According to the social sciences, there are two main historically determined definitions of a nation – the French and the German one. The French, influenced by the French Revolution and by philosophers such as Ernest Renan, explains how the members of a nation share the desire to live together and namely this powerful striving shapes them into a group. The German understanding of the nature of a nation, whose roots are in the unification of Germany and in the works of several 19th century philosophers such as Gottlieb Fichte, points out the importance of factors like common language, religion, culture, history and ethnic origins. If the listed features are of true prominence for defining a nation, a culture-specific one seems emphasised in a recent British project: art.
The website Art UK (artuk.org), launched by Bob and Roberta Smith (a pseudonym of the artist Patrick Brill who is only one man) greets its visitors with the phrase “Welcome to the nation’s art”. This might sound like an ambitious salutation and actually quite accurately reflects the website’s goal: to create universal online access to the 212,732 publicly owned paintings in the UK for free and on a single digital resource.
The project also aims to include sculptures in museums, civic buildings and other public spaces from next year on – the plan is to include digital images of 100,000 sculptures, some being photographed with 3D scanning technology. The Heritage Lottery Fund has already invested in this initiative £2.8m and further funds are expected.
This seems to be the latest undertaking of the Public Catalogue Foundation (now renamed Art UK), a charity which started publishing all the public oil paintings in the UK in 2002. Until 2012, the Foundation has published 85 volumes and 90% of the artworks were photographed for the first time.
The decision to go online was made after the website Your Paintings, hosted by the BBC, seems to prove very helpful for many curators, academics, professionals and art-lovers. Your Paintings has now been replaced by Art UK as a direct result of a partnership between the former Foundation and the BBC.
“Discover 212,732 artworks. Explore 3,261 venues. Meet 38,370 artists. Welcome to Art UK, the online home for every public art collection in the UK.” The website might be a paradise for the art-engaged audience and may also give the opportunity to partner collections, which are more than 3,000 by now, to contribute by uploading images of the works in their possession. Some private collections, like the one of the Oxford Colleges, also joined the initiative.
The website scatters the works of art – paintings from the National Gallery might appear next to painting from some fire station, – and thus strives to encompass the circumstances thanks to which the collection of a whole nation looks the way it does. In this sense, Art UK is a gathering of images and a source of information at the same time.
The archive aims to be a starting point for curators who are about to open an exhibition or academics who need references. Especially useful for the latter who might be the provided links to Oxford University Press.
Moreover, the website allows everyone to be a curator, to pick up their favourite works, open their online “exhibition” and share it on social media. Art-lovers and professionals may also become Art Detectives and help in identifying artist attributions and sitter names. This may be a further step in the accessibility of art in the digital world, now everybody with an Internet connection might be able to browse through the archives of the British nation’s art without the need to ever step foot in the UK’s galleries.
In what way is seeing works of art online different from seeing them in galleries?