: “Utopia was designed to stimulate imagination in others as much as it was meant to present the imaginary vision of a single author.” Users can add comments via Social Book, a reading platform that aggregates readers’ annotations on a shared copy of the literature. I’m imagining a similar version for a work of art, employing digital methods to collectively accumulate thoughts onto an image, like a hybrid between Google Maps photo tagging and VH1’s “Pop-Up Video.” More’s central idea—that all property is common property—is now realized through the internet.

But before we lose ourselves in fantasies of a free art utopia, let’s not forget: internet access isn’t completely accessible. Twelve years ago, Bill Clinton coined the term “digital divide” to describe web and technology inequalities, a problem that persists today. Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that nearly a third of the country does not have access to the internet. In 2009, 77.3% of Asian Americans and 69% of whites used broadband in the home, while only 49.4% and 47.9% of black and Hispanic populations, respectively, had access. Ninety-five percent of individuals earning $75,000 or more used the internet, while only 57% of those earning less than $30,000 were connected. Access to the World Wide Web should be a right, but remains primarily in the hands of the privileged. Still, digital efforts to democratize engagement with art—by publishing collections online and allowing the public to apply their own interpretations to the work—is a valiant first step toward breaking down disparities in the art world.

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