Guffwatch: what is 'digital art history'?

March 6 2013

Image of Guffwatch: what is 'digital art history'?

Picture: Getty Iris/Google Images

In an article for Getty Iris, Nuria Rodriguez Ortega looks at the question of digital art history, and concludes with three recommendations for art historians:

In the first place, as I mentioned above, I believe that we are in the midst of a “re-establishment”—not the beginning—of digital art history, in which, obviously, we have to take into account the specifics of our time: the new knowledge economy, new technical tools, and the changes brought about by the evolution of the Web, which has become an enormous data warehouse waiting for us to analyze it.

In the second place, I think that digital art history, without losing its ties to the digital humanities, needs to establish itself in accordance with its own idiosyncrasies, basing itself on the preceding decades of research, analysis, and exploration, which should in no way be devalued in comparison with the digital humanities.

In the third place, I believe that it is crucial that we focus our attention on the specific epistemological and methodological problems of our discipline, and that we include not only academic art history but also museums, art publications, art criticism, artistic creation, the reception of works of art by the public, and so on, under the rubric of digital art history.

Call me analogue, but I'm afraid I have no idea what Nuria is actually talking about here, particularly with regard to point 2. Perhaps I need to establish myself with my own idiosyncracies.

[How would this work, by the way?

  • Me: 'Hello idiosyncracies, how are you doing?'
  • My idiosyncracies: 'Fine thanks. Feeling a bit unusual.'
  • Me: 'That's odd.'
  • My idiosyncracies: 'Not really. I'm meant to be odd.'
  • Me: 'Oh, ok.'


Update - a reader sends in this handy translation:

I read with great interest (and amusement) your internal monologue on the idiosyncrasies mentioned in the Getty piece!  If anything, Nuria Rodriguez Ortega is perhaps guilty of some of the wordy banter that makes some forms of written art history inaccessible as much as it is idiosyncratic. 

To attempt to de-guff , I propose this synopsis of these somewhat valid{?} points

i. art history as a discipline, and individual art historians are adapting to using technology in their work (some obviously better than others)?

ii. art history as a discipline, and individual art historians are wondering if use of technology will mean they will lose something they value?  note: this point does seem very ambivalent. What element being preserved do art historians have a vested interest in? eg. particular methods of teaching or modes of analysis? or the dependence on print publishing as a marker of academic reputation and success etc?

iii. Many different people are interacting with and commenting on art. These relationships are being studied more closely than ever before. It would be good for art historians to be involved in this as well ?

Another reader writes:

Thanks for sharing the Getty article - it's an absolute gem!  I love every word of it.  The attempted informality that degenerates into ponderous sub-clauses.  The ignorant reference to the 'new knowledge economy' (a novel term back in the 1970s), which we're supposed to realise is 'obviously' related to art history.  I've read a fair amount on the new knowledge economy, and quite a lot of art history, but I have no clue here.  I guess I'm just dim.  The plea for equality with the 'digital humanities' - is there some hidden debate about the status of digital art history?  Are the digital geographers dissing the digital art historians?  Oh, and then of course it's "crucial" that we consider epistemology.  We need to think differently in art history.  And we need to think especially differently in digital art history.  Finally she makes an unarguable case for the importance of digital art history by asserting that everything connected with art is part of digital art history.  I definitely prefer analogue.

Update II - Annelisa Stephan, the editor of The Getty Iris, writes:

Thanks for discussing the piece we published yesterday on the Getty Iris. I enjoyed your inner monologue!

I'm the editor of the Iris and wanted to add my $0.02 to "translating" Nuria's three points into simpler wording. Yesterday I attended day 1 of the Digital Art History Lab convening this week at the Getty, so can bring the background of that discussion to this clarification.

1. Digital art history got off the ground in the 1980s and '90s and then stalled. So rather than talking about launching a digital art history, let's instead talk about picking it up where we left off. (This relates to points made earlier in the piece, as she notes.) Side note: the knowledge economy isn't new in Internet time, but in art historical time, it is.

2. Digital art history is part of the broader digital humanities field, but art history shouldn't slavishly copy models of digital scholarship adopted in other fields, such as linguistics or history. We need to consider art history's methods, history, and subject matter to come up with our own path.

3. Art history has its idiosyncrasies just as any field does, and rather than pretending that it doesn't, we should acknowledge them. Moreover, we should take this moment to explicitly affirm that art history isn't just about critiquing individual objects, but about analyzing visual culture more broadly. (The Mona Lisa image search became a meme of sorts in yesterday's discussions of this theme, which is why I used it in the post.)

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