Is Google's Arts and Culture Face Match the new frontier in democratising culture?

Image by Madeleine Gross

You’d assume that with today’s fights to decolonise pretty much everything around us, Google’s 2016 app, Arts and Culture, would think twice before using an ancient Greek temple for its icon. The white three columned triangular Greek structure—to me, and today—begs the question of what other iconic non westernised cultural monuments could have been selected for its signature, but were not occident enough.

Okay, now to the app, why has it suddenly come to so much attention and why is my social media feed covered with awkward selfies placed side by side with their painted doppelganger; portraits of Egon Schiele, or Modigliani, or any which artist. As much enjoyment as one can withdraw from combining a generations’ favourite pastime (taking selfies) with facial recognition algorithms and the entirety of the art world archived in the cloud, ‘finding which famous painting you look like’ is merely the tip of an iceberg when it comes to what’s sorrowfully wrong the Arts and Culture app—trust me.

For almost a decade, Google has been documenting, archiving and collecting everything (everything?) from the cultural world. From high quality photographs of artworks, to 360 views inside museums, galleries and institutions. At the tap of a touch-button, users can be sent into the concert halls the world over, walk through The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in South Africa or, take a quick selfie on the underground and see who they look like most when their hair is doing this and their face is doing that.

Apart from the genius marketing strategy that has introduced this new face match feature—which really should have taken minimum effort for the app developers once the world’s ‘culture’ was already bubble wrapped, sealed and packaged to its disposal—what is it about this app that makes it “democratise” the artworld as I’ve been hearing in passing several times? Yes art becomes this rather accessible thing, at anyone’s finger tip; at home, on the tube, on the street, whichever street, whichever country, but is it really?

It didn’t take long until the app revealed the deeply rooted bias of its mechanisms: for people of colour the pool of artworks that were used for the face match feature was limited, meaning that artworks that aren’t all that western and white might not be that prevalent across Google Culture’s archives. And no, it is not because there isn’t much representation of people of colour and various ethnicities in the artworld, it’s because, just like its icon hints, Google Arts and Culture follows the same old ethnic hierarchy as the institutions it set out to democratise. Truly democratising culture would be to make its archives not only inclusive in their accessibily and UX design, but inclusive in their diversity. Instead we’ve opted for a ‘make art fun to make it inclusive’ cop out; blinded by selfies the real goal of Google Culture has been sorely missed.