Digital Art History: a first reaction

My first semester at Chapel Hill, in Carol Magee’s Art Historical Methods course, our class read “Is there a Digital Art History?” by Johanna Drucker [1].  Subsequently, I attended a session of the Digital Salon Series at UNC titled “What is Digital Art History?” in which we discussed our responses to the Drucker article and heard JJ Bauer and Carolyn Allmendinger reflect on their experience working in digital art history.  Now, in my second semester, JJ Bauer asks once more for consideration of the realities and possibilities of digital art history, this time for her course on Alternative Methods: Digital Art History.

What struck me most when rereading the Drucker and related articles was a frustration over why art historians (and scholars generally) would resist tools that could potentially simplify the research process and allow researchers a different lens through which to examine their subjects.  “The Limits of the Digital Humanities” by Adam Kirsch and Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship by Diane M. Zorich proved particularly challenging [2].  In Zorich’s research, art historians’ response to the question “What new tools are needed to facilitate art research, scholarship and teaching?” displayed their awareness of the usefulness and power of tools created in response to the digital humanities, including:

  • Facilitate search across disparate image sets
  • Allow search on image metadata and on visual patterns
  • Enable robust image annotation, including imbedding video, text, and drawings, and allowing links (via URLs) for citation within an image and within specific areas (i.e., details) of an image
  • Display and register images for side-by-side comparisons and analyses of works of art
  • Rectify maps, landscape drawings, plans, elevations and other schematic representations of location
  • Allow bulk downloading of images [3].

These scholars also mentioned the desirability of being able to:

  • Annotate digital publications
  • Cite particular sections within a Web site or other digital publication
  • Cite particular images and details of images within a digital publication [4].

But then just a few pages later, Zorich cites the skepticism of many historians as to the appropriateness of employing technology in research, citing scholars’ doubts that digital technology can’t actually improve on what they’re already doing, won’t create any added significance to traditional research, nor serve art historical scholarship generally [5].  Perhaps these doubts are an artifact of an older generation of scholars unfamiliar with new technologies and a newer generation overwhelmed by them, but technology is a tool with the potential to facilitate speedier and more in depth research.

For example, no longer is art historical research limited by what a scholar can physically observe on her own. Thanks to the incorporation of interdisciplinary collaboration and of imaging technology into traditional research and connoisseurship, historians are confidently attributing previously anonymous works to their original authors.  La Bella Principessa represents the ideal example of how digital humanities can work for art history in this way.  Based in part on the application of a multispectral camera to “capture light from frequencies beyond the visible light range,” historians now attribute the work to Leonardo Da Vinci [6].  The camera’s images allowed for statistical comparison to other of Leonardo’s works (a more manual version of Drucker’s insistence on creating digital webs of works for comparison) [7].  Through the combination of spectral imaging, carbon dating, formal analysis, comparison to similar works and socio-cultural analysis, the art historical community has access to a deeper understanding of both La Bella Principessa singly and of Leonardo’s oeuvre generally.

Admittedly, projects such as there are few and far between due to funding, tenure restrictions, and a general disinterest in engaging with technology.  Those less skeptical of the value of digital humanities are still reticent to participate in digital scholarship endeavors, citing lack of technological savvy and an unwillingness to work with those ‘lesser scholars’ who can program and engineer the framework for digital projects [8].  Current standards of publishing, tenure and institutional or departmental regulations don’t help the situation, since virtually none of them have embraced the idea of a more fluid delivery system and the slipperiness of funding and acknowledging interdisciplinary efforts, let alone come to terms with seeing digital collaborations and online publications as up to scholarly snuff [9].

During class discussion, JJ confirmed that departments (and even whole institutions) are still unwilling to alter its tenure requirements to acknowledge online and digital projects for tenure application, ensuring that important projects that might be begun through class collaboration don’t get funding or attention after the students aren’t there to justify the project’s existence.  Until those obstacles are removed, it seems unlikely that individual attitudes towards the inclusion of digital humanist tools will change for the better.  As Zorich notes, there is no incentive to take leadership on these projects, even in art historical research centers not associated with an academic institution [10].  It will take highly visible scholars in institutions the world over pushing for a move towards funding and fostering digital art history before wide acceptance might be possible.  So as exciting as it is to see projects like the one conducted around La Bella Principessa, the satisfaction of those results are bittersweet.

[1] Johanna Drucker, “Is There a “Digital” Art History?” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, vol. 29, no.1-2 (2013): 5-13.

[2] Adam Kirsch, “The Limits of the Digital Humanities” in New Republic, May 2, 2014; Diane M. Zorich, Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship, Report to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, May 2012.

[3] Zorich, Transitioning to a Digital World, 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Blair Howell, “PBS Documentary Attempts to Identify Renaissance-era Drawing as the Work of Da Vinci,” Desert News, January 23, 2012.

[7] Drucker, “Is There A “Digital” Art History?” 9.

[8] Zorich, Transitioning to a Digital World, 22-24.

[9] Kirsch captures perfectly the concerns of scholars in the humanities who have yet to engage with or gain full knowledge of the digital humanities, noting that these efforts don’t live up to the elegant standards of traditional, print-based scholarship.  He also, reasonably, sites the issue of tenure (and thus publishing) obstacles were digital humanities to be incorporated into humanities departments; Kirsch, “The Limits of the Digital Humanities.”

[10] Zorich, Transitioning to a Digital World, 22-23.

One thought on “Digital Art History: a first reaction”

  1. Elizabeth, I wasn’t quite so absolute about tenure requirements. We are certainly discussing changes and incorporating the idea of considering digital projects and work as critical research, but most of the policies even as rewritten still give overwhelming primacy to the published monograph and leave the consideration of digital for tenure as something that the tenure committee or department chair would have to take it upon themselves to feature or highlight as worthy research (a far less formal type of consideration and one too easily fudged or forgotten in the process) to the university tenure boards. So in the main, I don’t disagree with you but I do see small movement in a positive direction.

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