Category Archives: Week 12

Digitally Reproducing Kiefer’s (De)Compositions

In searching the Google Art Project, I encountered in the work of Anselm Kiefer the starkest contrast between an original, analog composition and its digital reproduction. In several ways, Kiefer’s compositions exaggerate certain elements innate to all analog visual art, particularly the importance of scale and the inexorable deterioration of the artwork. Through an analysis of Google Art’s digital reproduction of Kiefer’s Humbaba (2009), this post intends to examine how the massive scale and use of already decaying matter in Kiefer’s work illustrates Benjamin and Malraux’s critiques of photographic reproductions. In addition, such techniques might function as a means of preemptively resisting remediation into the digital.


Scale: As Malraux notes in The Voices of Silence, “There is another, more insidious, effect of reproduction. In an album or art book the illustrations tend to be of much the same size. Thus works of art lose their relative proportions” (Irvine 4). This is particularly evident in Google Art’s reproduction of Humbala, in which not only is the composition approximately reduced to the same size as all other reproductions in the database, but even the description itself fails to provide the proportions of the artwork.

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As a result, the viewer must rely on previous experiences of Kiefer’s other compositions, or general cultural knowledge of Kiefer’s work, in order to imagine the probably grandness of its scale. While the shirt in the composition provides some means of assessing proportion, the size of this shirt is left indeterminate by both the image and the description (is it a man’s shirt? A doll’s? etc.).

Decay: In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin examines the inability of the reproduction to reproduce the context of an artwork (“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place” (253)), while also mentioning (somewhat briefly) the importance of the materiality of the artwork in assessing its authenticity: “This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership” (253). It’s this latter materiality that I would like to focus on with regard to Kiefer. Certainly, all analog visual art is subject to decay, but here we have compositions which readily exhibit their own decomposition through the intentional combination of elements already in the process of decay (dead leaves, rotting twigs, tattered cloth, etc.). In addition to providing sensory perceptions that resist digitalization (e.g. odors and textures), the accelerated dilapidation of a Kiefer composition ensures that the composition itself undergoes significant physical changes faster than most other forms of visual art. It is not merely that the meaning of the artwork changes based on situational or historical context—where it is in space (art museum, studio, gallery, internet database) and in time (intertextuality stipulates that the introduction of new artwork into the network alters the meaning of the old)—but also that the artwork itself observably changes at a rapid rate in comparison to, say, tradition oil-on-canvas paintings. This unique quality of Kiefer’s work is not digitalized, for the digital image never organically decomposes (although it would not be impossible to simulate this, I’d imagine, Google has yet to do it).

Certainly, we do not have to take the digital reproduction as a replacement for the original. In this sense, the digital reproduction serves to provide access to a global audience; it extends viewership to anyone with an internet connection. However, in the case of Kiefer’s work, is there any point in this extension of access? Two of the main characteristics of his composition—massiveness and decay—resist any attempts at digitalization (as my friend remarked in a conversation about this, “It’s only as massive and decaying as your screen”). What, then, is left? Is it even the same artwork in the digital context? Would a more thorough metatextual description alleviate these deficiencies? (Does not visual art also resist translation into the written word?) Adding to Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, might Kiefer’s work provide a case study as to how older mediums might compete with newer mediums not only through remediating the new, but perhaps through employing elements that actively resist remediation into newer formats?

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

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



Where’s The Art?: Distinctions of Qualified Art Based on Standards

Everyone has his or her own interpretation as to what qualifies as art, particularly visual still-art. Just as there are qualifiers for hip-hop and classical music, the same holds true for Baroque and pop art. However, when art is given the stamp of approval by individuals organizations or constrained systems like museums (i.e. MoMA, Smithsonian), the level playing ground for artistic expression is tattered. Malraux’s notion of the musée imaginaire struck a chord with me, as I considered my definition and prototypes of art. My “museum without walls” is indeed vast but segmented based on theoretical/standardized notions of art versus tactile, more relatable examples. Certainly, I know who Picasso and Rembrandt are, but I resonate more strongly with graffiti or the art murals featured in Richmond or Philadelphia.

