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Google Arts and Culture #Selfie App Inherits Art World Disparities

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(Collage by Lina Blanco-Ogden)

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.

Google Arts and Culture — Google Cultural Institute’s eager nod to art world institutions — released a wildly popular feature on their app this month that allows users to find their art doppelgänger.

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.

Then again, the mainstream art world is no stranger to being called overwhelmingly rich, white and male.

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.

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.’

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.

(Dorothy Berry / Facebook)

“I get the same 5 images of black women that look nothing like me and it is definitely based on nose width.”

(Dorothy Berry / Facebook)

“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?

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.)

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.

Have you used Google Art and Culture app’s new selfie feature? We’d like to hear your thoughts. Share your selfie with us on InstagramTwitter,  or Facebook.

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