Flattening the White Cube: Freeing the Creative Process


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Dina El-Saharty

Abstract

This paper examines in what ways the Google Arts and Culture project remediates the functions of the physical space of the museum in a digital space. While the online platform makes artworks more accessible by creating rich visualizations, this paper shows what such a project entails for the function of the museum and evaluates its role within the art world. Drawing on visual culture and museum curation theories, including but not limited to Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire, O’Doherty’s White Cube, and Benjamin’s concept of the aura, this paper unpacks the effects of creating an online digital platform that showcases artworks in a space that ultimately lacks context. The analysis reveals that, while exhibiting works on a website completely removes the works of art from their historical and social context, it allows for visitors to develop their own interpretations with the limited amount of basic information they are given.

What is the Google Arts and Culture project?

In 2011, the Google Cultural Institute launched the Google Arts and Culture project, an art initiative seeking to grant access to artworks to the general public online and worldwide for free. With the collaboration of art institutions and partner museums, the online platform provides access to high-resolution images of artworks. Within one year of the launching of the project, the Google Arts and Culture platform featured 32,000 images of artworks from 46 museums and had partnered with over 150 museums from 40 countries (Smith, 2012). To deliver a high level of detail, the images are reproduced using ultra high-resolution, and some of the works are captured using the Google Art Camera, which reproduces a gigapixel image (i.e. over 1 billion pixels) and can even bring out details invisible to the naked eye.

So, why does it matter?

By making museums’ artworks more accessible, the initiative fits well with Google’s mission statement, which is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (“Google: About Our Company”, 2018). The problem with this reasoning of creating an encyclopedic art collective knowledge database is that it fails to recognize the interpretations embedded in artworks that derive from traditional art spaces such as the museum. This posits the following questions:

Can the art world’s information be universally accessible, such that those who do not have an art history background or any connections to the art world can make use of the works and extract coherent meanings and interpretations? If so, in what ways does the Google Art Project remediate the functions of the museum – as an interpretive reception context, an interface, and an institutional means of transmission? Finally, to what extent can the Google Arts and Culture effectively remediate these functions within a digital space as opposed to the physical space of the museum?

Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre was motivated by the transmission of ideas and cultural meaning, as well as communication across distances and borders. Similarly, the Google Art Project succeeds in granting online access to digital representations of artworks, as well as background information surrounding the works, the artist, and the movements to those who cannot obtain or retrieve this form of knowledge online and by extension worldwide. Both primarily act as interfaces that hold an educational value. Irvine writes, “The ideas for reflexive gallery meta-paintings emerged in the context of understood cultural encyclopedic knowledge or information, and the motivation to construct interfaces for accessing and learning not only the content of the knowledge but also how a society’s knowledge and archived memory were conceptually organized” (Irvine, p.9). That is to say, meta paintings aimed to not only provide access to knowledge and information, but also to unpack the way society adapted these forms of knowledge by extracting meaning and organizing them, and to ultimately reveal the way society reintegrated these forms into society over time. While the Google Arts and Culture project provides online, fast, and easy access and consolidates all artworks and art knowledge in one place, the platform needs to be more than just putting digital images on a website and giving basic background information.

How can the platform communicate content, historical context, and dialogic networks?

Assuming its aesthetic role, the museum provides a contextual framework in which the work is embedded and can be understood. In this respect, the museum also functions to collect, becoming the “single viewpoint (cultural and visual) from which works can be considered” (Buren, 1985). The museum adds cultural weight to the work. That is to say, the space in which the reception of the work is done heavily shapes the cultural meaning and supplements multiple layers of interpretation.

For instance, there are different architectural styles of buildings and spaces that give us cues on what and how to think. Gordon Bunshaft’s circular design of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden signaled certain cues of interpretations and imprinted a meaning onto the works of art that are showcased there. When visiting the Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s exhibit, the circular space echoed the idea of finding oneself in a whirlwind and endless loop of commodity fetishism and consumerism. The cylindrical building imposed on its visitors to interpret the exhibit and the artworks as a time where one was overwhelmed with the ubiquity of billboards, advertising, and media culture. Similarly, the Roman architecture and feel of the National Art Gallery associated a classical and traditional meaning to the artworks and the artists in the exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting.

The design of the architectural space in which the artwork is received becomes increasingly symbolic: they give enough background for visitors to construe more or less the same meanings from the art pieces, the artists, and the movements at play, extracting one overarching homogenous meaning.

