When Google’s art selfie craze went mega-viral on the weekend, a moment of pure pop-culture magic unfurled before our eyes.
As most people know by now, Google’s Arts and Culture smartphone app matches your selfie to a portrait in a museum collection in the Google Cultural Institute’s database.
By Wednesday, it was a phenomenon.
Who wasn’t wasting precious work time texting and posting pictures of themselves matched to obscure 18th-century portraits of cravat-wearing aristocrats with weird facial hair?
Maybe not you. But I know I was. And it was just my second day on the job.
Who would have predicted that a perfect pop moment in 2018 would involve millions of people poring over obscure portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hendrick Goltzius and thousands of other artists whose earnest efforts more often languish in storage?
That’s the beauty of it for the Google Cultural Institute, which purports to use technology to spread the good news about art and cultural heritage. Never have so many portraits been seen by so many in so short a time. (Museum directors across the country are enduring sleepless nights this week as they try to figure out how they can hitch a ride on the craze.)
But for the rest of us, the phenomenon is more interesting – and more fun – than any putative good that might come of it.
Has any single app – or any single function on an app – ever hit so many sweet spots of the zeitgeist all at once?
Like a flash flood, the craze gushed down separate, pre-existing channels in the wider culture as it sought ever lower ground, deepening them, then brimming over, until they all merged into one marvellous, sky-reflecting soup.
The awesome torrents irrigating our 21st-century culture – the power of algorithms, the dopamine rush of instant gratification, frictionless communicability – are rendered harmless, homely and cute by the art selfie craze.
But other apps do that. What’s great about the art selfie craze is that it efficiently harnesses other, less blatant, but still very zeitgeisty tributaries to the culture: irony in the face of high art; camera-conscious vanity; the obsession with statistical measurement (each match is given a percentage rating); online flirtation (if Google says you look like a Titian, you’re texting your love interest with the news, I guarantee it – and it’s safer than sexting); digital excavation (the internet’s startling ability to unearth hidden treasures); and, of course, the naughty thrill – truly, a hallmark of our time – of signing over some crucial piece of your identity to a corporate behemoth, purely on trust, and for the most frivolous of reasons. (Google assures us it doesn’t retain the selfie images, and won’t use them for any other purpose).
But the secret spice of the experiment’s success, which reportedly took even the Google Cultural Institute by surprise, might be the soft, reassuring comedy of failing, of falling short.
After all, few of these matched portraits really do look much like their selfie originals. Google admits as much with its percentage ratings.
Sixty-four percent of my glibly smiling face, I can tell you, matches a portrait attributed to Nicolaas Pieneman (never heard of him) in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Which presumably means 36 percent of me doesn’t. (Including the weird, Tintin hair. What’s with that? Search me.)
When I repeat the experiment, trying to look as much as possible like a distorted Francis Bacon portrait, it says my closest match is William Hogarth’s portrait of an orotund, wig-wearing William Fitzherbert in the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Huh? I grew up in South Australia. Was that it? Was that what pushed the score up to 68 percent?
More likely, I admit, it’s the double chin and the, ahem, “high forehead.”
At any rate, the 32 percent left over is enough to remind me that at least part of me is unique, inimitable.
And that – coming so soon after the minor existential crisis triggered by handing over my facial identity – is briefly consoling.