Google’s Arts & Culture app finds your face in art 

There’s a rather erratic debate, at a broad, cultural level, about whether or not people should take selfies in art galleries. An essay for or against selfies will occasionally surface, and following it will be counter-arguments in waves of tweets, which die out as quickly as they come. There doesn’t seem to be a solution, since neither side allows for any concessions. But the staying power of the debate points to an ongoing dilemma: how do we navigate the traditions and expectations about how one “should” interact with capital-A Art, within a constantly changing modernity?  

In an ironic twist, the selfie may turn out to be the art form to bridge Art and digital culture. 

 Illustration | Wren Turner

Google’s Arts & Culture app launched in 2016, adding an experimental selfie feature in December 2017 labelled “search with your selfie.” It wasn’t until this month that the feature, and app, went viral. Suddenly, there were selfie-portrait diptychs all over social media.  

The feature uses an algorithm to match your face with a portrait drawn from Google’s database of images, gathered from its partner institutions. It presents your selfie beside a historic portrait, which you can swap out for other matches of descending accuracy. It’s as fun to find a near-perfect match as it is to discover a weird, unexpected portrait.  

The app offers a number of other features, from essays to curated collections, but it’s the selfie-portrait feature that’s garnered public interest. There seems to be something inherently shareable about the concept; most of the joy comes from sharing the matches with friends, either in person or online. The selfie feature is successful because it gives access to the art world through a regular, contemporary experience. When the side by side portraits are successful, they’re enchanting. Seeing your eyes or nose seemingly immortalized by a painter from another era is uncanny. The app is a form of time travel, one which creates a unity between the selfie and the portrait as art forms. It elevates the function of the selfie and de-mystifies the aura of Art. It recognizes that both forms of representation—often treated as polar extremes—are more similar than we think.  

The results of the face match are easy to share (the app even has a built-in option) because it fragments the art, and turns the combined portraits into a meme. Your friends can immediately judge the algorithm’s accuracy because they know your face. And no matter how obscure the painting, the form of the shared image will always be the same. You can understand your friends’ delight or frustration in an instant. An unexpected result of the app’s social media success, as pointed out by critic Emily Yoshida on Twitter, “is that everyone is just so dang excited to see what painting they look like that they’re taking their most unpolished, unoptimized selfies which collectively are kind of beautiful.” 

Art is made accessible because it no longer needs to be about emotional or aesthetic identification. Sharing a painting or image that moves you, or a song that you love, demands some sort of engagement from your friends. They have to work to make sense of how you might identity with the piece in question. This is an important and complex process, but not one suited to viral success. Google’s Arts & Culture makes identification all about representation. The app fragments the paintings it builds its portraits from, meaning you can recognize your friend’s face without needing, or wanting, to know the painting’s larger context. Its story, meaning, or history are cut out of existence.  

And yet, the app has significant representational shortcomings. As Digg Editor Benjamin Goggin has pointed out, the app offers limited and conflicted results for people of colour, highlighting the flaws of Google’s partner institutions and its own algorithm. Google’s database draws primarily from museums and galleries in Western Europe and the United States, meaning matches have a larger chance of coming from those institutions. Instead of creating a truly international database (or granting access to less famous museums), this choice reinforces the hegemonic idea of capital-A art as European and white. Often the paintings drawn from these museums traffic in caricatures and stereotypes—contextual information which is present in art history but made invisible by the app’s fragmentation. Google says they are continuing to work “to bring diverse cultures from every part of the world online.”  

Google’s Arts & Culture app—like most digital sensations—will probably see its users dwindle in the coming weeks. But surely a fraction of people who downloaded the app solely for the selfie-portrait will become regular users, capable of discovering the writing and histories available through the app’s other features. There’s a small part of me that wonders what might happen if Google collects digital versions of all available artworks. On the one hand, the app champions accessibility, removing the barriers that often keep museums and Art separate from our daily lives. On the other, Google is a corporation much more interested in capital and power than art.  

At the very least, the experimental selfie portrait offers a new way of engaging with art, an alternative to the quiet, stiff way of walking through an art gallery. Google Arts & Culture has found a way to make art momentarily relevant. Like the people who take selfies in museums, the app promotes interaction through acceptance of contemporary digital forms—and that should be celebrated.