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Posted at 1:29 PM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Brilliant, Google Art Project! The only bad thing about museums is museums!

By Alexandra Petri


Google has just launched something called the Google Art Project, an online museum- going tool. True to form, Google has figured out the truth about us regular museum- going tools: The only thing we don't like about visiting museums is visiting museums.

So I'm in favor. See art museums without actually going to art museums? This is great!

Simply put, museums are terrible. I know this. I spend a lot of time in museums, mostly diving for change in the fountains. Museums are places you take your dates to indicate that you appreciate culture -- and can't afford to pay for dinner. They are not places you go yourself, unless you like being trampled by portly men with irresistible urges to take flash photos of the Mona Lisa. To me, an art museum is something you have to walk through to reach the gift shop.

As you visit more and more museums, they all start to blur together. There are two kinds of museum: the Museum You Feel You Ought to Visit and the Modern Art Museum.

The first kind features hosts of national treasures. At least, they must be natural treasures, or I have no idea what they are doing there. In the Evelyn Waugh novel "Scoop," one of the characters says, "That must be good style. At least it doesn't sound like anything else to me." That's how I feel about most art from the Romanesque on up to, say, the Impressionist movement. It's not that it's bad. It's that it all looks about the same.

If you had one of those paintings on your wall, it would be fantastic! But the cumulative effect of a room crowded with Dutch Pastorals is like standing next to eighteen people who have shown up at prom in identical dresses. You almost feel bad for them, those dolorous Madonnas who look as though their babies have just passed wind but they're trying to hold it together for the picture. They didn't ask to be stuck here between the Group Portraits of Barristers Looking Barrister-Like and the Still Lives That Look Like Every Other Still Life Ever Painted. I don't understand how we haven't concluded that everything that can possibly be said about some decaying fruit and a dead rabbit has already been said well over 800 times. But what do I know?

Then there are the landscapes. Sometimes they are large, and sometimes they are less large. Usually they contain trees. You know that when you look at them you are supposed to feel that mankind is small and insignificant in the face of nature. You know this because it says so on the informational plaque next to the painting.

That is another problem with museums. Informational plaques are either everywhere or nowhere. They either go on for panels and panels pouring out the curator's deepest thoughts and feelings - "And this, I think, was when Rembrandt understood the female-male duality inherent in the conception of Light, as described by the critic Butler in his seminal work 'The Century In Fifty Years,' which I read to my wife during her long illness and seemed to bring her great comfort" - or refuse to tell you even simple things like who was responsible for this particular painting of an offended-looking ox in front of a tree.

Audio guides are even worse, because if you get the wrong number, even by one, you can spend the next 10 years thinking that the Mona Lisa is a revolutionary example of Action Painting.

So there are two ways to walk through a museum. You can try to go through and read every plaque and look at every painting, but by about the 83rd Variation on Landscape With the Sun Shifted Slightly to the Left and The Artist's Mother Walking Down the Hill Instead of Up, you no longer have any sense of what is art and what isn't. "That's brilliant," you say, pointing at something that turns out to be a guard.

Or you can just wander into a room at random, sit down and look as though you might be appreciating something.

Unless you're at a Modern Art Museum. At a Modern Art Museum, when you try to sit on something that looks sort of like a couch, it turns out not to be a couch. It turns out to be an Installation. Called "Couch."

Otherwise, Modern Art Museums are delightful. There is the thing that looks like the janitor left it there by mistake. This is a fixture of any Modern Art Museum. You tilt your head to the side and look at it to see if maybe, with 90 more degrees, it will look more like art. It doesn't, but it is still worth more than your house. Next to it is something you tell your friends is a "really impressive installation that you need to come take a look at" that turns out to be a light fixture. This happens more often than you would like.

Sometimes it's worse than that. I once went to an art museum (I used the term loosely) where there was an exhibit (again, I use the term loosely) that consisted of Things The Lady Artist Once Used to Go Camping in the Woods. At this point I decided that it was true that modern art was something a 4-year-old could do, with the corollary that most 4-year-olds were sensible enough not to.

The only thing worse than museums are the people who go to museums. There are tourists who have decided that they must capture flawless mental images of every piece of art, and who hiss at you when you pass. There are the people who touch the paintings and set off the alarms. There are the people who lean over your shoulders and mutter about mortality.

Come to think of it, the only thing I don't dislike about museums is the gift shop. Of course, that's the one feature that's missing from Google Art Project.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 1, 2011; 1:29 PM ET
Categories:  Big Deals, Only on the Internet, Petri  | Tags:  Google, art, awareness  
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You're the best modern art critic I've ever read. I'm sure Jackson Pollock would love to take you for a ride in his merry Oldsmobile convertible.

I used to let myself be talked into going to modern dance shows. It's mostly women writhing around, which makes it more interesting than a museum, except for the noise (music) in the background.

My favorite show was when several non-dancer men walked on stage shouting, "The monkey is hungry," in time with the "music." I still call this particular musical genre, "monkey hungry music."

Posted by: divtune | February 3, 2011 12:19 AM | Report abuse

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