This week, we talked about data. Matthew Battles and Michael Maizels give a review of how art history has grown and changed as a discipline in their article, “Collections and/of Data: Art History and the Art Museum in the DH Mode”. Although photography has been understood as something art historians study, the establishment of art history as an empirical field was deeply influenced by the development of photography. Before photography, attempts to compare the development of art were difficult without having both works in front of you. Early (and infamous) art historians like Johann Winckelmann and Gotthold Lessing in the 18th century attempted to analyze art stylistically and historically, but they didn’t have the ability to compare and juxtapose different artworks.
Photography changed this landscape by allowing scholars to directly compare and contrast artworks. The lantern-slide lecture, a photographic performance, played a pivotal role in art history’s evolution. Battles and Maizels call the lantern-slide lecture a “ritualized performance”, a statement I couldn’t agree more with. Figures like Aby Warburg, Heinrich Wolfflin, and Jacob Burkhardt used these lectures to demonstrate stylistic attributes and art’s evolution. This approach was foundational to various art historical movements that aimed to explain the development of the arts. The slide lecture is still very prevalent in art history education and is the foundation of how art history is taught across the country.
This seems like a bizarre pedagogical method of the past, a pre-WWII way of studying art. However, my advisors and professors (even ones in their forties) remember a time when gathering physical slides for a professor or having a book that contains all the art for the class as a study guide was a part of their educational training. Professors adopting powerpoints with images is a technological revolution that happened in my lifetime. I watched the switch from VCR tapes to DVDs to Netflix, books to kindles, radios to iPods to Spotify, and despite all of this, the thought of a professor bringing a flash drive instead of physical slides for the first time makes me feel sort of… proud? Nostalgic? An awareness of standing on the shoulders of giants in the field I love? I’m not really sure, but this reading really made me think about the field that in many ways seems so static and uninterrupted has actually had its own growth spurts.
However, the slide format has limitations, such as cost and fragility. Comprehensive image collections, which existed as surrogates in various forms, became instrumental in early 20th-century art history research. Walter Benjamin in particular emphasizes photography’s role in freeing art from context and ceremony, which led to its widespread use as a surrogate for viewing the actual thing.
The development of art history runs parallel to the appearance of the art museum, which originally were closer to an expression of nationhood/patriotism and a desire for orderly knowledge, rather than the impartial institutions that are dedicated to accessible knowledge (regardless of whether or not they actually fulfill that goal is a discussion for a different post. #MuseumsAreNotNeutral). Photographic archives, like encyclopedic museums, would ultimately become essential in art history because they provide a nucleus for surveying geographically and temporally dispersed artifacts. I’m sure that Warburg, Wofflin, and others wouldn’t even recognize what art history has become. The other day, I read Erin Benay’s book Italy by Way of India where she talks about how trade routes between Italy and India greatly affected the art produced. This kind of study, and many others, would be completely inconceivable without comparative studies (and the internet. That helps too. Clearly!).
Andre Malraux expands on this concept, suggesting that photographic archives could fulfill the museum’s mission by turning it inside out. The museum not only preserves artistic heritage but also enhances the concept of “art” itself. By putting ulterior motives, personal interests and original context from artworks on the back burner, these objects can be better situated within a more (not totally) neutral lens. Thus, a more “global” art history is born.
Ted Underwood’s blog post, “Where to Start with Text Mining”, shows the possibilities of using visualization tools for research. I love these visualizations and I think it would make pulling thematic concepts out of readings really easy. In his example, I can imagine that seeing words like “solitary”, “tranquility”, or “meadow” be popular in his corpus would send me down an interesting research path. Are other similar authors using these words and themes? Is the author looking at pastoral themes?
He argues that text mining in literature analysis serves two goals. First, it will uncover patterns and themes that could be used as evidence to compliment, complicate, or support literary-historical arguments. The examples he chooses really demonstrate the success of visualization in this regard. Second, text mining can be an exploratory technique. It can reveal clues or trends that might need further elaboration/study using more traditional methods. In many cases though, the lines between the two objectives are blurred. Finding patterns and holes in your text is a researcher’s dream, and text mining can be an important tool to do this.