Category Archives: Week 13

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.

Some thoughts on the Google “Art Camera”

I’d admit that I’m no fan of art. But I like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. My love for The Starry Night actually came from my stupid fond of a TV show called Doctor Who. Van Gogh and The Starry Night have become the semantic type in our shared cultural encyclopedia, “prototype” in Peirce’s term……

……Anyway!That’s why I search for this artifact as soon as I open the Google “Art Camera” website. AND I WAS AMAZED. What a magical work have done by the “gigapixel capture process”! By zooming in, I can even see the texture of the canvas Van Gogh once painted on. The pigment, the brushwork, the crack…… For someone who knows nothing about art like me, this is astonishing. This is probably the most intuitive way of saying “the media is the message”. I have seen The Starry Night in my text book, in news picture, and in TV, but none of that give me goose bumps like this time. From my perspective, the remediation is realized through how it changes the way people view the artifacts. Normally we see paintings as 2D artifacts, but through Google art camera, they are but beyond 2D. The detail and the gigapixel scanning is creating a feeling of being personally on the scene. The gigapixel level of magnifier serves the perfect duty for an extended mind. All of which makes this painting unique to others. As one “token” of its “type”, The Starry Night on Google Art Camera is endowed new messages through the medium.

Google’s art camera project gives normal people the opportunity to view the artifacts in details without going to the museum. Although Prof. Irvine typically stressed that in Malraux’s text he didn’t tend to achieve artifacts going beyond the walls, the re-presented artifacts is definitely doing so as a symbol token thanks to this project. However I’m a little bit concerned about several things and can’t find answers through the reading.

  1. When looking at the encyclopedia system of the Van Gogh’s museum, I can see the arrangement can be based on popularity, time, and even color, which is good. However, real museum tend to arrange the artifact in its own way. In Google Art Camera, I can only choose between viewing artifacts one by one in gigapixel details, or go on a blurry interior tour via 3D camera. The gallery painting mentioned in the reading like Morse’s, the metamedia or hypermedia, is designed to “encoding, transmitting ideas and for communication”. The Google art camera tend to achieve the same purpose, but somehow against the interface principles described in Janet Murray. Isn’t presenting a whole gallery in the same way of presenting one artifact a little bit unintuitive and nontransparent? Why the encyclopedia structure of the Google Art jumped so far from Morse’s gallery painting?
  2. Furthermore, after seeing the ultra HD version of the paintings, I want to see what they do with statues. And I was disappointed. Totally different from the painting, the statue is actually the best object to implement 3D camera. But in fact, I can only use magnifier to view one side of a three dimensional statue.
  3. I also clicked and saw the street views of Hong Kong through Google Art (Hong Kong- the Electric City- The Neons of Hong Kong). The photos and the video have the feature of old Honk Kong Film which spread to foreign cultures back then, like in Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. This remind me of Andy Clark’s comments on culturally embedded cognition: “culture provide us with intellectual tools that enable us to accomplish things that we could not do without them, but can also blind us to other ways of thinking.” Did Google Art Project hire people from Hong Kong to do this part? Or do they just assign it to random western photographer and copywriter? I’m more inclined to the latter.
  4. Besides, the 3D street view was roughly made, changing from rainy to sunny, day to night just within two steps. This careless production not only distorted the real Hong Kong, but also did great damage to users’ experience. Could it because the Google art project has been developing too fast to focus on the quality?

    After all, I’m still very excited to get to know this project and couldn’t wait to see it developed. Maybe someday, I can use the gigapixel scan camera (yes i’m really impressed by that) and the 3D camera (maybe VR) to view The Forbidden City of Beijing.

