Tagging Art

The New York Times reports that art museums are rethinking the ways they classify their online collections. One solution that has worked well for Web 2.0 sites is social tagging. Now, several museums have launched tagging projects that allow the public to associate keywords with works of art, with the goal of making it easier to find a particular painting without necessarily knowing the artist or title.

Though some programs are in place already–for example at the Cleveland Museum or Art and the Smithsonian Institution–some still doubt whether the public can be trusted to tag effectively. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art tested social tagging software and found that the publicly-generated tags varied widely from what curators expected. In theory, this makes a database harder to search because oddball semantic links are formed between works of art that may have no other conceivable connection but wind up together in search results.

A popular tagging system could make up for oddball tags by sheer numbers. If enough people tag a document “correctly,” then those correct tags would overcome the odd ones. Sure, the occasional weird search result could pop up, but the majority of them would work fine. The problem is that art museum sites don’t boast the number of visitors sites like Flickr and Del.icio.us do. They don’t have the numbers to generate a large set of usable tags.

There is a larger question here, one of authority. Art criticism, which is what this tagging system implicitly is, has traditionally been the realm of experts. For good or ill, experts have studied the history of art, the origins of certain movements, the works of prolific painters, the styles of painting, and know a good deal about what kind of art belong where. For centuries, the working details of the art world have been kept separate from the public.

The result, I think, is that artwork has gained a status as academic or luxurious or, at least, “cultural.” What happens then when we allow the public to freely categorize great works of art? Will it cheapen the experience of viewing art? Perhaps removing yet another layer of mediation is always a good thing, but if it destroys the subject as we know it, was it worth it?

Another view, one I like to believe, is that by allowing the public to connect more with the art world, we do make are more vulgar. By doing so, perhaps we can encourage more people to create works of art because they will not be thinking of it as something high-brow and out of their reach. Instead, it could become something we do every day. Hopeful thinking, maybe, but social tagging could start something here…

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