The Digital, Reality and the Canonization of Art

Layan Jawdat

The readings and discussions that we’re having this week about photography and the assumed direct relationship between “reality” and photography/video/film-based images really make us question the way in which we interpret these media in our everyday lives. When we see photographs, we typically assume they represent some truth or reality (a function of our cultural understanding of the medium of photography, perhaps), but this is not necessarily true. To begin with, photographs depict, or enframe a specific perspective, selectively including and excluding the “reality” they are capturing. Furthermore, photographs, like other works of art and media, can be manipulated–even prior to the digitization of photography and photo editing, this was true.

Malraux’s discussion of the “imaginary museum”  likewise brings up important questions vis a vis the way in which art is shared and understood in today’s world (in which digitization of art collections, or photographs of art works are easily shared on the Internet, or physically on postcards you can purchase at museums). Malraux discusses the implications of the reproducibility of art through photographic reproduction: it creates and cements styles, and likewise de-emphasizes the material importance of works of art. He writes, “For all alike–miniatures, frescoes, stained glass, tapestries, Scythian plaques, pictures, Greek vase paintings, ‘details’ and even statuary–have become ‘color plates.’ In the process they have lost their properties as objects; but, by the same token, they have gained something: the utmost significance as to style that they can possibly acquire.”(Malraux  44-46 in Irvine 5).

Today we experience works of art not in only by observing them in their physical forms in museums, but also online or in books; in fact, this is probably the first and often only way we interact with works of art that are designated as such by the institutions of museums. It seems that projects like the Google Cultural Institute are the next logical step in this technological environment. However, the two-dimensional representation and flattening of artworks, which Malraux discusses, perpetuate the definitions of art and artistic styles that existed prior to the digital age. Although there is greater ability to compare works across time periods, cultures, and their physical homes, what Malraux discusses is still a “dis-located or relocated ‘museum'”(Irvine 2) Thus, it seems to be that besides the loss of the “here and now of the work of art–its unique existence in a particular place” (253) that Benjamin addresses in “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility,” not much has changed in terms of the canonization of art works with digital projects like the Google Cultural Institute, or online with digital archives.

In addition to questions about authenticity and reproducibility, I think the growing availability of “imaginary museums” online also makes us question how we determine the cultural value and meaning of works of art, and their place in our “‘cultural encyclopedia[s]'”(Irvine 3).  Is this not an opportune time to re-think our conceptions of art, and what art belongs in a museum (digital or physical)? Is there more room now to question the meanings and presentations of works of art determine and implemented by institutions like museums? Or is the status-quo perpetuated through the digital projects prevalent today?


Works Cited

“Google Cultural Institute.” Google Cultural Institute€“. Google, 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2014. <>.

 Martin Irvine, “Malraux and the musée imaginaire: Mediation, Image, and Institution in Benjamin and Malraux,”

 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939),