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What Would Digital Art History Look Like?

Can the study of art history stop looking like ancient history itself? Can it transcend the old approaches and embrace the digital world? As digitized as art history has become in terms of merely creating online repositories of texts and images, it still lags in going fully digital in terms of using computers to aid in the analysis of art. A recent issue of Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation dedicated to the question of “Digital Art History” gathered experts in the field to weigh in on the potential advantages and disadvantages of studying art digitally. Is this a brave new world that will bring us closer than ever to understanding the great works of art, or will technology actually get in the way and separate us from the human element in the work, effectively erasing the traditional goal of studying art?

In their introduction to the special issue on Digital Art History, Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich outline what they see as the five “phases” of art history going digital, which essentially add up to the evolution from digitizing to digital. Phase 1 was all about digitization to increase accessibility of texts and images (for example, The William Blake Archive and Vincent van Gogh: The Letters). In phase 2, scholars began creating tools such as Zotero and Omeka that “provide the infrastructure for collection building on a level accessible to the individual scholar.” “Such tools and platforms,” Baca and Helmreich argue, “also allow for collaboration that has changed the face of both research and teaching; participants can cross borders without leaving their desks, and students can become knowledge producers as well as consumers.”

New ways of seeing enter into the equation in phase 3, which features “new technologies for visualization, reconstructions, and virtual reality” such as the Virtual Burnham Initiative and the Deutsches Archäologische Institut’s AEgArOn: Ancient Egyptian Architecture Online; however, as the writers note, “these projects still rely on the concept of the curated collection,” leaving it still short of being fully digital. In phase 4, however, “new means of scholarly publishing” such as the Society of Architectural Historians’ shift to a multimedia edition of their journal and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Scholarly Publishing Initiatives represent a qualitative leap in the use of computer technology in art history. Finally, phase 5 “represents the leading edge of new modes of scholarly research enabled by computational analytics,” specifically “the shift from ‘close reading’ to ‘distant reading’ enabled by the assemblage of vast corpuses of digital data.” They cite The National Endowment for the HumanitiesDigging into Data Challenge as an example of this brand of “distant reading” harnessing the full potential of computers by art history. (Also within the issue is a “case study” of the ARTL@S project that promises “a ‘total’ art history: writing a serial, transnational, geographical, and multiscale art history that would also address social issues” through computational data mining. Go to the ARTL@S site yourself and start digging.)

Read as a whole, the individual articles of this issue of Visual Resources provide a full picture of the promise and pitfalls of Digital Art History for both the art history practitioner and the interested art history amateur (e.g., me). Johanna Drucker leads off the discussion by asking, “Is There a ‘Digital’ Art History?” Her answer, unsurprisingly, is no, net yet. “To date no research breakthrough has made the field of art history feel its fundamental approaches, tenets of belief, or methods are altered by digital work,” Druker writes. However, Druker allows herself to muse over what such a breakthrough would look like for the study of Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait. Truly digital art history would “track each of its material, physical, iconographic, compositional, stylistic, economic, ritual, and other features into their respective field of associations using an integrated array of computational techniques, image analysis, and close readings produced by combining digital technologies with network analysis and connoisseurship.” Druker believes that “[v]isual pattern recognition will alter art history.” In the case of The Arnolfini Portrait, we can, for example, “ask how many wives, women, or brides are shown possibly pregnant or anticipating pregnancy and what are the graphic indicators of the gravid condition? Such evidence might simply inflame old debates, or might put them to rest.” Druker ultimately presents a hopeful picture for digital art history’s future.

On the other, less optimistic end of the debate sits Nuria Rodríguez Ortega, author of “Digital Art History: An Examination of Conscience.” Where others see globalization through digital art history, Rodríguez Ortega sees just a continuation of the domination both of the English language and the Western art tradition. “[T]he supposedly global, universal access that is seen as one of the chief characteristics of the Web is,” Rodríguez Ortega argues, “in reality, a myth.” She cites UNESCO World Digital Library statistics as proof that, as much as we want to believe all the world’s plugged in, it isn’t. Non-English, non-internet capable scholars and art traditions find themselves on the outside looking in, as always, and a digital art history won’t solve that problem by itself.

Whereas Druker sees digital art history as something in the future, Rodríguez Ortega sees it here in the present, and doesn’t necessarily like what she sees. “I believe that the digital factor has fully penetrated the study of the history of art,” Rodríguez Ortega counters. “For example, the technology of high-resolution images and zooming leads us to a sort of forensic approach to art history, based on the search for previously hidden details, enabling us to put forth new interpretive hypotheses about works of art.” Unfortunately, we’re now in jeopardy in falling in love with the “zoom” to the point of missing the work as a whole.  Certainly, this magnification of images allows us to detect figurative or plastic elements that would be otherwise imperceptible to the naked eye. In this “process of transforming the object of our study from the artistic artifact itself to the digital image of that artifact,” we might begin seeing works such as Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 painting Starry Night not as the work of a cosmic visionary and more as a collection of brush strokes to be catalogued through extreme magnification via Google Art Project. Most importantly, such tech-driven analysis might make human-driven analysis disappear. Scholars could end up “not having the critical tools for thinking about the digital art history that we are attempting to produce” by digital means. It’s analogous to kids unable to subtract because of calculators, but instead of being unable to make change when the register’s broken, these are the people trying to preserve and understand our collective culture unable to think critically because they’ve become reliant on a computer to “think” for them.

I’m always excited about the latest digital art history gadget. I’ve spent many an hour mesmerized by the zoom feature of Google Art Project. The idea of visiting collections virtually that I may never get to see physically is something I couldn’t even imagine happening as a child. But in the middle of all that excitement, I try to remind myself that there’s still a disconnect between me and the image on the screen and that the most important part being disconnected is the human element embedded in that work. As this issue of Visual Resources proves, there’s an important debate to be had over how art history should go digital, if it ever will.

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Starry Night, 1889. Extreme magnification via Google Art Project.]

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