Category Archives: Week 13

Google Arts & Culture: A VR museum or a art search engine?

In 2016, the Internet search giant Google debuted a new version website of Google Arts & Culture, a website that promises to give people access to the world’s museums at just a click. In the official Google blog, a post wrote about the new version of Google Arts & Culture like this:

Just as the world’s precious artworks and monuments need a touch-up to look their best, the home we’ve built to host the world’s cultural treasures online needs a lick of paint every now and then. We’re ready to pull off the dust sheets and introduce the new Google Arts & Culture website and app, by the Google Cultural Institute. The app lets you explore anything from cats in art since 200 BCE to the color red in Abstract Expressionism, and everything in between.

Google Arts & Culture now claims “more than a thousand museums across 70 countries,” from big partners like the British Museum (with close to 9,000 works) and LA’s Getty (with close to 16,881 items), to the National Museum of Mongolia, in Ulaanbataar (with a modest 96 items to view) or the outdoor “Sculpture by the Sea” exhibit in Cottesloe, Australia (with 69 of its advertised 70 exhibits on view). I find that the whole website is interesting to play around with, but it’s still clunky to me. First of all, it integrates too many features together with the seeming grand ambition of becoming the one-stop web portal for museum-goers and feels a bit like a palatial new trophy museum that you slowly realize was built by robots who aren’t totally sure what anything really means. One minute you are staring in awe at some cool virtual attraction, the next you wander into another digital dead end. Though Google Arts & Culture provides some basic and useful functions, I would regard it as an art search engine. It allows users to discover works and artifacts, to search for anything, from shoes to all things gold, to scroll through art by time. For those who want to dig in deeper, the website could walk one through the vivid details of Pieter Breugel the Elder’s Tower of Babel, but to a rather inexplicable introduction to “Contemporary Art,” which posits that the tactile information of craft media spoke of a direct connection to an endangered humanity.

From Single Imposed to Fragmented Meanings

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.

Better Than The Real Thing: Perception vs. Reality

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

Exploring Google Arts and Culture

First of all, the home page doesn’t make it very clear what is the focus of the whole project or how it wants to draw the viewer’s attention. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m curated. On the top of the homepage, there is the Virtual Tour of 10 Top Museums, as the title of this section says, which makes this part look like Google’s effort to digitalize the space and artworks in museums to promote the artworks’ transmission. However, the focus on technology immediately fades away when the designer puts the two Cultural Heritage Module under the Virtual Tour part: “Preserving Maya Heritage” and “8 Fascinating Communities Around the World.” Though still maintaining a worldwide view, this part is marked by using the traditional form of feature stories to mediate cultures around the world. Therefore, even on the front page, there are already too many focuses: technology, news, art, and culture, the problems of which continue to emerge throughout the homepage.

Another thing that I didn’t get about Google Art Project is how it makes categorization. Unlike the traditional ways of categorization including time, movement, school of painting, Google Art Project categorizes by medium and color. Under medium, there are hundreds of sub-categories, including some interesting ones like fiberglass, seashell, and walnut. On the one hand, this new method of categorization makes the viewers realize the various perspectives one could have in viewing the art world; on the other hand, categorizing with medium also makes one wonder whether it is effective in helping the reader to discover new layers of meaning in the artwork.

Going into the walnut categories, one would find paintings, furniture, sculptures, but none of them help to interpret other objects. They are put on the website as isolated objects. It seems to me that categorizing by medium does not help much in helping one to discover different layers of meaning in a specific object. However, it still points to different possible perspectives that one may take to view the world of artworks.


Creative Pedagogies: Giving Visibility to Invisible Concepts

Alfred Barr’s example of a graphic visualization provided an interface to the main concepts and ideologies of the museums in the 1930s. The map or “infographic” design literature is a timeline approach to understand the relationships and concepts that surrounds “modern” art. Looking at graphic design makes me think of Dadaism, where the visual/ literary movement is very much backwards thinking in more ways than one. The movement essentially creates/ makes meaning out of meaningless gibberish, child-like talk that has no pretext.

The child-esque character also links back to Gotlieb and similar artists who also create child-like portraits of people. The idea of child-like art got me thinking of how children make meaning. At such a young age, how does one even begin to create a conceptual map?

I began reading some articles and case studies outside our weekly readings and came across a few articles on creative pedagogies; how they are the essence of meaning-making. Children make meaning from playing and interacting with art materials as precursor actions to learning how to read and write (McArdle, p. 1). The physical materials of paint brushes and colored pencils, physical interfaces if you will, change into graphic designs such Alfred Barr’s example. I believe we are going back to our child-like ways to create and build cognitive maps by interacting with physical graphics, visualizations, that reveal or provide access to invisible concepts, contexts and relationships. Indeed, the goal of designing an interpretive interface or visualization enables the interpreter to “discover what an arteface can mea by making the kinds of levels of symbolic relations and correspondences accessible by making interfaces with the interface” (Irvine, p. 2).










Irvine, Martin. From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces. 2017.

McArdle, Felicity; Wright, Susan. First Literacies: Art, Creativity, Play, Constructive Meaning-Making. 2014. 

