Category Archives: Week 9: Benjamin – Google Art Project

week 9: on the Google Art Project

I believe that “street view” is understood as a code for “the real” in our digital culture. We understand it as such, because it represents a photographic snapshot of an actual physical location, and we decode photographs as being real and true to life. When we have no other way of understanding what a location actually looks like, we take what we are given (the Google maps representation) and accept it as reality. 

I believe the user-curator culture that we live in enables people to embrace and get in touch with their creativity, especially those who may not have thought of themselves as creative, otherwise. The only concern I see with a culture that encourages viewers to record an experience as they undertake it (ex. by photographing it in order to curate a Pinterest-style collection of their favorite images) is that it detracts from a viewer simply going to a museum, standing in front of a work of art, and either “oohing and awing” at it or shaking their head and walking to the next piece of art.

The Google Cultural Institute is a valuable creation because it brings pieces of high art to those who may not otherwise have had access to. I do not believe it discourages people from visiting actual museums–those with a physical location. As the prompt mentioned, I do believe that digital museums such as this can “[enable] individual learning, pattern recognition, and understanding of the museum function.” It gives viewers (yes, even those online museum spectators) the ability to engage with and be inspired by creative material. For that reason, I am not surprised that “[a Pinterest-like] feature was so successful upon the Art Project’s launch, that Google had to dedicate additional servers to support it” (Wikipedia). The Google Art Project is bringing the experience, knowledge, and culture to a wider audience.

Integrating Google’s street view idea with the concept of a museum worked well because viewers took Google’s representations as “real” because the media they were exposed to were digital representations of the physical objects, and they already had experience as taking photographic representations of things as “real.” Of course, experiencing works of art in person and seeing the imperfections and textures of the individual works of art (ie. canvases, etc.)  is another experience, but the Google-museum-without-walls experience provides a similar experience for those who cannot view the works of art in person.

There is value in Malraux’s idea of the art book standing as an example for all that the work of art stood to gain from the advent of the reproducible image in its ability to carry the ‘revelation of the world of art’ beyond the physical walls of ‘real’ institutions.

Photography, Reflected on the Google Art Project

The Google Art Project is an innovative idea that utilizes the web to digitally archive and preserve artwork. It allows it to be accessible by everyone in the globe, including people who might not have physical access to certain museums. It is a natural product of the digital age, where everything is being digitized, shared, and kept on the web, from books to orchestras to paintings. The Google Art Project serves as a resource for cultural art products coming from all over the world.

Nonetheless, the experience of viewing artwork digitally is still and always will be a limited one in comparison to being in presence of a painting in real-life. Physically visiting a museum still surpasses looking at artwork online, as there is much more to experience – the location, the architecture, the history – than merely looking at a work of art. The artistic value of a painting or work of art does not only lie in it’s visual value, but there is also cult value, or the significance of the work of art itself, the person who made it, the reason it was made, the process of making it, and so on.

I wanted to contrast this with photography, to see how such a project, if done for photographs instead of paintings, would be different. In the past, when photography depended on film rather than digital methods, a processed photograph had more cult value, particularly when early photography was mostly used for portraits. At the time, photography was a longer process that required more effort and was more expensive. It needed several “analog” steps, from capturing the image to processing it. Film had limited space, and you could not “preview” or “delete” photographs on the spot like we do now. Therefore, at that time, photography also had a cult value just like paintings

Edward Steichen’s photo of a pond in Long Island, New York, in 1904. This rare print has set the world record for most expensive photograph, sold for $2.9 million in February 2006. The only other two copies in existence are in museum collections.

It is interesting to note that such a limitation of value or a separation between visible and cult value is diminishing as technology progresses. Modern technology has resulted in the availability of easy-to-use photography devices, such as mobile phone cameras and compact digital cameras. The technology of photography has been extended, adding the function of online sharing that has almost become inseparable from the act of photography itself.  All latest cameras are equipped with technologies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other connectivity technologies that facilitate immediate sharing. Mobile phones in particular have apps, like Instagram, that have become inseparable from the camera. All this has cost the photograph its cult value. It seems that a photograph of today naturally belongs to the web rather than a museum.  

Google Art Project and the Museum Cannon

What I notice in the Google Art Project is not how revolutionary it is but how embedded it is in the forms and structures of the traditional art museum developed over the 19th and 20th centuries.  It relies on these already culturally meaningful structures for its own meaning.  Whether or not this was part of the conscious choice of the Google staff involved in the project is less important than the fact that Google Art Project does not so much change the way we look at art, but reinforces the museum function.


