Over the weekend, a new feature of the Google Arts & Culture app that matches users’ selfies with portraits from the collections of participating museums became an online sensation. While some have accused the app of being racist — its very limited catalogue of portraits of non-white subjects means users of color get extremely approximate matches — and others are frustrated at its seemingly arbitrary regional restrictions (the feature is not available to users in Illinois and Texas, and we’ve reached out to Google for an explanation), the feature is a runaway success. Indeed, its sometimes inexplicable pairings often make the app all the more entertaining.
Sometimes the Google Arts & Culture app’s matches even reflect ongoing disputes over attribution. For instance, when Hyperallergic provided it with a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it matched it with a portrait by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, the contemporaneous Milanese painter to whom “Salvator Mundi” has been attributed by some — maybe the algorithm knows more than its letting on.
Google’s tool for finding your art historical doppelgänger is certainly the most ambitious app of its kind, it is not unprecedented. Last year, Quebec’s Musée de la Civilisation used facial recognition software to match users with ancient sculptures.
Predictably, many have been using the Google app to find art historical doppelgangers for their favorite celebrities, from Jared Leto to Jennifer Lopez — sometimes with a little Photoshop trickery. There’s even a dedicated Instagram account doing nothing but that, @GoogleArtsCelebs.
— Abbey Scott △̶ (@AbbeyScott16) January 13, 2018
— Lights, Camera, Podcast (@LightsCameraPod) January 15, 2018
Meanwhile, plenty of figures from the art world and beyond have tested out the feature, with varying dgrees of success.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) January 15, 2018
— li s. reina (@lipuff) January 13, 2018
This google arts and culture app is pretty amazing. Feel real strong about my 40%
— pw (@petewentz) January 14, 2018
A trickle of posts from late 2017 show tech workers testing out the feature before it became available to the general public:
— Donnie Piercey (@mrpiercEy) December 14, 2017
— Leslie Leaming (@lgleaming) December 18, 2017
And of course, many users are testing out the algorithm’s suggestions for the current US president:
— Joshua Fu (@joshuafu) January 14, 2018
— ElElegante101 (@skolanach) January 16, 2018
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
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