Art and Interfaces, Agatha Christie-style

If there is one thing that has been made clear over the past months, it is that there is a broad range of interfaces, some of which are more helpful for interpretation than others. At one end of the spectrum, you might have an isolated artwork. Particularly in modern and contemporary art, it can be difficult–sometimes impossible–to uncover the meaning of an artwork without knowing its context. On the other end you have the kind of information often presented in art history textbooks: not only a deep dive into the circumstances surrounding an artist or artwork, but a straightforward assertion of meaning: X symbol/image/painting represents Y.

A well-designed interface has to find a balance. When done poorly, you end up with a very limited interfaces–something like Google Arts and Culture or the Hirshhorn 80s exhibit, which offer some context but not quite enough to be useful. When done well, the interface exposes the nodes in the network surrounding the artwork and explains the connections between those nodes, as the Phillips Collection’s Klee exhibit did. It provides enough context to make the artwork accessible: Who are the major players? What was going on in the artworld at the time? What events in the world was the artist reacting to?

What it avoids, however, is the didactic presentation of interpretation as a given. A good interface is like a good mystery novel: you have all the clues you need to figure everything out, but it takes some thought to put it together. If you’ve followed along well, the meanings–just like the solution to a whodunnit–will be clear by the time you reach the end of the interface.

That said, to continue the metaphor, an ideal interface would give the option for further guidance. Sometimes a reader would rather follow along as Hercule Poirot solves a murder than solve it themselves; similarly, not all art viewers are interested in teasing out the meanings in each piece. This is where digital interfaces can come in handy, as they allow users to choose just how much information they want, unlike a gallery context where the space prohibits using too much text, or a museum catalog where it’s hard to get just a surface-level view. A series of options on a website or an app can offer viewers exactly what they need: an analysis of an artwork from an expert, or just enough context that they can pick up the magnifying glass and start investigating for themselves.

Layers of Context

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


How Does Society Make Sense of Artwork?

Oh, the joys of studying art. (Photo from Pinterest).

Be it by recognizing the visual and semiotic expressions art is making, or considering the historical and political landscape from which that artwork emerged, I think that viewers have developed effective methods for recognizing the social commentary going on within artwork. I also think we’ve done a pretty solid job at identifying those methods all semester long.

If you think about each of the three exhibits which we visited, we observed that there were a number of social themes which the paintings touched upon collectively. For instance, the artwork at the National Gallery exhibit all featured elements of 17th century Dutch society which Johannes Vermeer touched upon, as did the rest of his contemporaries. The Phillips Collection explored how mid-20th century American artists may have had Paul Klee on their minds, while the Hirshhorn exhibit demonstrated how artists have had wildly different means of interpreting the defining elements of the 1980’s.

In my opinion, cultures, communities, and academic circles are able to “make meaning” out of this artwork by identifying the common thread linking different works of this nature together, thereby recognizing what it is, exactly, that these artists are all commenting upon. By seeing painting after painting of women writing letters or wearing fancier clothes than their maids, we can conclude that social inequalities and the disruptive effect of war on Dutch society were two popular themes that many artists in that period had on their minds.

On top of that, it is important to read up on some of the historical context of the artwork, especially when the visual connections between the collections of paintings aren’t super obvious. That was the case of the other two exhibits we saw. It wasn’t always apparent in what ways the American artists at the Phillips Collection were influenced by Paul Klee; unlike at the Dutch exhibit, the visual similarities between the paintings in this one weren’t always apparent. Even the museum exhibit summary said that a lot of these artists didn’t even cite Klee as a direct influence.

However, thanks to the material we were assigned to read that week as well as Professor Irvine’s presentations, we gradually managed to pinpoint escapism as a common theme of the exhibit. The World War II era had been so dreary and destructive; these guys were looking for a way to build an alternative universe where they wouldn’t be troubled by such realities. All of the abstract paintings we saw there were the artists’ own response to that resolution.

This is another way how communities manage to interpret artwork: by placing it in conversation with the rest of the popular culture and political scene of its era. That’s why I’m glad something like the Google Art Project exists: it brings a lot of artwork from around the world together in such a conversation, and also provides some of the historical and cultural background that allows us to make better sense of how such works came to be.

Lastly, a key method for us to understand the meaning of art is to recognize important “semiotics” which they share. What important signs and symbols are included in these artworks? How do they add up to bring additional meaning to those pieces? We spent a lot of time earlier in the semester discussing that, and we saw it come across in the art that we studied later on. Obviously, Paul Klee had a lot of symbols (eyes, arrows, etc.) that popped up a lot in his work, as well as that of the other American artists whose work was paired next to his. And at the 1980’s exhibit at the Hirshhorn museum, symbolism was on constant display.

In the He Kills Me piece which I analyzed last week, the spirals placed repeatedly next to Reagan’s face were a symbol of death and doom– such fitting themes for the AIDS epidemic. All of the everyday products on display in the exhibit also had significance of their own: who new that uncooked pasta could have such strong semiotic value as a representation of the 1980’s-era mass consumerism and corporatism?

As is the case with any art form, identifying the hidden symbolism of paintings uncovers additional meaning for them. Seeing these paintings grouped together in a museum remains an effective way of interfacing art with audiences; as for art and media can be interfaced (the title of this course, after all) we’ve looked a lot at how the Internet and digital photography continues to influence the world of art and bring more and more pieces to audience attention. One of the questions we’ve been asked this week relates to “accepting inaccessibility.” I actually don’t feel like this is such a great concern any more: never before has artwork been so accessible en masse to audiences around the world. It’s been great getting to observe that trend all semester long as part of this course.