Each artwork you click on to examine links you easily not just to the other artworks by that artist, but to the museum collection that artwork happens to come from.  In fact, the other artworks from that particular museum that are digitized on Google Art Project run in a scrollable line across the bottom of the screen.  In many cases, you can click to a “street view” to bring you to a digitized interface of the museum space itself.  Via this interface, you can scroll around the museum, see which works are hanging next to which other works, where benches for visitors have been placed; you can even move through hallways into the next museum gallery.


That works of art usually to be found on the walls of museums is such a given for us today that we may not realize that linking artworks to museums is not the only way Google Art Project could have organized itself.  It could have prioritized linkages between artworks and the original locations or eras they were produced, for example.  In that case, the page for Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises would be accompanied by a scrollable row of other works produced in late 19th century France, rather than a row of other works that can be found at the Getty Museum.  This is only one of the most logical other ways Google Art Project could have, but did not, choose to organize art.


Another way Google Art Project reinforces the museum function is by continuing without question the high-art/low-art divide and featuring almost entirely works that are already well accepted by the cannon.  I ponder an idea like Google Art Project and I instantly think that it could be a great opportunity to put works by women, works by minority artists, works from less central regions, right next to the old museum favorites, usually works by white males from Paris or New York.  Google Art Project does none of this.  In fact, Google Art Project seems to take a step back from the progress even traditional museums have made in furthering equality in the art world and questioning the validity of the cannon. Even those non-white, or non-male artist who have been lucky enough to be generally accepted as part of the high art cannon are underrepresented on Google Art Project:  Van Gogh has 154 featured artworks, Mary Cassatt only 17.  One could argue that Van Gogh was more prolific than Cassatt, but he was not more prolific than Japanese artist Hokusai, and Hokusai has only 22 featured works on Google Art Project.

To be fair Google Art Project is still in its infancy, and, as the web is such a capricious medium, perhaps we will see more radical choices about which artworks to include and how to organize the project as it matures in the next few years.  There are some exciting indications of this, in, for example the digitization of Australian Rock Art, definitely not a usual part of the cannon, and definitely interesting and worth studying and valuing.


Google Art Project is an “Imaginary Museum” like that envisioned by Malraux in the 1950s.  Malraux argued that photographs of artworks equalize their value by turning all works of art into the same size and shape.  However for photography (and digitization) to be a democratizing force, we need to take the first step of digitizing images that are not already part of the cannon.

Digital Museums

Jen Lennon

When I first opened Google Art Project, I went straight to the Phillips Collection because it’s the museum I’ve probably visited the most in my time in DC. I’ve looked at the Google Art Project before, and I have to say, it’s come pretty far in the past year. It seems like a ton of new museums have been added. Anyway, I went to the Phillips Collection, and I flipped through the images looking for something specific: the Rothkos. At the Phillips Collection, there is an entire Rothko room. It’s actually pretty small and only a few people are allowed to go into it at once – something that they actually pretty strictly monitor. The first time I went I didn’t get why and I thought it was kind of dumb, but I liked that at least it wasn’t packed when you were in there. But each time I’ve gone back, and since I’ve learned a little bit more and started to appreciate the pieces more, I’ve grown to love the Rothko room. Interestingly, I couldn’t find the Rothkos on Google Art Project. It showed most of their permanent collection – none of the Pollocks that are on display now. And one certainly couldn’t replicate the Rothko room, so maybe that’s why they’re not there. Maybe they didn’t even want to try.

In one sense, I’m still sort of protective of the idea of museums. There’s something that can’t quite be replicated about visiting a museum, from the architecture to the reverence to the fact that art is literally surrounding you. I also like that a trip to the museum means meaningfully taking time out of your day to visit some art or to expand your mind. In this case, then, the digital reproduction of great art works would take away some of the aura that Benjamin talked about. However, I also think that there can certainly be value in posting these things online, as well. It’s not as if it makes the physical museum disappear. And there’s definitely a sort of cultural divide, much like the digital divide, where some people don’t have access to great museums or the time to visit them. In basically every city besides DC, it costs money to visit a museum. So in these cases, I’m glad that the art exists somewhere for them. This offers the ability for people to be inspired by art who might not have been before. And maybe, for a group of people who have never visited a museum, this will have an aura of its own. If the first time you see a great work of art is on a screen, wouldn’t that sort of re-calibrate your expectations?

Another thing that the Google Art Project made me think about was curation. Museums (and galleries) have curators who thoughtfully put together exhibitions. As I mentioned already, the current main exhibition for the Phillips Collection isn’t included in their entry on the Google Art Project. What does this mean for the idea of digital art museums? Does it lose some of that curatorial thoughtfulness? I think it could be an opportunity for a new kind of curation. Maybe certain groupings would work better together online than they would in physical space. Maybe museums could work together to make exhibitions. I also like the idea of getting smaller museums online – or from even more faraway places. The digital museum could be really cool, and it’s own entity, if put together thoughtfully for its own medium as opposed to merely digitizing another. It seems as if sculpture and street art wouldn’t translate well online, which is a shame. But what could? Or could there be a way to make these fit in a better way? Google seems to be on its way, as I mentioned before, they have already made big strides on the site. I look forward to seeing what it becomes.

