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Understanding the Aspects of Art

"A work of art is an infinitely complex focus of human experience. The mystery of its creation, its history, and the rise and fall of its esthetic, documentary, sentimental, and commercial values, the endless variety of its relationships to the other works of art, its physical condition, the meaning of its subject, the technique of its production, the purpose of the man who made it— all these factors lie behind a work of art, converge upon it, and challenge our powers of analysis and publication. And they should be made accessible to other scholars and intelligible to the man off the street." 

-Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Founding Director of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

During the last two years, The Art Genome Project has focused on identifying as many of the factors that, as Barr explains, “lie behind a work of art, converge upon it, and challenge our powers of analysis and publication.” As a way to start the year off, we thought it would be helpful to users to provide a brief recap of what this process has been like. (In many ways, this is a short institutional history, something which can easily get lost in the age of the web.)

We thought the best way of recapping would be looking at the genome two years ago and what it is today. Two years ago we were operating with a relatively small group of gene types. Back then, these were our genome categories:

Required Genes (Abstraction, Realism, Expressive, Conceptual, Line/Contour, Color); Medium; Color Palette (Monochromatic, Colorful, Dominant Color); Broad Time Period (Pre-Impressionism/Old Masters, Modern, Contemporary); Art-Historical Movements; Subject Matter; Stylistic; Geography 

In all of the categories, we had roughly 200 genes. Now, as of January 2013, we have the following gene categories. Those in bold are new.

Medium; Style or Movement; Contemporary Tendencies; Art-Historical Influences; Artist Influences; Content; Concept; Techniques; Painting/Drawing Techniques; Photography Techniques; Functional Object; Geography; Overall Composition (2D only); Overall look, Shapes, and Lines (2D and 3D); Physical Qualities/Surfaces (Mostly 3D); Color Attributes; Design Attributes and Concepts; and Labs

Within all of these categories, we now have over 500 genes.

What does this comparison show? 

To begin with, the number of genes and gene types in The Art Genome have dramatically increased. In general, this occurred because in the process of close-looking and research (i.e. evaluating thousands of artists and artworks from many different time periods and places), we found we were simply missing many important aspects of art. 

Secondly, we eliminated our Required Genes (Abstract, Figurative, Conceptual, Expressive, Realism, Color, Line) which were four genes we believed/dreamed could capture aspects of every single work on the site, however we found that these were inherently 19th century ideas that no longer could be applied to all works of art, especially modern and contemporary art. 

Also, we automated color. Previously, we had to manually identify color aspects but now we capture color similarity automatically. We can even identify dominant colors. Importantly, we still genome color aspects but only those that can generally not be identified with a computer, such as Iridescence/Opalescence.

The Stylistic category was broken out various places and then deleted. First off, some styles not characteristically referred to as movements were included in the new Style and Movement category. Additionally, we realized that most of what we were referring to as style genes were actually more like techniques, thus we created a Technique category. Questions still remain though about style as a term (for us, and for the discipline of art history as a whole). Its boundaries are quite porous and it is a (possibly unhelpful) term that can embrace so much of what gets talked about in reference to art.

Subject Matter was split into both Content and Concepts, to divide out things which were immediately visible (such as Modes of Transportation)--and ideas (such as Violence) associated with works of art.

We created style/movement genes for contemporary art and called them tendencies. These are ways in which to identify to users currents in contemporary art, which have been possibly showcased in exhibitions, articles or books), but which are not canonized, or widely associated with the present.

We created art-historical and artist influence genes to evaluate the associations which might be made through influence. Influence genes are only applied when they are commonly part of the discussion around the artist and his/her works. There are roughly 500 of them, apart from the "core" genes mentioned above.

We divided our technique genes into those which might apply to certain mediums only. In general, this is done mostly to ease the process of genoming for us (on the “back-end” of the website). However it has enabled us to evaluate how associations can and cannot be made through particular techniques.

We added functional object genes because we have incorporated design into the genome. 

We added Appearance Genes (Overall Composition, Look, Shapes, and Lines and Physical Qualities/Surfaces) relatively early on because in the initial construction of the genome we realized we were capturing a lot of the ideas around art but were not actually looking(!) at artworks and capturing their physical features. Some examples are Fractured Geometry, Linear Forms, and Fluid Forms.

We created a Labs area on the back-end of the site for gene ideas, which we could view privately. Previous to this point, we all had to decide that a gene would eventually be published if we wanted to create it, however this new feature allowed a lot of ideas to be “floated” and be tried out to see if they are successful (and possibly not be created). Examples of genes which have recently graduated from labs include Plastic, Natural Fibers and Enamel. One thing to note here is that in the last few months, we have started to be able to automate genes, which means that we can use data in any of our current genes (or in the medium fields of artworks) to create new genes. 

The Art Genome is by no means finished. We look forward to new discoveries in our search to identify the aspects of art and being surprised by new artists who can challenge our assumptions. We also look forward to your feedback--whenever you have it--on our work so far. Send us an email or tweet to us @artsy.

-Matthew Israel, Director of The Art Genome Project