Since coming across Ugly Renaissance Babies, I've been wondering: is Tumblr* the best thing to happen to broad public engagement with art history**? They're dead simple posts – an image and a short comment, but they spread widely (as you can see from the number of re-posts), and arguably make renaissance art more interesting to people who wouldn't normally view it. Can sites that curate content from across different collections like this create serendipity through decontextualisation, and bring art history to the masses?
Like image macros, they can bring history and popular culture together in amusing ways (e.g. Joseph Ducreux, the Bayeux Tapestry and song lyrics), but is this irreverent commentary and re-contextualisation exactly the kind of thing that skeptical curators worried about when we were all getting excited about online collections? So I also have an entirely different question – does it matter to museums, galleries if (like the V&A) your painting appears in Ugly Renaissance Babies?
Attributed to Master of the Kress Epiphany, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers (detail), around 1480-1500
'We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.'
Is it ok to point out 'bad' art like this? Visitors often make rude comments about the ugly babies or whatever as they pass through museum galleries, but unless someone is there to hear them their comments are ephemeral.
And does it matter if the site author doesn't link back to the holding collection or image source? [I think it does – for context and finding related items more than ownership, but I've been told that's a museum-y way of looking at it.]
I posted the tumblr link and asked some of these questions a while ago on Twitter, but frustratingly, I can't get back as far as the original post in the @-mentions page so I'm missing any comments I didn't reply directly to at the time. (The reliability of free social media services is a whole other post…) The one set of comments I can retrieve was from Erika Taylor (@erikajoy), who said, 'surely you would be proud as punch having an original renaissance ugly baby in your collection? May change the significance perhaps' … 'an interesting additional social significance to add to whatever the existing significance is' and best of all,
'also, how cool would it be if museums collected memes of their paintings back into their collection.'
Finally, since this is presumably my last post for the year, I'd like to thank you for reading and commenting, and for inspiring conversations at conferences and on twitter – may your 2012 bring wondrous things to you and yours.
* insert your favourite social media service here.
** I suspect artistic objects are more 'portable' than social history or science objects, as they make visual sense without a story explaining what they are or why they're important.