Details and Ambiance

To fully appreciate this week’s topic, I chose to focus my perspective of the Google Art Project through the lens of the artwork included in the Art Institute of Chicago section. Of all the museums listed in the Google Art Project, I am particularly fond of this museum because I have visited it at least once a year since my early childhood, and it features a work of art that I find to be particularly fascinating.

Georges Seurat’s, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, is an amazing work of art not only in its technique, but also in its scope as a part of the context of the museum. As a child, I remember reveling at its size and wondering how many points it took to create the images before me. Thanks to the Google Art Project, I can now zoom in as far as the interface will let me, and (if time were no object) I could even count exactly how many points the painting contained.

This type of detail is an incredible feat of technology and creativity since it eliminates the diversions a traditional museum setting imposes on its patrons like crowded viewing areas or protective measures that prevent you from seeing a work of art as close up as you would like. To view the Seurat painting in person, I would typically have to wait for crowds to clear out or fight my way to the front of the group. The Google Art Project’s ability to give viewers control over their viewership demonstrates what Emily Magnuson refers to as “releasing an object from its ritual” as the phrase was previously applied to art photography. Releasing famous art from its ritualized form seems to give the art a new dimension – it allows viewers to see texture and discover new details without ever leaving their home. In this sense, the ritual of visiting a specific location to view art is eliminated.

As captivating as these features of the Google Art Project may be, the Project should not be treated as a replacement for the ritualized museum despite Google’s inclusion of the street view option, which tries to simulate a “real” museum visit. Additionally, the art included in the exhibitions is not all-inclusive, and is therefore somewhat framing the viewer’s perspective on the museum’s art collection. For example, a particularly interesting exhibit I recall at the Art Institute of Chicago included a collection of miniature dioramas of famous rooms. This exhibit would most likely not be included in the Google Art Project because of the huge amount of detail and resources that would need to be poured into the documentation of each shot in order to make it seem as organic as a ritualized museum visit.

From a semiotic perspective, attending a museum represents the mental entrance into a world removed from reality that pushes individual understanding of art. Like Baudrillard’s Disneyland analogy, entering a space that represents a certain cohesive mentality forces you to escape the reality of the outside world. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling like I’m re-entering “reality” upon leaving the special soft lights of a museum and entering the brightness of the world outside of the museum’s walls. This feeling is difficult to replicate in an online sphere because you are technically stuck in reality since you are sitting in a room somewhere while surfing the Internet for art.

To further illustrate how Google cannot fully replicate the museum experience, the aura of a museum must be compared to that of the Google Art Project. Most museums are sparse in their decoration, thereby forcing patrons to concentrate on each work of art. The spacing of the artwork also insinuates a necessity of deep concentration and reflection. In the Google Art Project, art is listed in a way that definitely recalls a search engine—one exhibit is listed after another in a virtual list that seems to go on forever. In this sense, one institution is replaced with another—the institution of a museum is replaced with the institution of Google, which may frame a viewer’s perception of are more than a traditional museum.  As mentioned in Nancy Proctor’s post, “the interface in effect plays a similar role to the frame, the glass, the label, the map the wall and so one in the gallery.”

Based on this discussion, it seems like the Google Art Project would serve best as a gateway point to develop an interest in art, rather than a total museum replacement. Going back to the Seurat example, I can get a more technical scope of detail of the artwork via the Google Art Project, but I would need to see the painting in person to fully experience its emotional impact and understand why it is “museum-worthy”. Although convenient and innovative, the Google Art Project risks forgoing challenging the audience to “rethink what and why.”

Benjamin’s Work in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Benjamin’s Work in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Sara Levine

Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a remarkable piece of work not only because of its historical significance for communication and media theory, but also because of its own reproducible characteristics. Professor Irvine wrote in his presentation “Mediation and Representation: Plato to Baudrillard and Digital Media” that if we replace the terms “mechanical” and “technical” with “digital”, then the concerns addressed in Benjamin’s piece seem similar to modern day concerns about digital reproduction. In other words, Benjamin’s theories continue to hold relevance for modern day reproductions of work through digital means. For example, Benjamin’s concepts can be applied to the Google Art Project.

