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October 1996

by Robbin Murphy

Topic #3: Has Mona Lisa Lost Her Head?

For some people their face is their fortune but for the rest of us it's a form of identification we conveniently carry with us.

Except online, where we've had to rely mostly on text-based "handles" to project our identity to others. Though many people have shown great imagination in creating their handles‹and some have become famous‹the growing Internet demands visual representation.

On metaworlds such as CompuServe's WorldsAway, participants can already choose a head from an on-line collection of faces or select other objects they want to personalize their avatar. These "heads" become valuable property that can be exchanged and even stolen. Victimized newbies are easy to spot by their headless avatars.

Broadcast and print media are always looking for new evils to denounce the upstart competition.

A recent television entertainment program warned its viewers of the latest evil let loose upon the innocent public by the Internet: dangerous hackers have been decapitating celebrity photos, putting the heads on nude bodies then depositing the results on newsgroups for others to find.

The reporter equated this to stalking (another favorite subject) and the culprits were portrayed as just one headshot short of serial killers. I think it's a pretty obvious use of the technology, a combination of revenge and erotic fantasy. Fashion magazines and movies have been rearranging bodies for years, but now computer technology gives everyone the tools to play digital Dr. Frankenstein. It only seems fair, and judging by the amount of participation, quite a popular pastime out there in cyberland as well. Everyone can be, if not an artist, at least an editor.

Art museums in the U.S. have reacted to the possibilities of using images of their collections on the Internet as if a burglar had burst into their bedrooms.

The most common response from museum professionals is "What if they do SOMETHING to our image!" What that "something" might be is left dramatically unsaid but often the "Mona Lisa" is offered as a prime example. "Look what's happened to her," they shudder.

Well, what has happened? True, what is probably one of the most famous faces in the world (a celebrity!) has been used and abused for decades, but the painting by Leonardo da Vinci (also known by the handles "Lady on a Balcony," "La Gioconda," or "La Joconde") still hangs in the Louvre, protected by bullet-proof glass, its subject smiling enigmatically. She doesn't seem to mind being in the same league as our current reigning Madonna.

And soon we can expect to see her face show up on avatars in virtual worlds, if she wasn't already there.

The reasons for this reluctance to allow the public to use museum images has less to do with protecting the art and more to do with the way we've come to view art, and the thinking of the people who control the access.

For most of us, our visual introduction to art objects comes from images: printed in books and projected as slides; posters on the dorm room and postcards on the refrigerator. We are immersed in what Andre Malraux envisioned as a "Museum without Walls" and have been since the 1950s. We may visit museums to have contact with the "real thing" but often it's the surrogate image from H.W. Janson's History of Art that's implanted in our visual memory, bad color and all.

American art museums are having an identity crisis of their own these days.

Most of our best known art institutions are the domain of art historians, and the discipline of "art history" has come into question. Academia moves slowly towards more interdisciplinary departments offering classes such as "visual culture" and "cultural studies". Art historians are afraid of losing privilege to -- horrors -- anthropologists. It's less a matter of copyright than it is a territorial battle.

The French have a different view. Though they are as protective of their copyrights as their American counterparts, museum professionals don't start with the assumption that their job is to protect the art FROM the public. One reason for this may be the fact that museums in Europe are stocked with objects that were stolen at some time from somewhere, but the art in American museums has been, for the most part, bought. European museums are national attics, American museums are more like department stores and the curators act like security guards.

French museums are more concerned with finding what they have.

Anything in a French state museum over 70 years old may be photographed (without flash), and the image taken may be used for any purpose the photographer desires. The museum assumes that if someone wants the "real thing" or a quality reproduction of it, they'll go to the museum or its designated representative.

A case in point is Nicholas Pioch's "WebMuseum," originally called "Le WebLouvre".

Pioch, a teacher at the Polytechnic Institute in Paris, is either condemned as a digital thief (usually by Americans) or applauded as an innovative and dedicated art lover. His site was constructed by using private photographs of paintings without any consent from the Louvre, which objected only to the original name, and it has grown to a global network of easily accessible art images. The Louvre has meanwhile opened their own website. Pioch has his own extensive copyright information page on the site with a particularly apt section devoted to U.S. lawyers.

In the U.S. there are a number of amateur art sites unconnected to institutions with one of the largest run by Mark Harden. His FTP Archive for Fine Art Images is extensive and has no information given about copyright, or any information about Mr. Harden, for that matter. He also posts the images to an alt.binaries newsgroup and can be found as a contributor to the Pioch WebMuseum site.

Both the WebMuseum and the Harden site are very well done, easy to navigate and for the most part the information available seems credible. They far exceed any site yet done by an official art institution. Granted, neither would be very useful to serious art historians who need both depth and detail for their research, but there are other programs such as the Getty Information Institute that are concerned with scholarly needs. I'll delve into those areas next time.

But if you need Mona Lisa's head for your avatar, check out the WebMuseum.



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Article by Bruno Mannoni in "Communications of the ACM"


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