Better Than The Real Thing: Perception vs. Reality


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I have learned that in understanding a work of art, providing context is what leads to discovery. Interfaces that set the works in a dialogic context highlighting the artist’s relationships, influences, historical context (art movements), and social context enable interpreters to discover meaning. Both the museum and the artwork “function as interfaces to the larger systems of meanings, values, and social relations that make them possible and interpretable” (Irvine). Communities and cultures that visit an art exhibit without prior knowledge of the style or period can be left without information that will lead to connecting the dots of interpretation. The Vermeer exhibit grouped the work in a way that enabled viewers to physically see the connections between certain artists, forms, and ideas, by utilizing descriptions and organizing by period and other common relations or categories. Without these descriptions, the work has the potential of only being viewed at face value, restricting access.

Understanding that “meaning” is constructed by what we have been exposed to, socialized into, and learned from our surroundings helps de-blackbox the interpretation of art. This is to say that if we can ask questions about who is being addressed in the work or what conversations it is participating in, we unlock the ideas behind the work, which is more valuable to understanding what it represents than the physical attributes of the object.

Google Arts And Culture

(Photo from BGR)

With the Google Art Project, the challenge of creating a “real” experience of the museum as an interface demonstrates one of the limitations of technological reproductions of art. Beil argues that comparing originals and reproductions is not useful and instead both forms should be used together to allow us to see and experience art in new ways (23). Beil also discussed that the “twenty-first-century period eye” is trained to view images that are reproductions made for screens because we experience and view hundreds of them every day (25). Due to this, some reviewers found Google Art’s high resolution images even better than studying the art itself because of the low lighting in galleries and interference brought on by crowds (Beil, 25). Beil quotes James Gardner’s reaction: “reality itself, the real thing, may just be an imperfect medium for looking at art” (25). Despite the detail, reviewers stated the online experience does not compare with the real feelings of being in the presence of the art. In contrast, reviewers pointed to “realistic” features demonstrated in the project as things such as depth and lighting that we don’t actually experience when viewing the original in person. I found this as a prime example of  how technology and reproductions are re-defining the way we interact with and perceive art and reality.The reason these features are seen as realistic to our eye is because we are used to seeing digital images formatted for a phone or computer screen and therefore those high-contrast images have changed the way we see.

This example contributes to the understanding that reproductions should be used as further context for the piece of work, rather than as an actual representation of the work. Similarly, Malraux understood that the technologies themselves are not the main focus, but rather the “institutions and ideologies mediated through our technologies” (Irvine, 10). Being that reproduced images are inextricably part of our cultural encyclopedia, the Google Art Project should be seen as an interface which helps us discover how reproductions are perceived differently depending on the viewer (critic, art conservator, curatorial staff, etc), the time, and social context. Additionally, the Google Arts Project can help us see how our thinking “continues to be influenced by technologies of reproduction” (Beil, 25). This awareness can contribute to a better understanding of how important context is in making meaning of art. 

Kim Beil, “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye.” Afterimage 40, no. 4 (February 1, 2013): 22–27.

Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art”.

Irvine, M. (2018). From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1zN6lu12p2OIIB_67i4nCOgZjWoqnJ73v/view