The Diner and The Donut Shop (Joe and Jameson)

In Anthropology, the concepts of the sacred and profane are used to show how cultures would take specific aspects of life which they deemed more meaningful and separate them from the mundane tasks of everyday life. Sacred rituals and artifacts were ascribed a symbolic level not attributable to profane tasks and artifacts. In the physical world, museums have functioned as a sacred space for culture, presenting a curated set of artifacts which constitute a version of cultural memory, apart from the outside. The Google Cultural Institute is a new meta-interface providing a digital version of the sacred space for culture, delineated from Google’s profane web search.  

When we talk about “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper, what are we actually referring to? On the most basic level, it refers to the original, physical painting itself. Moving up a level, it can also refer to the original painting and all the physical copies, or replications, made of the original. Moving up yet another level, it can refer to photographic representations of the painting–since the painting is so distinct, and we can, upon seeing it, recognize it as “Nighthawks.” Moving up even further, photographic representations of the painting (or, most likely, of copies of the painting) uploaded into the digital space constitute yet another interface for the original painting. When you search for “Nighthawks” on Google Images, you get thousands of results, including a wide selection of photographic representations of the painting, as well as iterations that range from re-interpretation to parody.

The former has similar “likeness” to the original and can be immediately recognized as “Nighthawks.” We tend to think of this as merely being the thing that it is representing–if you come across it on Google Images, you will probably refer to it merely as “Nighthawks” (not “a digital representation of a photograph of a copy of…” etc). The latter, on the other hand, may have some similar elements to the original painting, but also alters other elements. Even though it is not an exact replica or representation of the original painting, we still understand it as related, in some way, to “Nighthawks.” This is because it belongs to the cultural category of “Nighthawks,” in that it references and assumes an understanding of the artifact in question. The artistic, recognizable attributes are the same as the original Hopper painting (and its many representations), even though other key elements are changed. These similar attributes are what allow us to understand it as being an iteration belonging to this particular cultural category.


The order in which we look at these representations is important as well in determining their meaning. In this way, how paintings are organized on a wall in a museum becomes another process of recursive modification. As you your eyes pan from one painting to the next, the meanings of each painting changes by each preceding image. This same process is observable in Google’s search interface, when you search for a painting you get all the images that have resulted to similar searches through Google’s PageRank. When you search for “Nighthawks” you get a replica of Edward Hopper’s painting, but you also get parodies of it. These parodies change the meaning of the painting because they denote “Nighthawks”’ cultural significance, without context as to what made it significant, nor where it stands in the artist’s canon. Other Edward Hopper works exist in the same cultural category as paintings related to “Nighthawks”, but they change the meaning of “Nighthawks” by expanding on the themes that the artist was exploring, rather than marking “Nighthawks” as important in and of itself.

Parodies of Nighthawks:



Themes of Nighthawks:


Think of the different ways in which you would conceptualize “Nighthawks” after viewing each block of images. The meta-interface in which you view them will be the same, Google’s search engine, but the meanings elicited by each viewing will be very different. Seeing both give a more elaborate view of artistic output, and the many realms it can penetrate in our cultural consciousness. Google Cultural Institute cannot replace Museums as a way to experience art, but it can offer a substantially different context for looking at art. One that fulfills the more research oriented aspects of what the computer system can do, from it’s early conception as the “Difference Engine” to Vannevar Bush and Alan Kay’s work to where we are now in the mediated present.  


Durkheim, Emile. 1915. “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.”

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art.”

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “The Museum and Artworks as Interfaces: Metamedia Interfaces from Velázquez to the Google Art Project“

National Gallery of Art, Background on Samuel Morse’s painting, The Gallery of the Louvre.

Proctor, Nancy. 2011. “The Google Art Project.” Curator: The Museum Journal, March 2.