Malraux’s observation that postmodern museum standards focus on unifying works from various cultures calmed and disturbed me; its implications led me to consider the loss of the art’s original purpose for the sake of fair treatment and unbiased critique. In undergrad, I learned extensively about foundations designed specifically for African-American artists – both specially trained and folk – who were excluded from museum exhibits because of their race. Critique of their artwork, no matter how ambiguous, seemingly drew remarks relating to their Black ancestry or identity; the two could not be separated in the eyes and minds of judges. Is this practice still evident today? Are certain values or impressions placed on art forms based on aesthetic and racial prejudice? Certainly, topics and subjects in art pieces are more explicitly related to a particular group than others, but artistically conveying issues of race is not an exclusive objective of Black artists (Note: It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that race is a problem in this country and it’s not an issue exclusively on the hands of African-Americans). One of my favorite artists is Michael D’Antuono and man, is his stuff head-turning. Two of his artworks – “A Tale of Two Hoodies” and “The Truth” have ruffled the feathers of many. I’ll let you take a look for yourself:

tale-of-two-hoodies  Michael-DAntuonos-Obama

The placement and spotlight that some artists receive exceeds those of others thanks to mega-museum notoriety. Google Art Project’s home page features what I’m sure are notable artists and works that vary temporally and demographically. Perhaps, my interests for art are obscure, but the chosen pieces oozed conformity, tradition and mainstream, which isn’t my cup of tea. The mainstay art exhibits in museums such as VMFA or the Smithsonian deliver a message all on its own, as if art is not a transformative, ever-evolving sphere. We are all familiar with Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, da Vinci and Rembrandt, but not with Wangechi Mutu, D’Antuono, Nina Chanel Abney and a myriad of others. As Professor Irvine explains in his institutional breakdown of the art sphere, art is displayed in particular settings: art exhibits, museums, art colleges, etc. The competitive monetary aspect of art is one that is shielded from the face of the public, which could answer my question as to why some of my favorite artists never get the same recognition I think they deserve alongside canonical names.

The infrastructure for what qualifies as art in mainstream is one that bothers me, but makes sense all at once. Many of the artists I respect take pride in distancing themselves from mainstream standards, taking more of the folk-like approach as they rise on the artistic ladder. And while the medium to which I am exposed to these artists doesn’t manifest many financial benefits, Tumblr is a great curating hub for indie artists to gain followings and attention, especially as the social media site opens doors for dialogues and interpretations of digitally published/curated artwork. With this in mind, Tumblr is a way for Malraux’s “museum without walls” to come into fruition as more artists create their own avenues outside of the country club-esque requisites of major art institutions. And I’m all for it.


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The Boundary and Possibility of Digital White Cube

O’Doherty mentioned in Inside the White Cube that, “The history of modern art can be correlated with changes in that space and in the way we see it. We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first. An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of 20th-century art. And it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains.” Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of 1951, which hung in cross-formations from the celling as part of the environment can be seen as part of visual/performance art. It indicates Zen aesthetics, but more importantly, it questioned whether art experience should actually be sought from ‘within’ objects. When visitors approach the museum environment, they would contemplate the meaning of this “emptiness” as “high-art”, which can be painstaking because it challenged people on their understanding of art and museum’s function.

Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting

In regards to Malraux’s Imaginary Museum, the decontextualized representations of works of art in photographic reproductions in books enabled a reconceptualization of art by styles and cultures, abstractions that render a history of cultural objects into “art history.” Benjamin describes the remediated work would lose its “aura.” “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” (Benjamin, 1939). Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise comprises a collection of miniatures and samples of his pre-1935 output. Duchamp remediated his works in a portable museum, which is remediated art history book or a salesman’s brief case.  Hopkins describes the Boîte-en-Valise exemplifies the transition between two worlds: the old Europe of the museum and the connoisseur, and the young America of the commercial gallery and the artistic commodity. By duplicate his won works, Duchamp challenged the “aura” of original pieces.


Boîte-en-Valise, Marcel Duchamp, 1941

Malraux describes the art book and reproduction cannot capture the real artifacts but the distilled art history, “What is reproduced and mediated in art books? The already-organized holdings of museums, libraries, and archives, and the concept of ‘art history’ itself.” While some artists deliberately questioned the easel painting tradition and created some art works that are very hard to be reproduced. Rauschenberg’s notorious Bed of 1955 moved bed from a horizontal to vertical orientation in the object’s upright placement. Based on a picture, it is really hard to capture the controversial essence of this work and without the physical experience with the texture, Rauschenberg’s inventive notion: “Combines” seems meaningless.


Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955

In 1950’s, the London-based Independent Group openly embraced kitsch and further challenged museum’s function and it’s ability to mirror art works. In IG’s Parallel of Life and Art exhibition, photographs of varying sizes were attached to the gallery walls. Some of them were suspended by wires from the celling. Malraux describes that, “In an album or art book the illustrations tend to be of much the same size. Thus works of art lose their relative proportions; a miniature bulks as large as a full-size picture, a tapestry or a stained glass window. ” IG’s photography exhibition challenged the stereotype on photography; however, when it was introduced as one example in art history books, it still have to be limited by the scale and relatively poor picture quality 60 years ago.


Parallel of Life and Art,1953

Malraux noted that photographic reproductions in a book can only provide an abstract notion of a style. The dis-located or de-located “museum” enables an abstract encyclopedia of comparisons across history and material contexts, but one that thematizes “styles” or features thought to be held in common(Irvine, 2015). In Google Art Project, the Imaginary Museum 2.0., which attempted to tackle an imaginary museum with most recent technology, provided more space sense by adding 360-degree indoor map function.  Google art project’s indoor map function add 3D user experience, which provided more possibilities for Modern Artists and Pop Artists to express their esthetic values in some extend.

Google Art Project Indoor Map



Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube (Chap. 1)

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

Hopkins, D. (2000). After Modern Art 1945-2000 (1St Edition edition). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
André Malraux, “La Musée Imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum)”.




Close up and far away in the meta-museum

Detail from Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (from the Museum of Modern Art, New York) via Emily Magnuson’s “Virtual Museums.”

Google Art Project is a natural and necessary extension of art history education taking advantage of the digital metamedium. Since museums have had online collections, it has been an idea in the “adjacent possible” [1], just waiting for the right entity to put all those collections in the same place (figuratively speaking?). Google has done so in a way that emphasizes and pays respect to the context of a work (the museum where it came from) while allowing the free association of Bush’s Memex in the user-curation function. Is this the same as experiencing art in the physical world? Absolutely not. Is it an engaging and interactive way for visitors to build cultural capital? Absolutely. Is it a way to potentially expand our collective understanding of what constitutes art? Perhaps.

Just as a print of a painting isn’t a substitute for seeing the real thing, nor are digital reproductions – even in the gigapixels, though that is a very interesting feature of selected works in the Google collection. A digital reproduction on a screen (probably a screen of maybe 20 inches max, a smart phone in many cases) is never going to convey the aura Walter Benjamin attributes to authentic works of art. The most powerful art experiences I’ve had personally had everything to do with the physical experience of being with a work itself, appreciating scale, texture, and atmosphere. Google’s Project certainly is not that. Malraux’s words about the imaginary museum certainly apply: “Indeed reproduction (like the art of fiction, which subdues reality to the imagination) has created what might be called ‘fictitious’ arts, by systematically falsifying the scale of objects.” [2]

Thus far, Google’s Art Project strikes me as best described as a meta-museum. It is not an index of every work of art ever produced. It is curated. It takes objects from their physical context like a physical museum, following that same conceptual model which Malraux cited as the basis for his Imaginary Museum. This is nothing to be feared since “By the mere fact of its birth every great art modifies what arose before it” [2] In other words, a physical museum collects objects from different times, places, and imposes connections upon them. (Is this beaker more “authentic” in its case in the Museum of London than it is as a digital reproduction on your computer screen?)

Beyond its (tiny, two-dimensional) enormous scope, the Project’s interactive features may be what most distinguish it from its predecessors. Malraux said a function of reproductions is to allow us to “have far more great works available to refresh our memories than those which even the greatest museums could bring together” [2]. Whether we look at the Project as a glimpse or fantasy of the physical possibilities to be visited, or a way to “refresh our memories,” it makes sense for us to have agency to peruse and organize as we see fit. Playing the role of curator in this wonderland of representation may offer a powerful opportunity for people to think critically about what they appreciate about a certain work of art (is it the brush strokes you noticed while zoomed into one of the gigapixel reproductions?) or about the art they notice in their surrounding environment.

