Google Cultural Institute Paris Opening Gets Parisian Snub

Assuming – perhaps understandably – that anything related to the Google Art Project would be welcomed with open arms, Google was left feeling decidedly cold-shouldered at the launch of its bricks-and-mortar Cultural Institute in Paris last week.

The Cultural Institute, which heretofore existed only online, aims to host ‘cultural’ conferences, debates, and contemporary art exhibitions at its 9th arrondissement Paris headquarters and was due to be officially opened by France’s culture minister, Aurélie Filippetti. The institute was also to have an artists in residence program and of course be armed with high-end technology for visiting artists and affiliated galleries. So far so fancy.

But at the last minute, the minister withdrew from the function, citing wariness of a global corporation whose modus operandi “still raises a number of questions.”

These questions presumably relate to the usual chestnuts of the company’s access to users’ personal data, its tax, ahem, avoidance policies and its general tendency to bestride the virtual world wearing ‘don’t be evil’ jackboots. But is there more to the minister’s reluctance to attend the institute’s launch? After all, one of her colleagues, junior minister for technology and innovation, Fleur Pellerin, was happy to attend.

The French are, well, French. I knew a French woman who slowly drew on long leather gloves every time she went outside – no matter what the weather – because, she said with perverse relish, “people…..disgust me”. Official France – that is to say, Paris – is generally disgusted by “people.” It carries out its business with others as one might deal with dog mess on the sole of one’s shoe. It held its nose and swallowed hard on EuroDisney, by which it was utterly, utterly disgusted. It has always been, at best, Google-sceptic, viewing it as an unsophisticated, unstylish smartass.

Make no mistake about it, even the briefest of visits to Google’s Art Project will confirm that there are some very, very clever people out there. The project now has working arrangements with around 300 art institutions around the world and already retains heart-thumpingly high-def images of 53,000 works of art. It is a wonderful resource. Take, for example, Edouard Manet’s The Balcony, painted in 1869. This is an intriguing group portrait depicting a young-ish Parisien gentleman flanked by two elegant women dressed in white. In his depictions of the three figures, Manet has provided – to a greater or lesser extent – mere suggestions of portraits; the face of the female figure to the right is little more than sketched in. By giving more importance to other details, such as the flowers in this figure’s hair, Manet was offering an elegant (gloved?) finger to the art establishment.

I can see all these things from my laptop – in my bathroom, if I want. I can even click on the little streetview man and see the picture hanging on the wall in the gallery. I can move on to the next picture and learn all about it. In effect, I am basically wandering around the Musee d’Orsay in Paris without people getting in my way. Why would I go to Paris at all, even if the coffee is a million times better? If Google ever gets around to smell-o-vision then all bets are off.

If, say, ten years ago, the level of experience and interactivity afforded by the Google Art Project was unimaginable, it is not difficult now to imagine how much more of the art world will be available to us on our screens in the years to come. Equally, it is not difficult to imagine that visitor numbers for the participating galleries will be negatively affected. Don’t have time to visit the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay? Well, just do the Louvre and you can visit the other in your hotel bed later.

The Google Cultural Institute – essentially a tentacle of the Art Project  – may simply be a step too far for the French establishment.

The director general of Google France is reported to have been ‘surprised’ by the culture minister’s no-show, but should he have been? Maybe it is just that someone has zoomed out and seen the bigger picture.

Neil Ardiff
Irish. Bookish. Oldish. Warmish.
Neil Ardiff
Neil Ardiff
Neil Ardiff

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