The End of the Art Book?

I’m being dramatic, I know. But will more consumers be downloading an art app in the future and viewing works on their iPads, instead of purchasing unwieldy coffee table tomes (the one featured above is a brick, coming in at 688 pages!)? Surely Google’s Art Project will change the digital landscape, with users being able to virtually navigate some of the world’s finest art museums.

At the beginning of the 1900s, publishers Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) were engrossed in a distribution war. Pulitzer’s aim was to outsell his rival by bringing fine art reproductions to a wide readership. As it turned out, the first colour presses were not up to the task, but were well suited for less detail-oriented printing, such as cartoons. Hence the introduction of R. F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, the first newspaper comic strip printed in colour.

Over one hundred years later, thanks to a collaboration between Google and a consortium of museums, fine art reproductions can now be scrutinized down to the megaopixel.

In “A new way of seeing,” (National Post, March 1, 2011), Robert Fulford comments on the latest Google publicity campaign in relation to the live museum experience:

Of course, googleartproject. com doesn’t replace the museum experience. Nothing in the way of reproduction, digitalized or printed, can do for us what the thing itself does.

And, of course, enjoying art this way lacks the social dimension of a museum exhibit. But in certain ways it improves on museums: There’s no waiting, it’s free, no one steps in front of you while you contemplate Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, and, in some obscure way, you do end up feeling rather closer to a masterpiece than you might otherwise.

There are strengths and weaknesses to viewing an artwork on-screen and in its physically incarnate form. And similarly, for all the benefits of the finger swipe, it will never replace the tactile experience of flipping the page—even if the book is more expensive, heavier and takes up more space. Call me old-fashioned.

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