From Single Imposed to Fragmented Meanings

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Communities and cultures make meanings/interpretations with artwork depending on the spaces and environments in which they are received. Institutional interfaces, such as museums (i.e. The National Gallery of Art, The Philipps Collection and the Hirshhorn Museum) and academic disciplines (i.e. an art class such as Art and Media Interfaced), enable interpreters to discover meanings. Such interfaces and tools were

(1) museums’ wall texts that gave visitors some foundational background on the artworks, such as art movements that may have influenced the artists and their work and the key recurring themes that arose in that time;

(2) the sequencing of galleries and artworks, as well as the placement of the paintings, artworks and sculptures, juxtaposing two artworks from two different artists from the same movement – revealing differences or similarities, and ultimately unpacking the network of relations that give meaning and value to the artists and the artworks;

and finally, (3) the museum as a space itself (i.e. the circular space of the Hirshhorn to view the consumer culture exhibit vs. the Roman architecture and feel of the National Gallery of Art to see the Dutch masters paintings). The former associated a classical and traditional meaning to the artworks and the artists, while the latter empowered and amplified the exhaustive and overwhelming nature of advertising and consumer culture – that it’s everywhere and that there is no way out. In other words, the architecture of the museums imposed certain meanings on the artworks and the exhibitions as a whole.

Museum Curators’ jobs are to make this type of interface digestible for visitors that do not have any ties to the art world, and to carefully select a finite amount of pieces to send transmit a slice of culture.

So, what about meta-museums like Google Art?

While Google Art makes accessibility to viewing artworks digitally easier (seeing pixels vs paintings), this type of interface remediates paintings, photographs, and artworks, and breaking through the multiple layers of interfaces mentioned above that help interpreters discover meanings. These digital reproductions alter our sense of the artifacts and their meanings, such that instead of viewing tangible artifacts (i.e. paintings and printed photographs), site visitors are instead viewing pictorial representations in a digital space (i.e. “photographs” in pixels), offering a completely different experience.

Museum space becomes a website. Exhibitions and galleries become web pages. Curators become algorithms and code. This type of interface depends on graphical and pixelated reproductions of art, and as such, erase cultural meanings and relevance of artworks. For example, viewing a Ter Borch oil on canvas painting in a museum vis-a-vis google art — no matter how much one zooms in, one cannot appreciate Ter Borch’s mastery of brush strokes to create satin that look extremely realistic and cannot fathom the intricacy or difficulty in achieving this with the oil paint and the canvas material.

On the one hand, viewing artworks in a digital space literally flatten the artworks (removing the physical aspect associated with the artwork) and the “aura” is lost, but on the other hand these digital reproductions add an additional layer to the artworks: variability. The images displayed on a computer or phone screen are scaled, can be made bigger or smaller, thus ultimately expanding its meanings: because paintings can be digitally manipulated and toggled with, their uniqueness and “aura” is lost, and as a result, their meanings become multiple and fragmented. In this respect, digital media allows for interpreters to further discover new meanings, beyond that of curators and museum walls, and free themselves from meanings and values imposed upon their interpretations.