When an app asks you, “Is your portrait in a museum?” and you’re a person of color, it’s likely the answer is complicated.
Once you snap a selfie on the app, your “faceprint” is charted through a series of measurements (the distance between your eyes, the width of your nose, and fullness of your lips). Your image then goes through a matching process with over 70,000 works of art in Google’s database. The artwork candidates hail from powerhouses like the Louvre, J. Paul Getty Museum and Rijksmuseum on down to a handful of smaller art foundations and contemporary galleries.
If you’re looking for a complete list of artwork titles and origins, you’re out of luck. Intentional or not, Google has remained somewhat tight-lipped about the artwork they’ve cataloged.
Nevertheless, its source material is not exactly diverse. When I conducted a search of the 100 most recent posts tagged #googleartsandculture on Instagram, I found that 91 percent of the artwork was created by male artists, and 63 percent was created by European and American artists before the 20th century.
As NPR notes, the app is particularly problematic for people of color, as a good percentage of the artwork it draws from is both Western and depicting white subjects.
The google arts and culture selfie feature is just a reminder of how little Asian representation there is in art history pic.twitter.com/pmfQsZ7xf2
— nydthakid (@nydiahartono) January 11, 2018
Friend: Bro, check out this new Google Arts and culture app you take a selfie and it matches you with a piece of art from history!
Me: It’s just going to give me a generic Asian probably.
— Kubo (@ryankubo) January 16, 2018
the only thing the google arts and culture app taught me is that there’s a severe lack of poc rep all i got were side profiles of white women and hispanic men. not a single latina in the hundreds of retakes i took.
— guess who… (@inuyashas_) January 15, 2018
And what of the facial recognition software? Even if there’s nothing inherently biased in its faceprinting technology, the lack of representation in Google’s artwork database seems to either whitewash or lump one race into a loose set of facial characteristics.
*usng the @Google Culture and Arts app*
white people: "Wow what beautiful renaissance/impressionist/european painting do I look like?
me: "Wow what racist stereotype of black people do I look like?"
— jimmyNUDEtron (@liluzi_girth) January 12, 2018
This isn’t the first time Google’s facial recognition software has failed people of color. In 2015, two Google Photos users discovered, to their horror, that their selfies were tagged in a new album titled ‘Gorillas.’
Google Photos, y'all fucked up. My friend's not a gorilla. pic.twitter.com/SMkMCsNVX4
— Jacky Alciné (@jackyalcine) June 29, 2015
Beyond faulty AI, the pool of art that’s available to Google has a lot to say about how it sees its users and which art it values.
“I get the same 5 images of black women that look nothing like me and it is definitely based on nose width.”
“I got this one when I was frustrated.”
Many of the pieces that do depict people of color are filtered through both a European and male gaze. In the examples in the second row below, Alfred Jacob Miller’s 19th-century depictions of Native Americans existed to introduce the white art-consuming audience of the day to Westward expansion and colonial exploits. In 2018, when so many contemporary artists work hard to correct such representations, what does it mean for people of color to be re-categorized through a colonial lens?
Curious about what the new face-matching #selfie feature of the @googlearts app is like for other mixed folk and #POC. Looks like most of the tagged art available is Western art. #GoogleArts pic.twitter.com/kiXej8PIJD
— LinitaLaAdelita (@LinaBlanco) January 14, 2018
If Google Arts and Culture truly wants to match its users with artwork, they should make a concerted effort to include collections with more diverse source material; portraiture and artwork that transcends race, gender and medium. (If Google merely wants to collect faces for its database, well, it’s doing a great job.)
I had fun with google arts and culture face match thing, but it was also a disturbing reminder of the reach of contemporary surveillance, the eurocentric tendency of art history, and my own narcissism
— Pete Cullen (@peterpcullen) January 15, 2018
Thankfully, recent art movements are underway to radically uproot and shatter Eurocentric biases in art history. More and more, well-known institutions recognize art made by and for people of color as more than token — or, god-forbid, “exotic” — collections.
Let’s hope Google can keep up.