Art Authority is Mysteriously Magical

The Art Authority app for iPhone and iPod touch is a compilation of artwork from ancient times through the contemporary period. But if that were all, it would merely be a another art collection. Instead, however, the app does something unexpected: it has the power to make one want to learn more about art and the circumstances around the work.

I decided to write this review because I have never been interested in art and I know practically nothing about art. So the idea of an iPhone app with famous art intrigued me.

Art Authority Main

Main page

Of course, I can't say anything sensible at all about the art in this collection, but I can attest to the design of the app and the effect it had on me.

Even those of us who are art-ignorant can appreciate a handy app that has an interesting collection, organizes it well, and lays out the art in a pleasing, informative way. Art Authority does just that. However, if you were thinking that cycling through a series of ancient art would be about as exciting as watching paint dry, you may be wrong.

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck - Crucifixion of Jesus

For example, one name I recognized was that of Jan van Eyck, and when I started a slide show of his work, I suddenly found myself asking lots of questions: What was he thinking at the time? What were the cultural and artistic themes of the time that led to that work of art? What story was being told, and how was it told by others? The list of questions just grew and grew to the point where each painting became almost a Lewis Carroll-type rabbit hole that I wanted to plunge into. Come to think of it, that's the key here.  It takes a certain amount of experience to put the art into context.  For example, if one is interested in the Reformation period, and knows something about it, then the art of the Reformation will have associated context. 

Of course, there's art for the sake of art: walks in the forrest, waterfalls and such.  That's not what's happening in this app.

The App Itself

Despite the allure of the art, I found myself also appreciating the layout of the app. I especially recommend looking at the Time Line graphic on the Overview page. It'll help put things into context.


The Annunciation - Mary and Gabriel

One can search by major works, all artists, or time periods. Once you get into a set of artwork by an author, there's an automatic slide show -- which can be paused. Or one can go forwards and backwards manually. It's a very easy app to use.

Copyright Issues

I was naturally curious about the copyright issues and the right to display these items for profit. Here's a short FAQ from Alan Oppenheimer at Open Door Networks:

Q: How does Art Authority bring this vast world of art to you?

A: We download most of it all from our own servers, where it's been optimized for quality, size and speed. For more recent works still under copyright, Art Authority downloads from an authorized Web site instead. The result: a comprehensive, continual view of western art from its origins through current times.

Q: Have you licensed all the 40,000+ works included with the product?

A: Most of the art displayed by Art Authority is in the public domain and does not need to be licensed. For works still under copyright (from 1923 on), we download the art from authorized Web servers and display it similar to the way any Web browser would.

Q: How do you fit so much art into the product?

A: Art Authority provides access to multiple gigabytes worth of art. Most of that art is stored on our servers, where it is catalogued and optimized for download speed and quality. Works not in the public domain are downloaded from authorized servers.

Q: How do I tell if a work is in the public domain or not?

A: The show for any artist with works still under copyright begins with an image indicating the Web site from which that artist's works are downloaded. (You can view this site using the "View Image in Web Site" button.) In the case of certain popular artists who have a number of works in both the public domain and under copyright (such as Pablo Picasso), there are two different shows for the artist. The works in the first show are in the public domain.

The Art of Software

This is not an inexpensive iPhone app. If you're sure you are completely uninterested in art, you'll quickly pass it by. However, that's how this techno-geek felt and first, and yet there was something alluring about it. I tried it out and suddenly found myself intrigued by the circumstances surrounding each work. Is that because I've learned to be more open minded? Is it the layout of the app? Is it the choice of works that begs for more understanding and appreciation? Is it because it's an iPhone app, and the magic of the iPhone creates a new, alluring presentation schema? Probably all of the above. (And this says something about the fascinating prospects for the Apple iPad.)

St Peter

St. Peter

There's more here than meets the eye here for the curious. You could end up being very pleased that you stopped, took a deep breath, and investigated this app. But only if you can wrap the artwork in context that further whets your appetite to know more.

Art Authority 3.2 requires iPhone OS 3.0 or later and is priced at US$9.99. There is also a version available for the Mac, similarly priced.