In terms of Bourdieu’s cultural capital, the freeform nature of Google Art Project could potentially diminish its value as a teaching tool to facilitate upward mobility through cultural literacy. Based on Wikipedia’s summary, it sounds like the Project may have been better suited to this in its original form when it was Western-centric. However, the inclusion of a broader range of traditions including street art (which surprised me somehow even though it’s incredibly trendy now and I shouldn’t have been surprised) could also have a democratizing effect on people’s understanding of what art is, who can produce or appreciate it, and where it comes from.


[1] Johnson, S. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Books.
[2] Irvine, M. Malraux: Imaginary Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2015, from

Istanbul inside the Google Cultural Institute

Even though Walter Benjamin mentions how art’s value is less about its rirualistic value, I remember having a very ritualistic relationship with particular media: the Q’uran. Believing that rooms with the Quran are said to have more angels in it, I grew up in rooms with a Q’uran corner. An Arabic book with Arabic texts, only there to fulfill its ritual function. The existence of Quran brought other rituals with it; you were not supposed to touch the Q’uran unless you had a valid religious bath (a ceremonial bath you take every day), and you were supposed to place it above your chest. The ritualistic dimension of Quran possession is probably more prominent to the Turkish eye, since Turks don’t know how to read Arabic letters, but always have the Arabic version of the holy book as a ritual. I remember being anxious around the book, when felt Muslim at the time.

When Islam applications emerged, my father downloaded Quran to his iPhone, and this is where the problems started: Was my father allowed to bring his phone to the restroom? Was it okey for him to keep his phone below chest level? Would he be better of carrying and interacting with Quran, or not carrying it and respecting it? My father was able to resolve this dilemma thanks to his engineering background, and told me the following: “Handan, this is not the real Quran, what is inside this phone are just 1s and 0s. I can do whatever I want to with my iPhone.”

As manifested in the instance I have explained above, and Benjamin’s discussion, the technical reproducibility of art has altered what art is how it is consumed, and the means it serves. Emergence of photography was particularly significant at this point, considering that it didn’t rely on primitive and intuitive methods of documentation, such as forming a sentence or drawing on walls, but rather on a particular technique of capturing image. From my perspective, what all inspiring photographers do being distracted by the exotic, the sunset, the historic, the poor, the far-away. Particular visual narrations are appealing for photographers, which often serves to politically function in a way – the Afghan girl photograph, for example, about how primitive Afghanistan is and how they deserve war.

The Google Art Institute, despite a visual design that depicts it as a neutral, meta- museum, is as well biased considering that it also creates a narration. The following words from Benjamin summarizes the curators’ power of reconstructing the history: museums are “where the way each single image is understood appears prescribed by the sequence of all preceding images.” Museums are a way of representation, just like the news, they are reconstructions of history by a narration that occurs through the alignment of particular elements together.

Just like the term “news,” “museum” has a neutral resonance – we are likely to think of news regardless of its context, or the agents involved in its formation. This is likely to occur because what makes news politics is more about what is not in the news, than it is about the content of the news. With this understanding of the neutral connotation of the museum, I would like to cmparatively analyze two cases: the “Mural Istanbul Festival” on the Google Art Institute versus “the Don Quixote Occupation House.”

In the Mural Istanbul festival, a municipality with a secular majority, had domestic and international artists make graffiti on walls of Kadikoy, Istanbul – a city that has been the capital of Roman Empire as well as the Ottoman Empire. The history of the city causes makes it problematic to regulate the city and renovate it, which consequently leads to complicated streets, hard navigations, and a city where only locals can understand and navigate. The walls that have been part of old apartments, historic streets and alaturca homes has become walls for Graffiti where artists made statements about the Occupy movement. These two items – the alaturca lifestyle of people in old houses and the politically-grounded graffiti culture, blended very well together, considering that blending has what made Istanbul what it is.

Despite having been seen almost all of the graffitis of the “Mural Istanbul Festival,” I learned about the project yesterday when I was navigating in the Google Cultural Institute. While Google Art Institute represents items from museums that are traditionally museums, Google Cultural Institute enabled me to observe these graffitis with the function of the museum: graffitis were visible to me in relation to eachother.

