The art of the phone app

Viewing the art world through the lens of a phone app?

Cell phone applications, or cell phone apps, are those bits of software you can add onto your mobile phone to perform functions having nothing to do with making phone calls.  The visual and audio potential of these applications make them a likely partner with purveyors of cultural information.

For example, there is Google Goggles, a mobile phone app that lets you identify a work of art just by taking a photo of it.  Successor to Plink Art, Goggles lets you use pictures taken with your mobile phone to search the web.  According to Google, it’s ideal for things that aren’t easy to describe in words. There’s no need to type or speak your query – all you have to do is open the app, snap a picture, and wait for your search results.  And since it’s a cell phone-based application, you can share the image and discuss it on the phone.  If you haven’t tried Goggles yet, go check it out.

Edward Rothstein writing for The New York Times describes the potential benefits phone apps can provide for the museum audience:

Imagine standing in front of an object with an app that, sensing your location, is already displaying precisely the right information. It might offer historical background or direct you through links to other works that have some connection to the object. It might provide links to critical commentary. It might become, for each object, an exhibition in itself, ripe with alternate narratives and elaborate associations.

Rothstein sampled phone apps developed by the Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History, only to find them functionally deficient in various ways.  Moreover Rothstein contends the applications may distance the viewer even further from the museum experience.


An image from the Natural History museum’s Explorer app. Via The New York Times


Certainly the pedagogical process can inform the art viewer’s experience: guide books, audio guides, guided tours and lectures can serve to enhance our experience of the cultural world and technology can enhance the process.  But viewing art through the lens of a phone app cannot replace the actual process of visually experiencing art, the visceral reaction to the visual experience.

Can a phone app enhance the creative process?  Brushes is “a painting application designed from scratch for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Featuring an advanced color picker, several realistic brushes, multiple layers, extreme zooming, and a simple yet deep interface, it is a powerful tool for creating original artwork on your mobile device.”  First watercolors released artists from the studio, providing plein air portability.  Now there is finger painting without the paint on a device you can carry in your pocket.

Even artist David Hockney has embraced the iPhone’s Brushes app to create artwork on his mobile phone screen.

Related links:

Finger Paintings blog at

More iPhone artists

Art of the iPhone impressionist


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