Ideology of the Art


……No museums exist, none has ever existed, in lands where the civilization of modern Europe is, or was, unknown”

This sentence, cited from the opening statement of Malraux’s The Voice of Silence, impressed me so much. We modern people are so getting used to the museum. It never occurred to me before, as depicted by the author, that museum or such kind of organizations, didn’t exist until some point in history. What’s more often neglected yet important is that, museum is not only a place to materially preserve artworks from the past, but a “naturally authorized” judging system, which delineates a linear development of artworks, selects what is defined “valuable” under certain standard, and posits those artworks on certain points in the whole system.

All these form a multi-level dialogic network, contemporarily or over a very long time. Artworks no longer separately exist, no matter what initial thoughts and motivations the creator put in them. This dialogic network forms in following process:

  • First created, each artwork is interpreted as a “token”, where some emotions are implied, intentions are expressed.
  • In the museum, each artwork is still a “token”, but also a “type” which stands more than the contents of itself. The color, stoke or the layout of objects in the painting maybe abstracted into a “style” of this artist, or of a period of time. In the museum, a painting hang on the wall is usually treated as one side of a conversation with the painting just in the left created by the same artist, or with those in two rooms away. These conversations construct, for example, the “development” of a painter’s drawing technique in different life stages, or the “development” of a region’s art level over centuries.

The question is, what does museums and this dialogic network bring to us? And why we need it?

One answer of these two questions is, art history completes the overall history of human beings, serving as a footnote of some more centered focus in the past thousands years. In other words, when we mention the concept like “development” of art or culture, we usually put them in the context parallel with contemporary politics and ideology (also sometimes in the other way, that we view the art with the scope of politics and ideology). Artworks as a inner-interactive meaning system here get connected with, or to say, inserted into other fields. The symbolic signs that artists use to create and the audience use to understand, are equipped with a new level of meanings. For example, the “red sun” in paintings created since 1950s’ China, represents very specifically the respect for the leader of Chinese Communist — Mao Zedong.

How politics and ideology affects the meaning system of arts also reflects in Morse’s idea of art gallery. In Metapainting and Interfaces, we can know that what Morse’s metapaintings try to express is a different political perspective of arts, which is,

an idealized representation, a virtual museum, a catalogue of the paintings that he wanted Americans to learn about. The painting is an interface to the grand tradition of European art history that the French Republic just opening up to its citizens

Both French Republic and Morse tried to provide for more civilians, who were traditionally seldom considered the audience of artworks in museums like Louvre, with access to those so-called aristocratic, intellectual appreciations. In his metapaintings, Morse represented great number of paintings in such a different interfaces, however, still under the same value and meaning system. Morse still adopted the already established standard to understand the European art history, so what he selected to compose his metapaintings were those regarded as masterpieces by former empires and aristocrats who controlled the writing of art history for centuries.

What presented by Morse’s metapaintings was still the same meaning system as that by Louvre.  On this level, Morse didn’t change a lot, or to say, not completely enough.

So, how about the Google Art Project? Does it change a lot?

At least, with the modern digital technology and HD interfaces, the availability of artworks becomes more than ever. You can now study carefully every pixel of some great paintings at home as long as you want. The copying of masterpieces is also much easier — you can now find the “Starry Night” all over the world and decorate you living room with the printed copy of any great painting in a very moderate price. The most critical change from Morse to Google Art Project is that the technology makes people treat the art differently — arts are no longer aloof treasures mysteriously preserved in the museum and only accessible for a few very wealthy people. As a result, the attention turns more to the contents of art itself, in other words, this symbolic system is getting more differentiated from others (e.g. politics and ideology).

What’s more, media and the Internet also enable more “civilian arts” to gain recognition and appreciation, which also desacralizes the traditional “aristocratic art”.

In The Google Art Project, the author Procter mentioned that all these digitalized artworks should be better designed to “create network effects and new forms of engagement“. The “new forms of engagement”, from my perspective, is a return to the content of artworks. For its availability and civilianization, digitalized artworks like Google Art Project can now complete the symbolic system only for any certain form of art itself.

With Google Art Project and other interfaces and technology, human beings are understanding art, and writing the history of art in a completely new way.