Google Art Project–Continuation of “The Museum Idea”

In the Voices of silence, Malraux used photographic reproductions of artifacts to form a interface that enables the general public to have the access to fine arts. Intentional or not, Google Art Project is an attempt of continuation of Malraux’s “The Museum Idea”. This idea can trace back to Morse’s meta-painting Gallery of the Louvre.

Like the Voices of silence, Google Art Project also represents artifacts by using a two-dimensional interface. The difference is that contemporary technologies make this project far more powerful than what Malraux did, thus bring “the museum idea” to another level.

Technologies bring about new affordance and eliminate old constraints. What Malraux was trying to do is to re-conceptualize the artifact into a normative “art history” frame. Therefore, the photos of artifacts were selected by the author, and when they were put together into a book, they were fixed. The readers have to follow the lead of the author and take in whatever the author think is the best “prototype” of a genre.

That is not the case in Google Art Project. The website of this project features the “favorite” function that enables users to create their own collection. And because of the massive memory space of the servers, people who put together this project don’t have to go through painstaking selection of prototype. They can simply add a new artifacts to the current selections.

Moreover, due to the advance of technologies, pictures on the project can do far better than pictures in a book. Users can click on a painting and zoom in to an extent where the texture of the canvass can be clearly seen. Google arts and culture experiment enables users to view artifacts in ways that they might never thought of before. In addition, an actual visit to a museum can be simulated on the website.

However, some of the constraints that the project inherit from its predecessor can not be eliminated. However hard it tries, the nature of the project can not be changed–re-tokenizing the artifacts on a two-dimensional interface. Thus some forms of arts like sculptures can not be fully appreciated. Some other constraints include dissociating cultural object from their material origin and estranging the work from their original function, which can cause some misinterpretation.

From the private collection of upper class, to museum, to “the museum idea”, and then to the recent attempt like Google Art Project, arts become more and more democratic, as intended by Malraux and Morse. Minimizing the cost and giving access of fine arts to more people is another advantage of the project compared with its predecessors, since the book Voices of silence is worth more than 40 dollars on Amazon.

The paradox remains that the democratization of arts weave it more closely into the social and cultural encyclopedia, but different forms of arts are further homogenized and dislocated from their original functions. When arts are becoming more and more symbolic, It might be hard for people to remember once there was a time when the word arts did not mean anything.