Virtual Gallery Tour

One of the main features of the Google Art Project is the ability to walk through museums’ floor plans. Similar to the “Street View” option on Google Maps, the Virtual Gallery Tour allows visitors to navigate through collections from a first-person perspective with directional controls. This produces a completely unique experience for users that can be linked with Benjamin’s concepts of aura and ritual. Benjamin was interested in the idea that a work of art loses its aura, or unique characteristics, when it is reproduced. The aura of a piece of art is inseparable from its ritualistic basis, whether that ritual is religious or secular. However, Benjamin was quick to point out that works of art produced through mechanical means (such as a photograph) have successfully removed this ritualistic aspect. In the Virtual Gallery Tour, the works of art are not being reproduced as static images. Instead, they are being reproduced within an environment that possesses a ritualistic aura. It might be necessary to then analyze the Google Art Project’s efforts to substitute the realness of a museum in terms of what Baudrillard might consider to be a simulation. The meaning making involved in physically standing inside of a museum may possess a uniqueness that cannot be successfully recreated through the Google Art Project. There are no other visitors in the room with you, you are not able to smell the slow decay of the paintings, and you will never have the experience of repeatedly asking security guards where the exit is located. Are these experiences necessary to absorb and create meaning from a work of art? It may depend on the piece of art and the person.


Artwork View

Another feature of the Google Art Project is Artwork View, in which a visitor may roll over a piece of artwork and zoom in to the details. This feature is reminiscent of the advent of the close-up, in which a filmmaker may fill the frame with one detail of an object. Benjamin wrote that this technological advancement served to heighten a person’s “apperception (Benjamin XIII).” Close-ups expand the viewer’s sense of space. Details of objects or movements that had before seemed mundane or nearly invisible (the tremor of a hand, scratches on a doorknob, a drop of condensation running down a glass, etc.) became sources of intense analysis. If these close-ups fill the screen, then the audience has no choice but to become aware of these new optical angles. The same could be said of the Artwork View function. This zoom-in feature allows users to expand their fields of vision and make note of details that might not have been perceptible while in the physical presence of the artifact. A visitor at a museum may be scolded for getting too close to an artifact, and our eyes do not have the optical zoom features of a camera. Consequently, the Artwork View option may have a similar effect on viewers as the close-up did on film audiences. This could result in a Google Art Project user developing a different interpretation of the piece than if she or he relied on her or his own eyesight to view the artifact.

Artwork Collection

The Artwork Collection function allows users to “save” a piece of artwork to her or his “collection”. Consequently, the concept of a gallery is reproduced digitally so that any user could take on the role of an art collector. Similar to the Virtual Gallery Tour, the Artwork Collection may inadvertently remove the ritual value and/or uniqueness of an artifact. The artifact is digitally reproduced within a user’s collection, and subsequently removed from its physical place within a collection. This change in environment could be considered a paradigmatic alteration that may have a large impact on the ways in which the artwork is perceived by the user. Additionally, Google Art Project emphasizes the fact that users can personalize their own collections. We are encouraged to organize the artwork according to our own tastes. Therefore, users can transfer artworks out of their environments and then rearrange them or place them next to artworks that are physically located halfway around the world. This significantly alters the meaning making process involved in viewing the artwork.

A Piece of Art Reproduced in a Film Reproduced in a YouTube Clip

The following excerpt from the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off serves as another example of reproduction. However, there are a number of processes occurring simultaneously. On the surface of this clip, the three main characters visit The Art Institute of Chicago. It can also be viewed through several layers of reproduction and semiotic analysis. The artwork is being reproduced through the film medium, which can manipulate space and time in order to emphasize certain details of the artwork. The film is then reproduced digitally and archived on YouTube. In order to keep this blog post at a reasonable length, I will list some thoughts that struck me while viewing this clip.

  • The camera lingers on certain paintings and groups of artifacts. The framing for each shot reproduces the art in such a way that the viewer’s perception of the art may be altered by the use of camera movement and close-up.
  • The sequence at 1:07 in which Cameron Frye stares at the Seurat painting deserves its own bullet point. The editing technique in this sequence makes use of close-up in which spatial perception is heightened. This heightened perception allows viewers to engage in meaning making. Narratively, these close-ups signify that Cameron identifies with the little girl in the painting. Additionally, viewers may find that the close-up of the painting reveals details about Impressionism that had not been visible to them before.
  • The camera shakes slightly through each shot. This signals to the audience that they are watching a live action shot of motionless artifacts instead of still images.
  • It is also interesting to note that some shots contain people and others do not. Perhaps the shots without people are meant to evoke a personalized experience similar to the one in the Google Art Project.
  • Another shot that deserves its own bullet point is the one at 0:57 seconds in which the three main characters are viewing artwork. They are framed artistically through the film medium. The vector lines within the composition of this shot seem to emphasize Ferris as the largest (and therefore most important) character on screen. Instead of focusing on the artwork, perhaps the audience is being asked to turn a critical eye on the critics.
  • I am able to point out specific shots because I paused and scrolled through the timeline of the clip multiple times. Audiences who watched this film when it was released in theaters did not have this option until it was released on VHS tape. However, VHS tapes did not contain scrub bars or preview images in order to make this process easier for the viewer. Benjamin wrote that “No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed (Benjamin XIV).” This constant change has been slowed down through options such as timeline bars and buttons that rewind ten seconds of video. This may significantly alter the viewing experience.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994. Print.

