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Google Arts & Culture

Google’s Arts & Culture app makes your selfie the muse

The meme-able new technology is making the elitist art world more fun

Brushed up on your Roesen, Kandinsky or Gauguin recently? When’s the last time you saw the words “French Polynesian”, “Post Impressionism” or “Hessian Fabric” in your news feed? I don’t know about you, but my latest screen time has seen me delving into 19th century Victorian patchwork.

This isn’t because I’m subscribed to a fancy independent arts magazine or that I’m bouji (maybe a little), but because the Google Arts & Culture app is here and, well, get ready for an education on O'Keefe and Hartley. Lol JK, it’s all about that selfie function.

The rebranded Google app is filled with over 80,000 works from more than seventy countries. It has a method which appeals to the millennial mind: using yourself as the muse. First you take a selfie, and then the AI generates your doppelganger that’s hanging in some museum in the world. Your selfie’s may not be a piece of art, but your lookalike certainly is.

Naturally, Google installed this function to hook users in: people en masse are now downloading and sharing the app – Google hopes that some hang about after the selfies and read the curated content, which spans extensive art think pieces that delve into cultures lost.

What I don’t think Google expected was that the app has become a space where people of colour have found themselves represented in art. Throughout the weekend, I saw women of colour waiting and finding paintings which matched their searchable faces. Bengali men were discovering their doppelgangers with fascinating narratives in entire works of art.

I saw the flicker of slight anxiety – would Google totally fail and reduce people of colour to a tired homogenised group? Others have voiced concern about some poor matches as PoC users, but I did see instances of surprise and delight as people were matched to a different artist and creative movement.

As we’re in 2018 and still having this discussion on authentic representation, it is refreshing to almost see yourself cast back a few centuries in a past life, as a classical artwork. For many children of immigrants, there is this idea that their story starts when they reach Western shores. This internalised idea in which “art is not for us” is rooted in erasure of people of colour in galleries, resulting in those same ethnic minorities believing their ancestors did not exist – because if they had, surely they’d have been captured in oil paintings too.

“The Google Art & Culture app has become a tool to democratise art and make it accessible, fun and open, especially for those who can’t see themselves on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery”

Brown people in paintings are really only seen in BBC documentaries on lost art when they make an appearance as someone’s servant or slave. Yet, the DNA of Google’s app is intersectional as more art does exist. It shows that brown and black subjects in the history of paintings were more than a background of pain and discrimination.

But what about those people who are in between black, brown and white? The app’s algorithm has been questioned as many users with eastern Asian features have been matched with Geishas or connected to a discourse on Chinese and Japanese history while missing out on South-Eastern Asian art. Others have pointed out that black people have largely been matched with the same street art works. This is clearly something which needs to be improved on stat, as an app displaying worldly works cannot have a human flaw in only seeing the polemical span of human skin.

The Google Art & Culture app has become a tool to democratise art and make it accessible, fun and open, especially for those who can’t see themselves on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. We can seek out and find the portraits of our ancestors that have been slept on. It was not intersectional by force, but by laying bare the range of global art we have, it’s clear that there’s more than the one palette we’ve been fed.

Making what can be elitist and classist conversations accessible has become even more difficult in recent years due to cuts in the arts themselves – a predicted £691m in funding is needed to balance out the north/south divide in England, for example. Donald Trump’s budget last year proposed national cuts to the arts at up to 80 per cent. However, platforms such as Google Art & Culture and Instagram/Twitter accounts such as @tabloidarthistory make art attractive again for the majority.

@Tabloidarthistory compares a side by side of say, North West tugging Kim Kardashian’s veil while touring Geghard monastery in Armenia, with a similar-looking portrait of the infant Christ pulling on the Virgin Mary’s veil in ‘The Virgin of the Grapes’ by Mignard, 1640. In melding pop culture with high art, the women behind one of our fave Twitter timelines bring art history home again. They discuss, evaluate, and have fun with the lines where pop and art intersect, in spite of the pomp and systemic prejudices built around the art world.

For a generation that gets accused regularly of recycling ideas, both these art channels evoke a sense of familiarity and space for those who feel as though they too can look at art and understand. The image of Joanne the Scammer with a fan of dollar bills seems like something that could only make sense in the era of memes, until you see it alongside the 1919 fine art piece “Woman with a Fan.”

There’s always a question with these modern ways of communicating and sharing as to who gets to access and control these dialogues – and clearly there is space for improvement to make sure representation for all races can truly be seen through the app. Nevertheless, we should give props to those taking the initiative to uncover a world which has, for so long, benefitted from deciding who is worthy enough to be painted and remembered. Now it’s about time to celebrate those names and faces we had lost.