Academic journal article Afterimage

Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye

Academic journal article Afterimage

Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye

Article excerpt

At a press conference hosted by Tate Britain in the winter of 2011. Google announced the release of a virtual museum tour application, Art. Project, which, its promoters promised, would transform the experience of viewing artwork reproductions online. Art Project allows users to wander virtually through galleries as they are installed and zoom in on selected works to an almost microscopic level by combining Google's "Street View" technology with high-resolution reproductions. (1) While most critics tempered their enthusiasm for Art Project by suggesting that despite all its wonders, the new website could never replace the experience of' standing in front or an authentic work of art "the real, breathing thing" (2)--there was a unanimous fascination with Art Project's high-resolution images that warrants further investigation. (3)

Rather than simply redraw the typical lines in the long-standing debate over originals versus reproductions, we must think more carefully about how reproductions contribute to our understandings of original works of art. (4) I am suggesting that we should consider reproductions like those on Art Project as valuable, if often overlooked, tools of historiography. By reading them against the grain, reproductions become visual texts that allow us to access historically and culturally specific ways of seeing that are so conventional as to remain largely invisible.

INVISIBLE INSTRUCTION

As didactic objects, reproductions claim to teach us simply what an art object looks like, but in emphasizing some elements and obfuscating others, they also provide instruction in how to look at the work in question. Color; contrast, surf ace detail, and size are all variable in the reproduction, and celebration of one aspect over another imparts a particular kind of knowledge in the viewer. For example, Charles Eliot Norton was quick to declaim in 1869 that Adolphe Braun's carbon process photographic prints provided "an almost exact facsimile [sic]" of the Old Master drawings they reproduced. Above all, Norton admired Braun's use of pigments to closely mimic the color of the originals, from sepia to red chalk or black crayon, producing a verisimilitude that was previously unknown to photographic documentation. Norton enthused that "in the best examples a perfection has been reached which renders the copy ill all important respects, in all respects of art and use, as valuable as the original. (5) Yet, less than one hundred years later, these valuable copies were quietly deaccessioned, replaced by less cumbersome 8 x 1O-inch prints and color slides.(6) This situation seems relatively commonplace to us today, aced as we are with technologies that fade into obsolescence on a scale that is more often measured by months than years, let alone decades or centuries. Yet there is something to be learned even from these old technologies, and especially from our changing evaluation of them. How does Norton's description of the "perfection" of Braun's prints reveal a way of looking at artwork that differed From that of viewers of the later 8 x 10s, or from contemporary viewing practices guided by high-resolution digital images such as those available on Art Project?

I contend that these various generations or reproductions offer us privileged access to what Michael Baxandall termed the "period eye," or culturally learned ways of interpreting visual data.' Even as photographs and especially reproductive photographs claim to represent the visual world with a rigorous objectivity, they make use of pictorial conventions that must be decoded by their viewers. When these conventions are familiar to viewers, they imagine that they can sec right through the reproduction to the original that it represents, as in Norton's experience of the Braun photographs. However, when conventions become outdated, it is the process itself that becomes most visible, rendering the reproduction an opaque representation rather than a transparent window on the original. …

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