Layers of Context

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Many philosophers have argued that we are born with a tabula rasa, a blank state; however, I tend to believe we are born into a world full of social constructions formed by those who came before us. Most of our knowledge has been mediated in some form, whether it be through experiences, books, art, our parents, teachers, friends, etc. To “read” a work of art you need a certain arsenal of knowledge and tools, making the discovery process of interpreting art fraught with social constructions. Baudrillard argued that we cannot know our own reality because our experiences are seen through the lenses of language and culture. Art is trying to depict something “real” – whether it be Andreas Gursky’s hyperreal photograph of Montparnasse or the dreams of Salvador Dali – to transmit meaning. To “read” a work of art you need a certain arsenal of knowledge and tools because “meaning is what is interpretable in a system of relations” (Irvine, 2018, p. 19). Our past experiences and knowledge create the ability to interpret, but everyone has different knowledge, depending on many variables, especially the culture you come from.

Salvador Dalí | Inventions of the Monsters (1937) | Artsy. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Andreas Gursky | Paris, Montparnasse (1993) | Artsy. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Jeff Koons Artwork: Balloon Dog. (n.d.). Retrieved from

All works of art arguably have no meaning outside of its cultural context. Without the layers of historical, cultural, and political knowledge built the Artworld, seeing an artwork with a “tabula rasa” would be meaningless. If we dropped one Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog into a society with no connection to the outside world, it would be like a “The Gods Must Be Crazy” scenario. Lister (2013) writes that “an image does not receive its meaning from its indexicality nor from its iconicity, but from the network of relations around it” (Lister, 36). The web of people involved in the construction of that network is vast. While there are some human experiences that one could intuitively recognize, the symbols, signs, and meaning are all socially constructed. Taking artworks out of the museum and onto a digital platform makes us question whether artworks have meaning in and of themselves, or if they need their context to convey their message.

Critiquing the Google Arts and Culture Project, the debate between the real (original) and the reproduction is a socially constructed debate. Like any new technology, certain social groups will always feel threatened by its presence. The genius of Benjamin and Malraux was that they embraced the new technology for a multitude of reasons, but they also saw its limitations. If we were to move past the argument that technology negatively impacts art, then we would be better off.

How is art’s presence in art history books different from the Google Art Project? If being in a museum can give art meaning, then it would make sense that a reproduction of art would could at least offer insight. “As didactic objects, reproductions claim to teach us simply what an art object looks like, but in emphasizing some elements and obfuscating others, they also provide instruction in how to look at the work in question” (Beil, 3013, p. 22). Following Beil’s argument, we should not look at the Google Art Project as a means to replace museums, but instead as a way to democratize the discovery process.

Andreas Gursky | Paris, Montparnasse (1993) | Artsy. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2018, from

Beil, K. (2013). Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye. Afterimage, 40(4). Retrieved from

Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility. (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.

Irvine, M. (2018). From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces. Retrieved from

Jeff Koons Artwork: Balloon Dog. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2018, from

Lister, M. (2013). The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge.

Salvador Dalí | Inventions of the Monsters (1937) | Artsy. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2018, from