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Print.

Ferris Bueller’s Day off. Dir. John Hughes. 1986.

“Google Art Project.” Google Art Project. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Irvine, Martin. “Mediation and Representation: Plato to Baudrillard and Digital Media.” Lecture.



From Google to Gucci

Elizabeth-Burton Jones
“From Google to Gucci”
Week 9
I haven’t independently studied the Google Art gallery. Therefore, as soon as I opened the page, I was shocked by the image that appeared on my screen. The image was of a statue, but the image was distorted by the appearance of a square in the center of the image. This square truly confused me for a second, because I didn’t know what to expect from the website.Therefore, I decided to work an image that I have already seen. I was initially skeptical of archived images simply because I am sometimes skeptical of the quality finding it’s origin in the digital world.

My first concern was the loss of depth and detail within the image. So, I sifted through various images and encountered the “Birth of Venus”. I know this image very well and I have seen it in the Uffizi Museum. I clicked on the zoom function and I was very impressed with the quality.

In addition, I am always in search of the residue of realness when it comes to digitization, so I chose to look at a statue. After searching the webpage, I found “Bronze Fountainhead” this was interesting because when I used the zoom feature, I could notice the “wear and tear” of the statue, but I didn’t get that feeling of grit and age.Be that as it may, I believe that this website is a wonderful tool for all students and it grants intimate access to pieces of art that are thousands of miles away. 

Uncanny Valley
But, why am I looking for the “true grit”? What does my stance mean? I guess to look at my stance of the “uncanny valley-ness” of the digital reproduction, I should not be alarmed. The Walter Benjamin reading mentions that replicas were always made (252). This is very true, whether we are assessing Gucci fashion bags or the “Starry Night” everything has been reproduced and at a mass rate.





Another example could be the Marcus Aurelius statue in Rome. There are two versions. one version is outside in a piazza and another is placed inside for restoration. I am bringing this statue up because there is an obvious difference between the real and the replica. 

But what is wrong with the digital reproduction? As mentioned before, digital reproductions have so many positive aspects especially when it comes to filling a void  and granting intimate access to art. I guess the answer is “the here and now” (253). As Benjamin mentions, the “here and now” are often missing from the reproduced pieces of art. This can be said for all types of replications from music to statues. The lack of “here and now” breeds many questions. Therefore the lack of the “here and now” truly makes a difference, but one difference that is essential to the understanding of a piece of art. As alluded by Benjamin, the “here and now” can be age and “wear and tear”. The “here and now” adds more substance to something that is real. The “here and now” distinguishes the replica from the original.



From A Post Card To The Loss Of Aura

At the beginning of March, when I went to the National Gallery of Art for the second time, I was amazed by the Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions. Ophelia, a famous painting by Sir John Everett Millais around 1851, remarkably presented the drowning Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The woman in the water lies quietly and desperately in the stream and are surrounded by “the symbolic flowers that stand for death, innocence and love in vain”, according to the description in its Google Art Project page. I stared at the painting for a long time and was fascinated with the colors of plants Millais used, the ethereal beauty of the woman’s hair and dress he represented, and the dolorous yet peaceful atmosphere he created. I was so excited that I bought a post card of this painting after the exhibition. However, when I went back home, the whole marvelous mystery the painter created somehow disappeared, and I could never have the same feeling for the post card as what I felt in front of the real one.

Ophelia, by John Millais, 1851

(Ophelia, by John Millais, 1851)

In the post card case, I encountered what Benjamin would call “the loss of aura”. “What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura.”(Benjamin, 254) “We define the aura of the latter as the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.” (Benjamin, 255) The aura is the authenticity, the unique, special thing in the original. The aura is mom’s recipe, and you can never make the exact same taste of food by following mom’s recipe. The reason why we say the author does not die also lies in here, since the author always has the aura, which even the hi-fidelity digital representation cannot replicate. The power of the author is passed along through reproductions. Every time we capture the original, replicate or reproduce it, we are making a tribute to the author, where the ecstasy of influence appears as what we read last week in Jonathan Lethem’s piece.

