It’s out there: the Google Face Matching feature in its Arts and Culture app results in tons of people taking selfies in order to find their painted doppelgangers archived in hundreds of museums around the world. The app has been banned from two states specifically, Texas and Illinois, which both have strict biometric privacy laws. Google spokesperson Patrick Lenihan says that Google is thrilled that people are enjoying the feature and exploring and finding art and artworks from around the world. The app is free and rated 12+ on the app store. The icon itself is a what appears to be a marble pantheon—the Greco-Roman image that inspired Neoclassicism. I reason that this is due to the connection our culture makes between Europeans and culture—the representation of the app is already speaking to the encyclopedic, decontextualization of artworks inherent in the European museum, as well as how it organizes cultural works by asking you to search for them. Instead of transcending the associations we make with European-ness and culture, Google embraces this relationship.
Considering that the museums Google draws from are in the vast majority located in Europe and the Americas (as can be seen on this map), the biases museums have with regards to what art they have is now a conversation that is worthy of discussion. The implications of releasing an app that looks at your face and determines the connection to a work of art requires expertise in facial recognition, as well as a wide range of art that contains a large amount of subjects of all races. Consider the biases present in art around portraiture, which the work of Kehinde Wiley speaks to. In his own words, he is: “interrogating the notion of master painter, at once critical and complicit…quotes historical sources and position young black men within that field of power.” The work of old masters, who are very much tied to Dutch, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon identity, revolve around their upper class patrons who were majorly (if not exclusively) European. Portraits in ancient times have been found in the Moche culture of Peru, Greek, Egyptian, and Romans—those portrayed in portraits have the power and influence to make artisans paint them, indicating the ties portraits have to power. Official portraits are an important part of recording and spreading the personalities of powerful kings, presidents and governors- the only people who were wealthy enough before the advent of photography to have their images archived by their own command/request. Considering the diversity of the art community today is important to changing the historical ties that artists have to power structures.
This is even more important when considering the diversity of art management, as well as artists themselves. The leadership on museums was first measured in June 2013 by the Mellon Foundation. According to the report, “the program sought to open up the museum as a potential workplace to students from historically underrepresented minorities and other undergrads who are committed to diversifying cultural organizations.” However, as it turned out, for each of the five sites the report investigated, the program was met with immediate enthusiasm—posing the question of how the Mellon Foundation knows that “demographic homogeneity [is] a problem in art museums?” The results reveal that utilizing the categories employed by the 2000 US Census, 72% of members of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) are Non-Hispanic White, while 28% belong to historically underrepresented minorities. And, when looking at the Non-Hispanic White positions held in staff, 84% are Non-Hispanic White, 6% Asian, 4% Black, 3% Hispanic White, and 3% Two or More Races. This, as the report states, is nowhere close to representing the diversity of the American population. On the bright side, by decade born, museum employees appear to be growing comparatively more female.
By having more historically underrepresented minorities working and leading in museums, we could expect to have more diversity in the artists chosen as well as the types of works shown. The biases that are observed when Asian and Black Americans use the app can be seen by looking through various hashtags on twitter. (you can also look into companies leveraging the app for ad campaigns). By introducing more diversity into the art world (as well as technology), more people will be able to engage and identify with the art world and the technology we can use to connect to it.
Written by Peter Sheehan