What is The Art Gene/Genome Project?


The Project has two parts.

Part 1 is a list of all of the possible characteristics/terms you might apply to art.

Think about an art object, say a painting by Andy Warhol. You might say it is a painting, that it is a work of Pop Art, that it is a silkscreen, that it features an image of Marilyn Monroe, that it is very “high contrast,” or even that it emphasizes the flatness of the image.

These characteristics or terms (e.g. Pop Art, flatness, bright colors) are what we call “genes.”

There are currently over 400 genes in what we call “The Art Genome” and they fall into the following categories. (In parentheses are examples of genes in the category.)

  • Time Period (Pre-Impressionism, Modern, Contemporary)
  • Medium (Painting, Sculpture, Installation, Video)
  • Style or Movement (Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, Young British Artists)
  • Contemporary Tendencies (Tendencies occurring in contemporary art but that people might not yet be comfortable calling “movements,” such as Contemporary Gothic or DIY)
  • Concepts (Color Theory, Institutional Critique, Related to Film)
  • Content (Portrait, Landscape, The Studio, Cityscape)
  • Techniques (Monochrome Painting, Multiple Exposure, Sfumato)
  • Geographical Regions (Where an artist has lived and worked)
  • Appearance Genes (The look and feel of an object)
  • Labs (Genes in development; not public)

We also have hundreds of other genes. These capture individual art-historical and artist influences, such as the fact that Jackson Pollock was influenced by (among other things) Mexican Muralism or Thomas Hart Benton.

Where did all of these genes come from?

  • Hundreds of years of art-historical scholarship that we are the beneficiaries of
  • Discussions in books, periodicals and on the web surrounding contemporary art
  • Many Art.sy genome team meetings and debates
  • Consistent communication with all of our partners, i.e. the galleries, museums, foundations, collections and estates that feature their work on Art.sy.

Part 2 is applying relevant genes to each of the 3,000 artists and 15,000 artworks on Art.sy.

The list of genes applied to artists and artworks we call their “genomes.”

Like the process of coming up with genes, the application of genes to artists and artworks is a group effort, involving the genome team at Art.sy, extensive research, and consistent communication with our partners.

A few clarifications about genomes and genes:

  1. Every artist and artwork has their own genome. Why? To show how different, for example, Warhol’s oeuvre (his collected works) is in comparison to individual works and how greatly individual works can differ from each other.
  2. Genes are not tags — though we have many tags on the site — because tags are binary (something is either tagged “dog” or not). Genes, in contrast, can range from 0-100, thus capturing how strongly a gene applies to a specific artist or artwork. This nuanced connection between works of art is impossible with a simple tagging mechanism.

So this is The Art Genome Project, the source of all the terms and related searches users see on Art.sy. As always, we welcome your questions and comments.

In the coming weeks, look forward to further posts on topics like precedents for The Art Genome Project (such as art-historical taxonomies or thesauri, encyclopedias and dictionaries, image atlases, and Pandora), what appearance genes try to capture, how algorithms relate to The Art Genome Project, and how and why “Most Similar Artworks” was created.

— Matthew Israel, Director of The Art Genome Project