Is the loss of aura a good thing? Or, is Google Art Project a good thing? Most might struggle when answering the former question but wouldn’t hesitate to say yes when facing the latter. Benjamin says yes to both. Although we lose an emotion, the loss of aura, or the mechanical/digital reproduction gives Mona Lisa to us, so that we can collect works of art through post cards or online exhibitions and build our own galleries of art, and we are able to travel together with Leonardo Da Vinci. The works of art now have such strong social function: “For the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the works of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual.” (Benjamin, 256) The cold function of the works of art to general Read Only is replaced by the fact that we could all have them. They can be educational, lively, social, and aesthetical at the same time. Instagram provides us the museum without walls, Facebook photo album provides us the museum without walls, and so does the Google Art Project. “The decontextualized representations of works of art in photographic reproductions in books enabled a reconceptualization of art by styles, abstractions that render a history of cultural objects into ‘art history.’ ” (Malraux, 3) Children of the modern society have the chance to talk with the great thoughts through these representations, which make the great thoughts don’t stand too high above the masses.

The Hallway from West Wing to East Wing in National Gallery of Art, photo by Wanyu Zheng

(The passage from West Wing to East Wing in the National Gallery of Art, DC. Photo by Wanyu Zheng)

I’m not yet convinced by the benefits a digital art museum brings us and cannot say I really enjoy the loss of aura. If I’ll have a kid one day, I’d try my best to give him/her a taste of the aura, take him/her to a real art museum, and whisper: “See, they were once so silent.”



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

André Malraux, “La Musée Imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum)”.

Google Art Project: Ophelia.


Google Art Project: Changing Variables in Functions

Yiran Sun

On February 1, 2011, Google launched the Google Art Project, its online platform of museum-based high-resolution images of artworks. A virtual museum. Many saw this as a game-changer, one innovation that will potentially change the way people view and understand art. However, after two years since the launch, there is still no visible change in people’s perception of art, at least nothing that can be mainly contributed to the project.

Let us first look at what the platform changes about our museum visiting experience. One great feat is that while collectors and museums frees art works from their time periods so they can sit together side by side, the Google Art Project frees the art pieces from being bounded by the physical restrictions of museums across the globe: Now the “Luncheon on the Grass” of Edouard Manet from the fifth floor of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France can enjoy the company of “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” of Georges Seurat from the second level of the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, USA.

But this is not novel: of course we’ve all seen art works from different museums arranged on other websites, in books, or even during cross-museum exchanges. What is important about the Google Art Project is its extremely high-definition renderings of the art pieces, and the relatively standard representations of color and texture. It also incorporated the Google signature “museum view”, which simulates the experience of physically wandering around a museum. And what is outstanding about the project, is the fact that with the platform, anyone can create art collections and narratives of their own, according to their own interests and themes. No longer do people need to be rich to purchase a collection, resourceful to print a book, or even technology-smart to create his/her own website: Now, one Google account and one click of the mouse is all the person needs.

However, is this “distribution of power” really a game-changer as it has been branded? Well, yes, and no. If we view the art world as a mathematical problem, and its various actors as mathematical functions (please forgive me of intentionally misuse the term “function”, for I think this would help better illustrate the concept), then the people who take on the roles are the variables. When the collections changed from physical museums to virtual collections on Google, the museum function stayed the same, while the variable of physical museums are replaced here by peer-contributed collections. Similarly, in the curator function, the variable of professional curator is replaced by grass root Internet users; and in the art school function, the variable is changed yet the rule of pattern recognition stays the same. As for the dealer and collector functions, they are more intimately incorporated in the project itself. What was the variable for the collector function (museums) now becomes the variable for the dealer function, while its original place is filled with the variable of the Google Art Project (now the collector). Certainly, like any mathematical functions, outputs vary according to changes in variables. However, the point here is that the rules of the functions would always stay the same, and thus the answer “yes” for things would change or seem different, but “no” for the underlying rules would stay indifferent to the shifting of variables.

And of course, the Google Art Project is still not quite competition for the “real world” experience of museums. Even if the photos are standardized across museums, the color display is still subject to the various settings of monitors on the viewers’ end. (You know what they say: There are no two monitors that look alike.) Besides the issue with consistency, the points of view of the Google cameras are also troubling. It’s on a rather high level, and can only pan or tilt instead of pedestalling up and down. For some of the more experimental paintings such as “The Ambassadors” of Hans Holbein the Younger, which has been designed to achieve illusions when viewed from a certain angle on the side, the rigid viewpoints of Google cameras can be a big issue. Also, the museum view does not have high resolution even as one zooms in onto the subjects, and finding the HD version of the artworks in museum mode has been relatively difficult.

That being said, the Google Art Project is still a great highlight in our online experience, and one significant step towards a more connected, shared global culture, for better or worse. As a fan of arts, I am excited to see future development of it as technology advances and especially as more museums join the project and more people start putting together their own collections.

