“The changing research practices of the art historian” seems akin to saying “the changing color of white paint on my walls”. Art history defined by Matthew Long and Roger C. Shonfeld as “a broad field that can be defined in ways that include or exclude certain specializations and proximate disciplines” is not a field that can be thought of as particularly dynamic (Long and Shonfeld). Although this is a generalization that does not include all art historians, the reader can imagine my surprise at Long and Shonfeld’s choice of title.
Particularly in a digital humanities context, art historians have traditionally shied away from “overusing” (read: incorporating in any meaningful way) technology into their practice. LIDAR, digital archives, 3D modeling, or AI seem like library sciences — or worse, archaeology– rather than art history. Despite the identity problems of the art historian, Long and Shonfeld make compelling arguments for the practicality and usefulness of digital practices in art history.
Creating exhibitions, museum publications, and special collections are all examples of ways in which art historians can benefit from a digital presence. We consider ourselves to be interdisciplinary by cherry picking practices and interests to support our own arguments, but we forget that it is a two way street. Long and Shonfeld suggest that incorporating digital practices into the discipline can act as supplementary material to other disciples.
Despite the supposed unwillingness of art historians to incorporate digital art history into their studies, Paul Jaskot suggests that art historians have been using digital avenues for quite some time (Jaskot). He identifies four primary methodological areas in digital art history: digital storytelling, text-based approaches, network analysis, and spatial analysis. Social network analysis and spatial analysis have been particularly influential as well due to their ability to handle large datasets and address complex historical questions. The importance of coordination and collaboration among researchers to gather a larger body of evidence is crucial to creating more complex and fruitful databases for social art history. Increasing data alone does not lead to more accurate conclusions, drawing a parallel to the historical debate between Ernst Gombrich and Arnold Hauser regarding the relationship between art and social structures. The inclusion of the Gombrich/Hauser debate would not be lost on any classically-trained (read: uppity) art historian. By speaking the language of the people who have historically been disinterested in progress, Jaskot seems to say, “look, you can have both! The old masters and the new ways can actually coexist, rather than in conflict.”
However, my biggest takeaway from Jaskot’s reading was that by including another dimension for our studies, we can actually enrich our understanding of the objects. Maps, 3D models, and VR make buildings seem like, well, buildings; rather than a flat image on a projector. We forget all too often that people walk in and around these spaces, voices carry, and floors creak. Considering Chartres Cathedral as a “French gothic cathedral which finished in 1252 with a cross-plan and a rich sculptural program on the portals” is accurate, but reductive. People were baptized, married, fought, dutifully attended church, city meetings and more for the last 800ish years. Art historians are constantly on the hunt to see the object for what it is, and digital humanities can assist in bridging the gap between then and now. I think that the pedagogical benefits of incorporating digital art history are the most interesting aspects of digital humanities, but the possibilities are endless.
Rosina Ferrara, Head of a Capri Girl, John Singer Sargent
1878, Sargent capture Rosina with such a delicate clarity that has solidified this drawing as one of my all time favorites. The Google Arts and Culture app had a feature where users could upload a seflie and it would find their art doppleganger. This was mine, and it’s location at the Denver Art Museum felt all too prophetic. It’s not wholly academic, curatorial, or archival, rather a fun possibility of what digital art history can accomplish.