At a first glance, the Google Art and Culture platform – because of its flat design – seems to flatten the artworks themselves, as well as the historic and cultural context that the works carry. Because the works are detached and completely removed from a contextual space, visitors are free to interpret the artworks in whatever way they can – depending on their art history background and relationship with the art world in general. This lack of boundaries and context multiplies and fragments the meanings of the pieces.

But what if the white digital space of the Google Art and Culture project is like that of O’Doherty’s white cube?

According to O’Doherty, the modern gallery space removes the artwork from its aesthetic and historical context. Because the sacredness of the work of art is contingent on its context of reception, the white cube became part of the work itself. Therefore, he argues that the white cube is not a neutral container, but rather a historical construct inseparable from the artworks displayed inside it (O’Doherty, 1986). O’Doherty’s analysis of the white cube goes on to show the power of context and how it defines the content. Perhaps, the white cube was necessary and became a reflection of the modernist wave that overcame the art world, such that modernism required the viewer to take an active role in interpreting the work and to abandon conventional ways of thinking.

The art world is a constant reflection of the social, the political, and the economic – irrespective of the era. We live today in a digital age, in which information is endless and is at a press of a button, forcing us to critically think for ourselves but also to make sense of the abundance of information shoved down our throats. Digital online spaces are not concerned with how much you know, but rather they deal with the question of what kinds of connections, meanings, and understandings are you making given how much you do know.

What if with the increasing use of digital media and abundance of information with which we are bombarded every day, art is meant to be conceived in a similar manner, and demands this free-thinking space completely detached from its historical, social, and political contexts?

Malraux’s “Museum Without Walls” calls for the displacement of artworks from their physical art object (i.e. materials used) and art space (i.e. the museum) by photographically reproducing them (Irvine, p.3-4). As such, Malraux places more emphasis on the creative curatorial aspect of art, rather than the artistic production of an artwork, such that the organization, indexing, and assembly of artworks are privileged over the presentation and appreciation of the artwork itself (Malraux, . In face of digital reproduction of art objects, the Google Arts and Culture project resembles that of Malraux. Like the museum, both serve as encyclopedic functions as they each organize cultural and artistic knowledge. In this respect, the Google Arts and Culture project is perhaps the closest to and largest digital iteration of Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire.

 

The platform organizes its content using several categories deriving from the art world, such as museum collections, artists, mediums, art movements, historical events, historical figures, art movements, but also the current geographic locations of art pieces. It attempts to circumscribe and provide an artistic hub in the digital space. Still, the database is incomplete: paintings such as the Mona Lisa are not featured on the platform. This goes on to show that the collection’s completion is contingent on the participation of all the museums and galleries (i.e. physical spaces), and their compliance to feature the pieces in their collection online. In other words, compiling a robust encyclopedia that contains all the artworks ever created is certainly an ambitious goal, but not impossible.

But until then, where does that leave the Google Arts and Culture project in terms of the artistic and creative process?

Irvine writes that Malraux’s “selection and arrangement of photographs of art objects for a view of art history was governed by the idea of the museum as an organizational system, a musée imaginaire (the imagined, i.e., idealized museum)” (Irvine, p.3-4). That is to say, the function of organizing art content is in itself an artistic creative act, which the online platform exemplifies. It attempts to constantly create and recreate an extensive and comprehensive taxonomy of cultural and artistic knowledge, using sorting methods that organize content in either alphabetical order or chronological order. The “all” sorting method is not specified, but users can assume that it is organized by popularity and not randomly. When the same page is refreshed multiple times or accessed at different times, the order of categories remains the same. Similarly, when viewing an individual artwork, artist or art movement, the dialogic relations and positions suggested at the bottom of each page do not change, but are rather static. This goes on to show that the Google Arts and Culture as an organizational system follows a specific structure and flow depending on the choices made by software developers and coders. Here, code and algorithms become digital curators.

 

Can a programming language communicate dialogic networks?

