"Mapping Serendipity"

The Art Genome Project
Nov 21, 2012 4:35PM

“You’re mapping serendipity,” an art history professor recently told us. As former teachers and students who believe such “happy accidents” (in which a professor happened upon a great connection between artists or artworks not initially apparent to him/her) were often the best parts of lectures, this comment made us feel good.This comment also begged a question though: Since we talk about Art.sy as a place to learn about art, in what specific ways do we believe Art.sy to be educational?

Jackson Pollock's Paints, Long Island, 1988
Danziger Gallery

 We thought spending some time to discuss this would be helpful to our users. We also hope that in response to such a discussion, those in academia or museums (or elsewhere) will contact us to provide feedback regarding educational features they like or would like to see.To begin with, let’s return to this idea of serendipity. 

The Art Genome Project provides the structure for related art search. This type of search can be understood as a new tool for learning about art and art history. It provides an educational experience quite different from other art-historical resources like books and journals, lectures or films. Related search is an active, exploratory, and self-motivated experience that opens up seemingly infinite pathways. What particularly excites us about related search is you can start almost anywhere on the site—with any artist, artwork, gene, or tag. 

Often when we are introducing the site to someone, we start with the example of searching for Andy Warhol, as he might be one of the only artists a user has ever heard of.

A search for Warhol brings you to a page with a biography about him, genes related to his works, and then related artists. You can then click anywhere on the screen and be taken somewhere else. Let’s say you scroll down and click on Richard Hamilton’s Toaster Deluxe 6(2008), and then on Engagement with Mass Media, and then on Hannah Höch’s Das schöne Mädchen (The Beautiful Girl), 1920, and then on Dada, and then you read the definition for Dada. You’ve now learned about Dada even though all you started with was Andy Warhol. (We are still amazed by this process.) 

Another idea: Recently, we have been getting excited about the possibility of professors using Art.sy as a teaching tool. Art historians, for example, have expressed interest in Art.sy as a means to explore the history of a movement or to see how a term’s interpretation has changed over time.For example, sort Collage or Biomorphic by date. You can immediately see the beginnings of a history of collage or understand how the term biomorphic over time has come to represent imagery much more “molecular” than critics in the 1930s might have envisioned. 

You can also use gene searches as a jumping-off point for a discussion on the variety within certain styles, movements or techniques—both contemporary and historical. For example, look at the various results in a search for Documentary Photography. Use this large set of images to enter into a discussion to compare and contrast the different approaches of Timothy O’Sullivan, Paul Strand, Taryn Simon, Jeff Wall, or JR. For starters, there’s Wall’s concept of the “near documentary,” versus JR’s attempt to “change the world” by gluing pictures of people on buildings “to say they exist.” 

Or you could begin the discussion with the story of how O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner moved bodies around battlefields to make better “documentary” images of the American Civil War...

As a final note, we wanted to talk about the value of having high-resolution images for research. Did you ever notice, for example, that the chair-caning in Pablo Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning (1912) was textured to the extent that it shows through in areas where it has been painted over? Zoom in and see for yourself.

-Matthew Israel, Director of The Art Genome Project

The Art Genome Project