Google Cultural Institute, therefore, has became a means of re-conceptualizing and re-historicizing not only what has been formed, but also what was intentionally constructed to not function as a museum. Istanbul’s street art culture fits the city’s aura and characteristic, one that enables blending, and makes contrast look beautiful, but this time, what was made to be kept undercover (municipality’s agency and economic financement in graffitis) is emphasized through the GoogleCultural Institute, turning the Graffitis from counter-culture street demonstrations to elements of a museum.

The framing and construction power of GoogleCultural Institute is even more obvious when we realize that squatted houses are not present in it. After the Occupy movement, the leftist – socialist – counter-culture agents in the Turkish society found means to strengthen and demonstrate, and an abandoned house was occupied. The Don Quixote Social Center is known and acknowledged by only the Occupy Gezi protestors, some foreigners in the city, a couple of leftist websites. The link to their video has only 1400 hits.

The counter-culture dimension of this art project makes the “the Don Quixote Social Center” impermeable to any ideological attack or appropriation, and most importantly, it is built to be invisible to the Google Art Institute. Its own existence counters the idea of private property, and therefore do not fit by any means to the concepts of museum, copyright, or ownership.

Just in the case of news, what defines the Google Cultural Institute is not the existence of museum elements in it, but it is rather about what is not inside in it. On the surface, one would easily think that Google Cultural Institute is a meta-museum, trying to recreate the experience of a museum. However, considering the agency involved in creating the Google Cultural Institute (it does not function like a social network, so everybody are not making their own museums) Google Cultural Institute is a particular way of representation, it is far-away from being meta yet, but it is more like an art itself with a particular demonstration: the demonstration that the ritual can be taken out of the art.  

Democratization of High Arts: Online and Offline

I am not a “high art” person and the only art knowledge that I have was gained from accompanying many friends of mine to various museums, a place nowadays more acknowledged as “tourist resorts”.

Both Benjamin and Malraux care about the high art and the public. In other words, they asked the question: what will happen if “new” technologies facilitates high arts to reach to ordinary people? Benjamin uses the word “exhibition value”, “with the emancipation of specific artistic practices from the service of ritual, the opportunities for exhibiting their products increase.” Benjamin’s intention was not to excluding films and photography from the category of arts but by recognizing the possibility of new technologies brought to paintings, he raises question on the relation of the mass to the art, “while efforts have been made to present paintings to the masses in galleries and salons, this mode of reception gives the masses no means of organizing and regulating their response.”

Now the question is rather “Are museums mediations of paintings (arts)?” than “can paintings be appreciated in crowded museum/galleries?” So when we talk about digital museums, we were actually talk about mediation (digital museums) of mediations (museums). The configurations of museums are set up to serve certain purposes. When you stand in front of a painting in a museum, there are people around you and there are other paintings around you. The environment of the museum (sound, temperature, light, etc.) is something that Benjamin might call “aura”. The painting you see might be moved from other museums or other places, but the real time experience you gain when starring at it is unique. Now the question is: for ordinary people, do they really care about such uniqueness? Famous museums are crowded with people from all over the world. Museums are in the traveling books, depicted as somewhere you can get to know the local culture and to see masterpieces. Everybody who visit The Louvre take pictures of Mona Lisa. People feel excited and mark their museum experience as meaningful.

Google Art Project tries to mediate the “offline” museum experience online. It has 360 degree presentation, HD photos of each arts from hundreds of museums, functions that enables people to present artworks collectively, and many other functions. I think it is a great learning tool, especially for laymen who have no formal education on arts or without any knowledge of artworks. The discussion of realness of artworks in Google Art is useful but the ultimate intention of this project is not to restore the realness (aura) but to provide it as resources to the public. I understand the concern that whether Google Art Project will distort or devalue artworks. For purpose of democratization of art education, the “fictional exhibition function” of Google Art Project outweighs its potential distortion or devaluation artworks, just like how real museums give access to the general public.

It’s a joint effort for both online and offline museums to democratize “high arts”. “High arts” doesn’t have to be mysterious and “hard to reach”. What Google Art does starts a new way of learning. It’s fun to have the Pinterest interface and it’s fun to use 360 degree view to see the real museum online. More importantly, “being fun” is ultimately important to the public.