We now consume a vast percentage of visual and aural culture on our computers and phones; with Netflix for TV and movies, Pandora and Songza for music, Flipboard for news and magazines, and Pinterest for photos, we devote numerous hours to streaming content, receiving recommendations based on our selections, and broadcasting via Facebook and Twitter what we like. It’s surprising that the art world has been so hesitant to adapt to the digital revolution, yet a new startup, Art.sy, in what is considered by many to be a controversial move, is attempting to do for art what Netflix has done for film. With prestigious backers including Google’s Eric Schmidt and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Art.sy has the lofty ambition of bringing art appreciation to a wider, and younger, audience and integrating it with the host of other activities that we perform online. We first became aware of this project last year when it was in beta testing and we were impressed with the high calibre of galleries, foundations and museums that were participating, including SFMOMA, the British Museum, Broad Art Foundation and LA MOCA, no small feat in a field that remains quite resistant to posting images online. With its public launch last month, Art.sy has already transformed how we engage with visual art, and with a collection of more than 25,000 artworks by 3,700 artists, both contemporary and historical, it has become the one of the most comprehensive resources for visual art on the Internet.
What differentiates Art.sy from other less successful attempts to establish a place for contemporary art on the web is what they’ve termed the Art Genome Project – an astonishingly powerful database that parses works of art based on more than 800 characteristics, or “genes”. Ranging from the obvious – colour, medium, techniques, geographic region – to the more subjective – movement, subject matter, concepts, theoretical foundation – works of art can be accessed and explored in a seemingly endless variety of ways. Art.sy amassed a team of art historians to make these categorizations which run the gamut from Arte Povera to institutional critique to DIY. When you select one work to view, the site automatically presents a number of related works that may also be of interest based on your initial choice. This ability to explore through tags and a related search function is dramatically different from how we typically encounter art in museums, lectures, and books, and proposes a new way to engage with, and learn about, art history. While experts may find reason to quibble over some of the more idiosyncratic categorizations, the criteria for selection or the value in relating work based on colour, for the uninitiated Art.sy is truly a tremendous resource for learning and exploration.
Aside from its unique search capabilities, Art.sy also offers extensive information on each artist and work. With biographical details and the ability to view the work in a gallery setting to get a sense of scale, Art.sy attempts to marry the best aspects of reading about art with viewing it in person. The quality of the images is staggering; with a powerful zoom function, viewers are able to witness every brush mark, line and scratch on a canvas, something that’s typically impossible even in a gallery setting. Making this a true social media endeavour, Art.sy also allows you to share your favourite works of art via email, Facebook and Twitter and to follow artists to receive notification when new works of art are added to the site. In addition to its didactic component, Art.sy is also striving to revolutionize how art is bought and sold by establishing relationships with commercial dealers and allowing users to filter their selections by those available for sale.
With a simple user interface that is almost intuitive as it resembles sites that we’re already comfortable browsing, it is extremely easy to get lost in Art.sy’s world for hours at a time. While Art.sy’s influence is currently hindered by some rather gaping holes in its collection, particularly with regards to non-Western sources, the team has plans to augment its holdings and having recently secured partnerships that will add more African and Chinese art, it would appear that they’re heading in the right direction. As our culture moves increasingly towards the digital, it’s exciting to see the art world pushed in an uncomfortable direction in order to retain its relevance to a new digital-first generation.