What is 'digital art history'? (ctd.)

March 6 2013

Video: Getty Trust

Three Pipe Problem alerts me* to the above video, posted online two days ago at the start of the Getty Trust's Digital Art History Lab. It's well worth a watch, as it makes clear  - much clearer than the article I rather meanly parodied earlier - why and how art historians should be embracing the digital age. 

My heart soared when I heard this opening statement from Murtha Baca, head of digital art history access at the Getty Research Institute, in answer to the question, 'Why does art history need to be resuscitated?':

I work at the Getty Research Insititute [...] and we attend these very obstruse lectures by the various residential scholars [...] and the people that can understand the presentations might be five or ten other scholars throughout the world. So I think that art history, also because of its apparent hesitation at embracing digital technology, really risks being left behind, and becoming marginalised or obsolete. It's also being dropped in a lot of academic programmes.'

Way to go Murtha! If the digital age forces art historians to broaden their audience, and by necessity speak a language that everyone can understand, then art history will once more flourish as a subject. If they don't, then we're all toast. You can read more from Murtha here.

I must, however, add one caveat about art history's, or indeed any academic subject's, embrace of the digital age. In the above video, the discussion moves onto how digital access to scholarly material can save time, as Susan Edwards says:

The literature studies field was actually really early to adopt [digital means], by digitising texts and making it really easy to analyse vast quantities of data. And it really transformed the literature field, so in the past a scholar who would have to spend his entire career learning all of the classical texts, for example, in order to analyse and create meaningful analyses of the text, now, through something like the Perseus digital library [...] within hours can do the research today that it would take a scholar, forty years ago, his whole career [to do].

As a practising art historian, I find it increasingly useful that I can just type random words into Google or JSTOR, and up comes a vital lead in, for example, my provenance research. But I'm increasingly aware that my overall knowledge is suffering. Because I can save time by searching for tiny nuggets of information, I miss absorbing all the peripheral material which, over time, gives one the overall command of a subject. I find it harder to remember things, because my brain instinctively knows that I no longer have to. It's frustrating. 

I'm old enough to remember learning in a non digital age, and I'm so glad I did. In 'the old days', one's whole approach to learning was to actively absorb knowledge with the aim of retaining it, because it was often impossible to instantly retrieve, say, a book in a library. Now, we actively don't retain information, because we know where it can be found, usually through our phones. Samuel Johnson once said: 'Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.' These days, it's the latter which dominates, almost exclusively. We live in a cut & paste world. So the point of this rather long-winded and decidedly analogue paragraph is to say, by all means embrace digital art history, but don't let it turn your brain to mush.

Update - a reader writes:

Yes I quite agree about digital art history - brilliant, but binary. Either you find what you are looking for, or you don't; nothing else.

It's like my beef about music. No one listens to albums any more, just cherry-picks tracks they've already heard elsewhere. In the old days your favourite song on an album would often be one you'd discovered on it, not the ones they played on the radio.

But as you say, digital benefits are vast.

Update II - another reader adds:

Access to digital articles and research is fantastic, especially when thirty students get set the same essay title and there are limited library books…and book hoarders! 

But as Annelisa Stephan points out, art history needs to find ways of getting the full use of digital scholarship. Surely Your Paintings has already made huge headway with this, after all where would art historians be without art, especially art in excellent digital quality that can be pasted and referenced easily into essays! Even more excitingly, with the increased development of 3D scanners and digital microscopy, perhaps at some point in the future someone in, for instance, China will be able to digitally tilt/rotate a painting in, say,  Hawaii, every direction to analyse brushstrokes in minute detail. Or, if the painting has been conserved, to see the paint layers and therefore be able to analyse the artist’s technique, date the painting etc. This would obviously be 10x more awesome for sculptures and other three dimensional art and artifacts. 

* I love the fact that a blogger in Australia can alert me, in London, to a discussion happening in Los Angeles. Digital art history in action!

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