The collection function of the museum asserts the configurations of possible dialogic positions and relations through simplifications, but also the establishment of connections and relationships between different works, artists, movements, and schools of thought. It imposes a web of meanings between dissimilar elements and creates a vast network, solely constrained by selection (Latour, 2011))–or “curation” in terms of museums. While collection can emphasize certain works, artists, and art institutions and their dialogic contexts when considering a group of works, it can also “flatten” them when considering a single body of work. In this case, the work is conceived without subjectivity or without reference to anything outside of itself, and here, the museum functions to emphasize the juxtapositions within the body of work, highlighting its “genius” and again, increasing its sales value (Buren, 1985). Similarly, the Google Arts and Culture platform gives way to highlight the juxtapositions within each work of art, individually and exclusively, without any reference to other artworks or artists. The absence of dialogic networks leaves room for questioning of the ingenuity of the art piece.

According to Buren, one of the functions of the museum is to provide refuge for the works, since it functions to select, collect, and protect. This reinforces the role of the museum in embodying the mystical dimension of art (Buren, 1985). Buren writes, “The Museum is an asylum. The work set in it is sheltered from the weather and all sorts of dangers, and most of all protected from any kind of questioning” (Buren, 1985). In other words, when a work of art is received in the context of a museum, the work is validated and authenticated as “art”, instead of being received for example on Instagram – where the content is user-generated and cannot be granted “art” status unless received in a museum. The Google Art Project does not fall short in this respect – works that are displayed have been carefully subjected and have already acquired “art” status.

   

The content is not user-generated, but rather museum-generated: museums and exhibits give access to the Google Art Project to their art collections, making it available worldwide. To have an artwork published on the Google website, it needs to have been already considered art. However, once having arrived in the digital platform, the artworks are placed in a space where constant questioning is formulated. When observing a painting such as the Starry Night in such a digital space, one cannot help but wonder what makes the painting an Impressionist masterpiece, and why Vincent Van Gogh is considered an artist whose ingenuity could only be recognized posthumously? The Google Art Project gives adequate answers to these questions – extracting its textual content from the Modern Museum of Art’s text label from 2011, where Starry Night was and is currently being exhibited.

But, does this mean that the platform cannot provide refuge for the artworks from being bombarded with questions and questioning their artistic significance? Can the Google Art Project maintain the “art” status quo?

To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the impact of the reproducibility of art in the modern and digital era we live in today. In his book “The Work of Art in an Era of its Technological Reproducibility”, Walter Benjamin argues that artworks have lost their “aura” in face of modernism, due to the fact that art has become increasingly reproducible. The aura of a work refers to the idea that it is present in time and space: it is connected to authenticity and authenticity cannot be reproduced (Benjamin, 1939). When the original artwork is exhibited in a museum, the aura, uniqueness, and authenticity of the work are firmly planted in and connected to the sphere of tradition.

In contrast, when an artwork is reproduced in a poster, for example, the artwork is extracted from its historical, cultural, and geographic context. It becomes completely detached from the historical continuum in which it was firmly rooted, losing its ingenuity and depreciating its value (Benjamin, 1939). In this respect, the aura of a painting such as the Starry Night lies in its three-dimensionality. Transferring a work from a physical space into a digital space flattens the work into a two-dimensional space, and by extension flattens the aura as well. 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.

By removing the work from the mundane, and exhibiting it in a space that is consecrated to art and culture like the museum as opposed to an online digital platform, the artwork undergoes a process of selection and of being privileged. It becomes an object of choice and divine favor, or even – dare I say – “sacred”. Enabling its exposure and promotion in order to abide by its economic role, the museum works to preserve the artwork such that its sales value increases (Buren, 1985). In aiming to preserve the work, the museum assumes that works can be affected by time. Therefore, one of the functions of the museum is to preserve the artwork, protecting it from the effects of time, but also, to prevent its cultural meaning from eroding, granting the illusion of eternality to the work (Buren, 1985).

The impression of immortalizing the artwork is inherently flawed. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which had been completed in the late 15th century, had already begun to deteriorate by 1517. Many details have been lost, including Jesus’ feet and Judas spilling salt (Van Luling, 2014). Similarly, the colors of the Mona Lisa were not originally of brownish and yellowish hues, but rather of vibrant blues and reds (Van Luling, 2014). Paintings can undergo destruction, and colors can be subjected to deterioration. Thus, this idea that paintings cannot be worn out by time and be shielded from corrosion and depreciation is misleading. Certainly, there are conservation and restoration methods that can be taken, but then,

What happens to the aura – or “timelessness” – of the work? Do these restoration efforts partake in the authenticity and uniqueness of the work, or do they take away from it?

