Google: art

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A new barometer of global culture has been set in motion by Google, which launched an “Artist Themes” function that allows people to customize their personal Google pages.
The gallery of custom images doesn’t amount to a vote of confidence for visual artists, especially American ones. I dutifully set my iGoogle page to the “Jeff Koons” theme. Every time I do a search I now see a different Koons work at the top of my screen.

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But Koons is pretty much the only artist in the pack. There are many more choices of fashion people (Diane von Furstenberg, Todd Oldham, Dolce & Gabanna) and designers (Philippe Starck, Michael Graves) than of artists in the conventional sense. Most of the custom themes are from the hands and keypads of web designers and animators whose names few gallery-goers would recognize. Many are from Asia (but no Murakami here). Then there’s Coldplay, Beastie Boys, Lance Armstrong, and Mark Morris. Lesson? Though Google’s developers are clearly not trying to draw an all-inclusive map of global visual culture here, what if their selections are, in fact, faithful to what our society understands under the rubric of “artists”? Is Koons the best choice for this virtual Noah’s Ark?

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8 thoughts on “Google: art

  1. Not because they’re Brits, I’d say that names like Damien Hirst and Banksy would likely get more requests through search engines than Jeff Koons, and that’s what we’re talking about here I suppose: artists who generate the biggest number of hits based on name recognition alone.

    In that case, maybe Van Gogh or Michelangelo (I imagine the spellings will vary) might also come high on a list of sheer Art Idol web popularity. Although I’m not privy to Google’s stats on which artist really does get looked up the most, I suspect that the all-seeing eye’s reason for picking Koons has more to do with commercial compatibility than outright fame. Who do you think would be the least bothered by the prospect of having their work cropped, squeezed and shunted into an uncomfy webpage (not to mention the whole selling-out issue)? Now Koons comes high on that list I’d wager.

  2. I think it’s probably a bit much to be asking for iGoogle’s “artist themes” to run deep into contemporary fine art territory. But at this early stage, it is a good lesson to our so-called “art world.” As we know, that–dare I say “our”–world is tiny in comparison to the myriad creative endeavors that could easily qualify their executors as “artists.” Boris Groys’ new book ‘Art Power’, addresses this narrowing of all that is considered “art.”

    Given the platform, it should prove an interesting window onto the population of web and digital graphic design and illustration communities that no doubt feel set to the side when conversations turn to “real” art. Also, remember that Koons has a lot of exposure in California due to the LACMA choo-choo project; perhaps he’s more in programmers’ minds on the west coast than he is elsewhere in the world.

    (Confession, I have Starck’s theme set up on my iGoogle page; but I’m looking for some good substitutes.)

  3. Funny to see Koons and not Warhol, Shepard Fairey and not Banksy. They manage to include Dale Chihuly but not Robert Rauschenberg. And what about Picasso? He must generate tons of traffic on any search engine.

    But I’m not inclined to second guess Google’s choices, as it hardly seems they are passing historical or aesthetic judgment, creating a pantheon, or building a “Noah’s Ark” or time capsule. Even were they, why would they showcase the fine art image at the expense of other popular sources, when the cultural penetration of fashion, music, sports, design (furniture, web, graphic) and the applied or performing arts is so much deeper? The marginalization of high art within the larger creative universe is just about axiomatic.

    I am decidedly not the best customer for artist themes, as I rarely go to the iGoogle home page, instead accessing their search engine on the task bar of my browser. But if I did go there, I would love to see Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock laying down the paint, shot through the glass, ad infinitum.

  4. The phrasing on the iGoogle “artist theme” page is unfortunate for those who prefer a clear delineation between “fine artists” and all others, but with Koons himself working to blur that line, I don’t actually find it surprising to see him represented among other “artists” like Lance Armstrong (I mean, really?). In fact, knowing that what Google is actually doing here is offering its audience choices inspired by cultural icons, and not by (does anyone think Armstrong drew that image) or even about only “artists” per se, I’d guess Jeff would be all the more pleased by the company.

    There’s probably no way to address this without seeming elitist (which I don’t mind, to be honest, but don’t see as helpful in the long run). But with the Hickeysian prediction of fame in the art world going the way of fame in the jazz world looking more and more prescient, it is to me surprising that the term “artist” has become so generic that a bicyclist is so casually described as such and that actually makes sense.

  5. My initial reaction was to think how wonderful it would be to see one of Polly Apfelbaum’s floor pieces sprawling across…my Google page? No thank you. I would really find that an abuse of her work. And really, any of the artists that I care about. The art here is not really meant to be looked at, as that might slow you down a bit from your searches and their ads. This is doing for art as much as a ringtone does for music.

    I don’t need to be manipulated to understand my laptop as a prosthetic extension of my technologized self, and most of us already have our very own wallpaper (my laptop is currently a photo by Barbara Bloom of bagged pigment powders stacked up in a window storefront; my cell phone, Moholy-Nagy’s light space modulator.) Google’s aim is to build on the desire to declare yourself within the narrow parameters of personal choice granted in a market niche, and we are not too far from digital screens in which curating is only a matter of downloading from iTunes. This a very important topic, and has everything to do the changing role of contemporary art as a luxury commodity. Not too long ago I read in the Wall Street Journal about a Coach store in Queens – the company has no worries about losing the identity of high-end branding, and we might say that art has in some sense gone the way of handbags.

    My next step was to visit Rhizome for art that is designed for the web. Something like Gustavo Romano’s “IP Poetry Project,” generating spoken poetry by dropping search terms into a pre-existing form, or Martin John Callanan’s “I wanted to see all of the news from today,” a screen of daily newspapers from around the world, seem like a natural direction for such projects to take. But anyone who has visited Rhizome knows that web based art robs you of time in a way that is not conducive to Google’s aims.

    Will the time come when serious art curating, web-based or otherwise, can take root in a place like Google? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a sponsored work of strong web-based art? The Phillip-Morris model of corporate arts funding has been going down the tubes, and what is finding success, whether it is the Gap or Google, is closer to a logo in its mobility across a variety of surfaces. This is why Polly Apfelbaum’s floor pieces should never appear on Google, but it is interesting to see what does.

  6. Catherine’s comment and Edward’s too made me think of a brainstorming session I attended recently where the subject was how the arts could be more proactively supported and placed in the public eye. One suggestion was that perhaps there should be more product placement, just as Pepsi or Apple negotiates to get their products on movie screens.

    Now for some science fiction: Catherine suggests a business idea that may already be a secret initiative inside the Googleplex. Call it Google Curator. You type in “Identity and Transgression in American Art, 1945-70″ or “Objects of Desire, Renaissance Gold from the Courts of Europe,” and out comes a list of images and objects from collections around the world. Could it be done? Another digital tool, code name CuratInstall Wizard 1.0, could have 3-D renderings of all the major exhibition spaces in the world, and the program, once supplied with the proposed contents of an exhibition, would arrange the objects in a visual and thematic sequence informed by display patterns observed in 1,000 of the most widely attended exhibitions in museum history. Has anything like this been attempted?

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