Intern for The Art Genome Project
How Collecting Was Born
Johann Georg Hainz, Cabinets of Curiosities, ca. 1666, Oil on Canvas (Collection of the Hamburger Kunsthalle)
It all started with a routine gene “clean-up” of the Group of Objects gene. Clean-ups are one of the many ways we maintain the integrity and accuracy of The Art Genome Project. They entail looking at every artist and artwork with a value for a particular gene, and ensuring that the application is correct, i.e. that the artist or artwork presented has a connection to the gene and its definition. Clean-ups often lead to ideas for new genes, since what does not fit correctly in one gene might be better explained through another.
Group of Objects had originally been conceived as a gene for capturing two-dimensional depictions of multiple objects whose arrangement did not conform to compositional strategies of traditional still lifes. Yet it turned out that there were a number of three-dimensional works with this gene applied that were not depictions of groups of objects, but real-life groups of objects themselves, such as this diorama by Gianfranco Baruchello. In fact there were so many instances of this that the human error of our genomers alone could not account for it; instead it indicated that there was a significant need to capture such works via some yet-to-be-identified category.
This was now a whole other problem. Our plan of attack was to first identify the many different ways to describe different configurations of physical objects. We sifted through lots of related genes, such as Commodity (currently being re-worked), Typologies, Assemblage, and Use of Everyday Objects, and ended up proposing three new genes along with working definitions. They were were as follows:
The Art Genome’s Roots
From the moment we began working on The Art Genome, we wanted to better establish how it compared with previous structures that have encouraged and guided inquiry into art, artists and art history.
Last fall, we were able to dedicate the necessary time and resources to answering this question.
We cast our scholarly net wide. Our research brought us to the 18th century and back again. We looked at thesauri, encyclopedias, and some of the first art history books ever printed. We were consistently amazed at the variety and volume of attempts that have been made recording, cataloging, classifying, and sharing art throughout history. We developed a new appreciation for engravers who trekked to Greece and Italy to painstakingly document antiquity’s artistic treasures, well before the invention of photography. We thought about polyhierarchies a lot; probably too much.
It turns out that The Art Genome is related to a lot of things (and yet is exactly like none of them) all at once…
What is The Art Genome Project?
The Project has two parts.
Part 1 is a list of all of the possible characteristics/terms you might apply to art.
Think about an art object, say a painting by Andy Warhol. You might say it is a painting, that it is a work of Pop Art, that it is a silkscreen, that it features an image of Marilyn Monroe, that it is very “high contrast,” or even that it emphasizes the flatness of the image.
These characteristics or terms (e.g. Pop Art, flatness, bright colors) are what we call “genes.”
There are currently over 400 genes in what we call “The Art Genome” and they fall into the following categories. (In parentheses are examples of genes in the category.)
- Time Period (Pre-Impressionism, Modern, Contemporary)
- Medium (Painting, Sculpture, Installation, Video)
- Style or Movement (Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, Young British Artists)
- Contemporary Tendencies (Tendencies occurring in contemporary art but that people might not yet be comfortable calling “movements,” such as Contemporary Gothic or DIY)
- Concepts (Color Theory, Institutional Critique, Related to Film)
- Content (Portrait, Landscape, The Studio, Cityscape)
- Techniques (Monochrome Painting, Multiple Exposure, Sfumato)
- Geographical Regions (Where an artist has lived and worked)
- Appearance Genes (The look and feel of an object)
- Labs (Genes in development; not public)
We also have hundreds of other genes. These capture individual art-historical and artist influences, such as the fact that Jackson Pollock was influenced by (among other things) Mexican Muralism or Thomas Hart Benton.
Where did all of these genes come from?
- Hundreds of years of art-historical scholarship that we are the beneficiaries of
- Discussions in books, periodicals and on the web surrounding contemporary art
- Many Art.sy genome team meetings and debates
- Consistent communication with all of our partners, i.e. the galleries, museums, foundations, collections and estates that feature their work on Art.sy.
Part 2 is applying relevant genes to each of the 3,000 artists and 15,000 artworks on Art.sy.
The list of genes applied to artists and artworks we call their “genomes.”
Like the process of coming up with genes, the application of genes to artists and artworks is a group effort, involving the genome team at Art.sy, extensive research, and consistent communication with our partners.
A few clarifications about genomes and genes:
- Every artist and artwork has their own genome. Why? To show how different, for example, Warhol’s oeuvre (his collected works) is in comparison to individual works and how greatly individual works can differ from each other.
- Genes are not tags — though we have many tags on the site — because tags are binary (something is either tagged “dog” or not). Genes, in contrast, can range from 0-100, thus capturing how strongly a gene applies to a specific artist or artwork. This nuanced connection between works of art is impossible with a simple tagging mechanism.
So this is The Art Genome Project, the source of all the terms and related searches users see on Art.sy. As always, we welcome your questions and comments.
In the coming weeks, look forward to further posts on topics like precedents for The Art Genome Project (such as art-historical taxonomies or thesauri, encyclopedias and dictionaries, image atlases, and Pandora), what appearance genes try to capture, how algorithms relate to The Art Genome Project, and how and why “Most Similar Artworks” was created.
— Matthew Israel, Director of The Art Genome Project
The Art Genome Project Tumblr
Taxonomy (the science of classification) is often undervalued as a glorified form of filing—with each species in its folder, like a stamp in its prescribed place in an album; but taxonomy is a fundamental and dynamic science, dedicated to exploring the causes of relationships and similarities among organisms. Classifications are theories about the basis of natural order, not dull catalogues compiled only to avoid chaos.
Many believe categories and terminology for art compromises art’s nuances and inherent mysteriousness. However, classification is central to understanding the order of things, particularly their relationships and similarities.
Art.sy's Art Genome Project aims to create a classification system that retains the nuances and mysteries within art and allows anyone with an Internet connection the opportunity to learn about art and art history.
From today on, members of the Project will post here the ideas, discussions, arguments, successes and failures we have had in our ongoing attempt to create The Art Genome Project. We hope you enjoy it and we look forward to your comments. Please feel free to comment on any of our posts or to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Matthew Israel, Director of The Art Genome Project