'Could computers put art historians out of a job?'

August 19 2014

Image of 'Could computers put art historians out of a job?'

Picture: University of New Jersey

So asked yesterday's Daily Telegraph, which reported that:

Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists.

Art can be analysed by looking at space, texture, form, shape, colour and tone, but also more mechanical aspects such as brushstrokes and even historical context. Traditionally this has been the role of art historians, but computers could soon be sufficiently advanced as to be able to take over, claim researchers at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

The story boils down to the fact that computers can recognise things in paintings. Researchers concluded that the above pictures by Van Gogh and Joan Miro had 'similar objects and scenery but different moods and style'. They soon realised that 'determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’

So I think art historians are safe. This is the sort of story which reminds me of an episode from the old TV series The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan is confronted with a new 'wonder machine' which knows the answer to every question in the world, and which will render man redundant. But when McGoohan simply asks it 'why?', it explodes.

That said, I've always thought that computers should be able to practise some form of connoisseurship. It's probably just a question of loading enough high-res images.

You can read the original research paper here. Jamie Edwards at the University of Birmingham's art hitory blog Golovine has further thoughts here

Update - a reader writes:

The whole thing reminds me of what one of my professors said to me in undergrad "just because they look alike doesn't mean they're the same". And isn't that just where computers fail - in distinguishing between similar 'objects' and the numerous ways those combinations of objects are used to create meaning.

Regardless, computers can only truly generate data, so we still need historians to research, analyse, and interpret that data. Let alone disseminate it. If x-rays can't replace connoisseurship, then I hardly think algorithms can replace art historians. 

Although, if they were to be used as a means to supplement connoisseurship as you suggest, then I think they would be more successful if the focus was limited by a particular artist, historical era, or artistic genre in some way  so that they're not analyzing such wide stylistic swatches. I imagine that could get interesting, especially for your work looking for 'sleepers'.

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