The timelessness or “auras” of works of art can never be fully preserved, especially in the age of photographic reproduction: the more time passes by, the more the work of art becomes removed from its historical context and becomes less and less embedded in its original sphere of tradition. Instead, the work becomes a part of multiples spheres of tradition, and its meanings and interpretations become numerous and endless. To this extent, the Google Arts and Culture becomes just another attempt at preserving the aura of art. For example, it can show what the original colors and brush strokes of an art piece looked like when it was originally conceived. While the aura cannot be fully transmitted through digital reproduction, the Google Art and Culture can work alongside other art and cultural institutions, which together can preserve the aura that has been already decaying since their inception. Analogously, these interfaces can serve to include the numerous meanings and interpretations, which digital reproduction has fragmented.

Benjamin argues that reproduced artworks are consumed in a distractive manner as opposed to being consumed in a contemplative manner (Benjamin, 1939). For example, when one is walking around the National Gallery of Art and is examining the intricate details of Ter Borch’s brush strokes of satin in his artworks, the artwork lures and absorbs the examiner. To appreciate the genius of Ter Borch’s painting technique, one needs to be able to stand so close to the painting that one’s nose is almost touching it. However, when examining a painting on the digital platform, the examiner absorbs the work of art. The user can zoom in and zoom out, change the sizes of the artwork depending on the device’s screen size, decide to focus on the details of the brush strokes or examine the work as a whole. These levels of interactivity rooted in scalability, that the Google Arts and Culture initiative offers, distracts the audience from letting the artwork lure them in. What the user winds up observing is not the hidden meanings of artwork, but rather the pixelated representations of the artwork – neither paint nor a canvas but pixels. The platform creates rich visualizations, albeit it cannot visualize the intangible and hidden meanings within each artwork.

What could be done to provide a better interpretative experience using the interface beyond just presentation of images and a little bit of data?

The Google platform cannot remediate all of the museum’s functions, however, there are possible configurations that can be implemented which would enable people to explore while making distinctions and understand works through dialogic relations and positions. While not everything cannot be remediated in the same way as the museum space, the platform provides a different interpretative framework. The Google Arts and Culture project provides a basic foundation for those interested in learning about the art world, but it can never fully remediate the interpretive framework that a museum provides for its visitors. While the platform allows for users to formulate their own interpretations given the limited amount of knowledge they are presented with, the information is not sufficient for art enthusiasts to study in depth the artworks and for them to be able to establish connections with other works, artists, and movement. Further research is usually needed. Perhaps, generating more links at the bottom of each page of each work can be a step closer to developing a network of nodes surrounding the work in question or creating a literary library that can solidify one’s art knowledge. Still, the art world is too vast and too complex to be able to organize it and curate it in a way that can render a cohesive meaning. As humans, we have the tendency to categorize and classify everything, but the allure of the art world always resides in providing a means of escapism for its members. The art world is not concerned with closing in one meaning or one idea, but rather with expanding one’s ability to think, to express oneself, and being presented with endless opportunities of connecting and finding relationships between objects and concepts. That being said, the Google art project should not be seen as a platform that is limiting our expression and thinking, but rather another space in which free-thinking and free-expression should be unrestrained, and in which creating a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations is welcome.

Works Cited

Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.

Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Gerard ter Borch. (c. 1660-1665) The Letter [Oil on Canvas]. Royal Collection Trust: London, UK. The Google Arts & Culture Insititute.

Google: About Our Company. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/about/our-company/.

Google Arts & Culture. (2018). Retrieved from https://artsandculture.google.com/.

Leonardo da Vinci. (c. 1503-1506) Mona Lisa [Oil on Poplar Panel]. Musée du Louvre: Paris, France. Wikipedia.  

Leonardo da Vinci. (c. 1495-1498) The Last Supper [Fresco-Secco]. The Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie: Milan, Italy. Wikipedia.

Martin Irvine, “Malraux and the Musée Imaginaire: (Meta)Mediation, Representation, and Mediating Institutions”. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Martin Irvine, “Art and Artefacts as Interfaces: Meta-Representation and Meta-Media from Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project”. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Rosetta Smith. (2012). An Online Art Collection Grows Out of Infancy. The New York Times. 

Todd Van Luling. (2014). 7 Famous Artworks That Are Actually Supposed To Look Completely Different. The Huffington Post.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Oct. 22, 2017 – Jan. 21, 2018

Vincent Van Gogh. (1889) Starry Night [Oil on Canvas]. MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. The Google Arts & Culture Insititute.

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