Artsy, a free online fine art image repository, went live on Monday, promising to do for the world of fine art what Pandora and Netflix have done for music and film.
The company has partnered with 275 galleries and 50 museums, digitizing about 20,000 images into what they are calling the “Art Genome Project.” The repository recognizes about 800 tags, or “genes,” developed and applied to the works by a dozen art historians. From objective criteria like time and place, to the more quirky attributes of contemporary art, each label is designed to link to other similar works that might be of interest to viewers or buyers.
Critics, like Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, find the prospect of curating by way of algorithm naturally reductive. Human interaction with art is experiential and highly personal. Letting a machine anticipate our reactions based on limited criteria seems problematic at the least.
The judgements, however, are made by people and there is a human hand behind all the data. Algorithmic exactitude is not what they are going for. “How are you going to pick something that shows ‘warmth’ with a machine?” says Daniel Doubrovkine, who is in charge of engineering at Artsy, in a New York Times profile by Melena Ryzik. “We’re not.”
Artsy doesn’t intend to replace actually browsing museums, galleries, or books, but it is a new way of “creating serendipitous connections” that are reflective of our culture today.
Similar tools like Netflix and Pandora have become sources for “discovery, pleasure and education,” writes Ryzik, for anyone with an Internet connection. Artsy could do the same and begin to democratize a world that was once seemingly so exclusive.
However, these are highly passive methods of discovering work, and they still often have users finding themselves lead into small redundant corners. Here, Storr’s criticism of who’s judging, who’s curating (and who’s profiting) behind the machine seems more apt.