Digitization and Disappearance in Fine Art
You wouldn’t think that the internet has limited our access to fine art, but in a real way it has done precisely that. For a case in point, we need look no further than the most famous painting on earth: Mona Lisa.
Suppose you wish to look at a high res version of the painting - good luck! There are two unique versions, with vastly different color grading. Other online versions appear to be remixes of these two. Some have heavy craquelure, others have none.
Which version is most faithful to the original? Your guess is as good as mine. Which version reflects the conservation treatment of 1985? (The piece needed repair after it got infested with insects.) Again, we can only guess at the answer.
Now, suppose you wish to view Mona Lisa with the frame included. Again, good luck! So far as I can tell, such an image does not exist. There are grainy photos from a project to recreate it, and thousands more taken by tourists, but none provide a straight-on, high res view of the frame.
The problem is far more severe with almost all other works of art. In the event a reproduction exists online, it’s often low res (500 pixels is the norm) and the color grading cannot be trusted at all.
At least in the beforetimes, when the internet had not yet wrapped its tentacles around the world, these paintings were reproduced primarily in books on fine art, books where a publishing house invested tremendous energy into ensuring that reproductions bore some resemblance to the original. Admittedly, it’s not like these books aren’t still available in select libraries, but they have become increasingly inaccessible.
For art lovers, time is often of the essence; a desire to view Girl with a Pearl Earring can’t always warrant a trip to the library. And access to libraries carrying such things is almost entirely a question of privilege. Everyone everywhere - not just New Yorkers and Londoners with library cards - deserve instant access to fine art. If the internet is to be a democratizing force, it ought to democratize humanity’s greatest achievements. Anything less is a slap in the face to 10,000 years of human civilization.
The fundamental problem here, as Dr Alexandria Bond has pointed out, is that the limits of our uploading are the limits of our world. If it’s not on Google, it may as well not exist. To be sure, there are tools like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg and the Met Collection Catalog, but few outside academia know these exist. And the western world’s two most popular image search engines (provided by Google and Microsoft, respectively) rarely surface images from them.
With a few clicks, you can, once in a while, find tourist-shot photos of a given painting. But these are plagued by two problems. The first is that they are, perforce, oblique and shot in the low light of a gallery. The second is that smartphone cameras are inveterate, barefaced liars. Samsung’s camera invented the moon. iPhones transformed the electric-orange skies of California into a pallid gray. Heck, those over 40 can take a selfie and watch their wrinkles fade away.
This dearth of undoctored, decent-quality images speaks to a broader issue; namely, for-profit corporations like Google and Microsoft are incentivized to generate profit. The top few rows of results, therefore, show images you can buy - images that are grainy, watermarked, and captionless. All the new features being baked into these search engines suffer from the same problem. They are all geared toward commerce rather than enjoyment.
There are certainly counterexamples, indeed sponsored by the companies being called out here. Google’s Arts & Culture platform, a tool to foster art appreciation, is to be lauded. The importance of instilling a love of art in the young can’t be overstated. But the images on it are of usually of the Web 1.0 vintage - not to overuse the words, but grainy and low res; better suited to Windows XP than the large liquid crystal displays of today.
There is no excuse for us - us meaning internet users the world over - to not have access to the very large slice of human patrimony known as fine art. Fine art created before the 20th C. is in the public domain. It should not be paywalled, watermarked, downsized, or otherwise gated. As we transition from a physical world to a digital one, we must not lose sight of this fact. We must not let enterprise deny us access to that which explores us and explains us.
The lack of quality art online isn’t just bad for the public, it’s bad for AI as well. The lifeblood of generative art software like Midjourney and DALL-E is the corpus of images they scrape from the web. And as they say in programming, “garbage in, garbage out”. We may not like AI art, but if it’s here to stay, it may as well be trained on decent images. Our lives may depend on it.