Collective Misrecognition Indeed

A fundamental issue faced by society is the legitimization of its authority system. Since legitimacy involves garnering acceptance, socialization is a key way through which members of society can be led to embody appropriate attitudes that are conducive to accepting the authority system. Is this what the art world vis-a-vis museums does through the economics of culture work- to harness the acceptance of symbolic value and cultural capital? Indeed it does: the art world constantly reinforces its own conception of what is “art” and by doing so, this cultural category is authoritative and powerful precisely because it is accepted by society through discursive practices. According to Bourdieu, this socialization happens covertly, through what he calls symbolic power, a power that is effective precisely because it is unrecognized, or recognized as arbitrary. Museums are a mainstay source of “high art” and serve as keepers of cultural goods to be consumed by those who disavow. In other words, museums are places where those who  pretend to be practicing something noble and soulful actually consume a product within the wider clandestine context of class struggle, rampant commodification, and power economics. Could a museum be more than just providing an archive of “art” for an audience?

The way to explore such questions is to use the concept of Collective Misrecognition. According to Bourdieu, social order is reinforced through discourses of common sense, which are– albeit solely an illusion ridden with euphemisms– maintained by society. It is important to scrutinize this vision of Bourdieusian misrecognition, because in order to fully understand the discourses that are present, the hidden power relations must be uncovered by analyzing the so-called “art” and “pureveyors of art” (read: museums and the art world) as ideological producers. Because the ideological products offered by the art world are instruments for perceiving and expressing the social world, the forming of opinions, and thereby individual thought-process, depends on the scope of available instruments of perception and expression.

The Google Art project is an amalgamation of cultural values and reinforcement of existing structures of power. As a museum this project is an easy to access interface for users to experience what is art i.e. what is deemed high culture. This is a provider of high culture because of the legitimacy that the names of famous museums, e.g. The Philips Collection, MoMa, etc. brings it. What these image of explicitly classified “artworks” would be perceived as within the context of a conventional search engine to the average consumer of visual images one can assume would be a visual given less cultural value due to its lack of prominent museum backing. In short, these art works are given so much value not because of good taste but because of ideological promulgation. We know this, and we know everyone knows this- yet we still give it value and constantly reinforce this value by default as our desires to maintain our cultural capital far outweighs our ability to see the truth. The truth is that much art in these museums are not Bohemian, not avant garde, and not completely void of economic incentive. As an archive, this project shows who the purveyors of art are: Western elites. Except for one museum from China and a gallery from Istanbul, virtually all of the collections feature in this google project are from North America, Europe, and Australia. High art is thus limited by the visial vocabulary given to the user/consumer by Western galleries and what such galleries deem as visually noble and that warrant the attention and cultural consumption by the middle classes. Again however, we know this and yet we still consume it and work within the given framework of this defined high art. By doing so however, we propagate a discourse of Western superiority and notions of good taste. Critically, by doing so, we also propagate the status quo of power relations so easily and ubiquitously.



The Google Art Project is like Disneyland


After interfacing with the Google Art Project, it left me with a unique perspective on:

1) the power vested in users to ‘accept’ or reject artwork as transformative entities

2) Our new approach to the concept of reproducible objects and

3) what it means to be an art institution

To start, lets look at the image above – my guess is that a majority of the audience can correctly identify the name of the art and the artist. Why is that? How is it possible that without any identifying information other than the high-resolution characteristics of the art itself (color, brush strokes, etc) the art is still recognizable?  Art has always been presented as a visual experience. The way I make sense of this is to not look at its digital format as something revolutionary or groundbreaking. This artwork has been transfigured into posters, notebook covers, mouse pads, coffee mugs – long before its natural transgression into a digital format. Essentially we indicated that it was OK for this work of art to be copied and put into the hands of everyday people. Do viewers have the choice to ‘reject’ or stop a piece of art being transformed over and over again? What about the artist’s say? Thanks to initiatives like the Google Art Project, art never really dies.

Benjamin (1936) claimed that “the work of art has always been reproducible” and that anything human-made can be copied as well (p.253). Benjamin also went on to claim that “technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” (p. 254) which I found is useful in  teaching us to look beyond the scope of the traditional object and remain open-minded to new creative outlets.  

Just like this chair above. It is more than a simple chair-it is Napoleon’s Throne Chair, a deeply symbolic and historical artefact currently held by Chateau de Fontainebleau, 3,900 miles away from Washington, D.C. Yet, through a technological reproduction (the Google Art Project), this chair puts itself in new situations like it is in now. It is being talked about, shared on people’s screens and ‘played’ with. I can zoom in on the chair’s intricate details from the comfort of my own chair but I highly doubt I’d be able to get this close if I went to the Chateau de Fontainebleau in person.  


