Why Google Can Never Replace A Guggenheim

The Google Art Project, according to Florentine art curator Francesco Bonami, will never match wandering through a museum.

A digital dissection of a Vermeer classic (flickr)

One might be tempted to think that nobody will ever set foot in a museum again after Google unveiled its upcoming art project, which will make high-definition, digitized masterpieces from the world's top museums just a click away.

But think back to the VCR era when people started watching films at home. It was feared that people would stop going to the cinema. Did they? No. Will people stop visiting museums? Of course not!

That's how Nelson Mattos, a vice president of engineering at Google, sees it. "I first set foot in a famous museum when I was studying abroad. I can still recall the emotion I felt as I wandered about."

And there's the nub of the matter. Viewing artwork on a computer will never substitute the pleasure of roaming around a gallery. In the same way that sitting in a dark room and sharing with others the emotions of the silver screen can never quite be matched by a VHS, DVD or movie downloaded on your computer. No acoustic system, no matter how sophisticated, will prompt the same emotions as listening to live opera in a theater.

In the same vein, however big the plasma TV, there's nothing like being in the stadium supporting your favorite football team, or in the stands at Wimbledon during a final between Federer and Nadal.

Technology is fantastic, and it certainly changes the way we see reality. Yet, it cannot change the way in which reality moves us. Emotion is also a matter of scale. We might admire the most amazing pictures of the Grand Canyon or the Matterhorn, but once you're there, the sheer majesty of these landscapes will stir unique emotions. The Google Art Project might enable us to observe any brush stroke, crack or line of a famous painting, but standing in front of it is a different story.

Standing in front of Paolo Veronese's "The Feast in the House of Levi", one of the largest canvases painted in 16th century, is quite a different experience from looking at it on a computer screen, even though digitally we might see things that would escape the naked eye.

The same goes for smaller works such as Vermeer's. One can only savor the intimacy of these works by standing in front of them. Often, it's not the details of a work that the painter wants to transmit. An artist, however famous or unknown, typically wants to convey an emotion, share a thought, in the most immediate way possible. It is the novel as a whole that we fall in love with, not the individual words in the text, even though a linguist might study those words individually. Equally, with a painting, it's not a single brush stroke but the combination of all brush strokes that makes it powerful, touching, beautiful or ugly.

Google might enable us get underneath the colors of a painting, make us see the tiniest crack, make us feel like the shrunk-down characters in that movie about people traveling through the human body. But just like those characters cannot explore the thoughts and ideas of the person inside whose body they are traveling, we will never, through a digital museum experience, experience the same feeling as when we are wandering around a museum for real.

Google can never reproduce the feeling of finding ourselves in front of a masterpiece we thought we knew through countless reproductions only to discover it's something completely different, more profound and unique. Or even to discover that we are disappointed, expecting that something extra that technology, with its overzealousness, had revealed, which in the mind of the artist should have remained hidden.

Read the original article in Italian

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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