The Google Art Project is an institution. The site does not need to explicitly state in text “we are an influential organization” or “we are changing how art is viewed in the mediasphere.” It is simply implied. And so is Disneyland – an institution. Upon entering its premises, visitors are not handed brochures that tell you “this is where you can escape reality for a few hours or a few days!” – it is simply implied. Baudrillard went as far as to call Disneyland “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra” (1981). By this, Baudrillard gave Disneyland the ability to simulate or imitate childhood memories. Just like Disneyland, art institutions that lively exclusively through the web provide an opportunity for simulacra and simulations. The artworks we see through the Google Art Project are not the originals, hence they can only depict the original’s reality to a certain extent. Imitation can only go so far. Eventually one must leave Disneyland, and eventually one must exit from Google’s interface. One could leave his or her browser’s window open for a few hours, walk away and come back, but it’s still not the same as it recreating the reality of ‘resting’ on a public bench at a museum. Or watching other people analyze artwork – not that’s reality that can’t yet be recreated online.

Disneyland: Come relive your childhood memories – or at least imitate them as much as you can for a fee!

The Google Art Project is a great real-time case study to analyze the ways in which the broad topics of representation, mediation, and cultural transmission function in a post-modern world. Reality, and imitation, can only go so far but how far we let it go will be up to our own devices.


Baudrillard, Jean “Simulacra and Simulations” (also in html version). From Simulacra and Simulation, 1981; English trans., 1988.

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

Château de Fontainebleau. Google Art Project.

“The Starry Night.” (1889). Vincent van Gogh. Google Art Project.


The Musée Imaginare

Contemplating the realization of André Malraux’s Musée Imaginare through the Google Art Project, I am left debating the consequences of our construction of art and the museum structure. I am torn in weighing the pros and cons of the physical entity of a museum and all it entails and the digital museum presented by the Google Art Project. Initially, my first response that the Google Art Project  was hesitant because I felt it detracted from the experience of actually “seeing” the art, the authenticity of seeing the actual art piece in person was gone. Looking at the Post-Impressionist gallery from the MOMA  after a recent visit to the museum, idea of presenting only 17 of the museum’s more famous pieces appeared to be a negative aspect of the technological reproduction of art for mass consumption that was spoken about by Benjamin and Malraux. However, thinking back to the physical structure and presentation of these pieces in the MOMA, I wonder how much the impact these famous pieces such as Van Gough’s Starry Night actually had. First of all, the majority of the paintings displayed in Google’s interface could mostly be found on the 5th floor of the MOMA, the top floor. Secondly, I found myself better able to explore the photos with the zoom in/zoom out focus than I did while actually at the museum, in which crowds of people surrounded paintings, particularly the famous ones. While this gave me the chance to explore artworks within the museum I was unfamiliar with, it leads me to wonder how much the experience of museum is a form of gaining Bordieu’s cultural capital and how much is truly appreciating and experiencing the art. Using Baudrillard;s notions of simularca and simulation as an example, the Mona Lisa at the Louvre has been reproduced thousands, if not millions of times. We are used to seeing it on stamps, on TV and in books among other media outlets, reality of actually seeing it in person is diminished and at times it appears nothing more than a commodity in which western society has attached cultural capital.

The Google Art Project on the other hand, gives access to art from all over the world the the interface to explore and discover history that they would not have otherwise and to an extent curate a collection of their own that is entirely based the museum structure. Below are possible implications of the The Google Art Project and Google’s involvement in art interface from a blog site for Curator Journal in an article entitled The Google Art Project: a new generation of museums on the web?

  • The gigapixel scans enable a kind of encounter with the art that is not even possible in the galleries. As Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, recognized, the ability to engage with the work of art in this way transforms the web experience from an informational one to an emotive one. High definition/high resolution video and images are a good example of how the web and digital media can be used to complement, rather than imitate, the encounter with the artwork in the gallery.
  • Image recognition may just be the answer to how we’ll deliver location-based services in museums. These can be based on a combination of panoramas (Street View or Photosynth or other: may the best technology win!); image recognition à la Google Goggles; and OCR of labels. Lost in the Louvre? Stop, look around with your phone’s camera, and it will recognize where you are and show you your location on a map.
  • Museums will collaborate more on the web: sharing content, links, and enriching each others’ online experiences; however, for this to be workable, we need a technology solution that makes our content “phone home” so we can accurately track traffic to our assets, and also a cross-platform CMS that allows us to manage our content on multiple sites and platforms, both those under our control and not, from a single central point.
  • MAYBE we’ll get Google maps of the interiors of museums from this, and our visitors can enjoy a consistency of interface and quality from museum maps that is not possible today.

All of these new technological transformations have a huge impact in the way we experience art. Image recognition, Google maps and the ability to use web/smartphone resources takes the notions of hyperreality, simulation and the museum without walls in the type of technological revolutions referred to by Benjamin, Malraux and Baudrillard. By using technology in association with museum trips could foster more interactivity and perhaps make the experience of viewing are more “real” by providing background and insight that allows for a self-created experience and navigation of the museum rather than a more passive experience.