Issues in Art History

by Annie Poslusny

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Digital Technology & Learning

Edward Ayers asks, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” in which he discusses the issues facing the inclusion of digital projects in scholarly work. He states that the foundation of academic life, the scholarship upon which everything else is built, has not changed. He notes that the articles and books that scholars produce today are not very different from those being produced fifty, or even a hundred years ago. To make matters worse, scholars don’t seem to care. Ayers references a study by Ithaka S+R which found that two-thirds of faculty, (sciences, social sciences, and humanities) judge that new digital methods are “not valuable or important” for their research. Many scholars believe that using digital methods would “not be worth the time.” This creates a self-perpetuating system in which new scholars continue to work in the same way as those who will be evaluating their work. Why spend all the time and effort in learning new software, tools and platforms, create a digital project, only for that same work to be deemed as having less scholarly value than work appearing in traditional print material?

Syndi Dunn’s article which appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education has the daunting title, “Digital Humanists: If You Want Tenure, Do Double the Work.” She poses the question of what happens when scholars who build interactive databases and open-access online journals come up for tenure. She notes that traditional scholarship, in the form of a monograph or a series of individually written journal articles, aren’t a good fit for digital work. Scholarly groups and universities are working to establish alternatives for digital scholars, but Dunn notes that consensus is a long way off. This leaves digital humanists in the difficult position of believing that their digital work is worth doing, but feeling uncertain on what it will get them in their careers. Dunn notes that for those in the alternative academic careers, having a digital only portfolio is acceptable, but that those positions typically do not come with tenure. For those scholars who want to get tenure, the digital-only portfolio is risky. In order to increase their chances of getting tenure, these scholars do double the work in order to satisfy the traditional requirements of an evaluation process that hasn’t yet caught up to their digital work. This situation in turn continues to support the traditional scholarship system.

I also wanted to share that I continued to work with Agisoft Photoscan in an attempt to create a 3 D model. Thanks to Professor Bauer, I realized what my mistake was in my first attempt. Instead of moving myself and the camera around the object, I put the sculpture on a turntable and moved it. This completely threw the software off. As soon as Professor Bauer told me what I had done wrong, I remember her telling us in class how crucial it was to move the camera around the object. So, in my next attempt, I was very careful to move the camera around the object as I took photos. Here is a picture of my next attempt:

Christmas decoration

And here is how the model turned out:


It is a vast improvement over my first attempt, but still not what I was hoping for. I decided to try again, this time with an ornament. While it was hanging on the tree, I thought the height of the object would be helpful in taking the necessary photos.

I thought this white reindeer had possibilities . . .

Here is the model I created:


At least I am getting a model of some kind. I decided to make one final attempt, which was a sculpture I had made in undergrad. Here is a close-photo of the object:

Here is the resulting model:


What I liked about this model is that I at least managed to get some of the texture on the object. It is clear that my photographic skills need improving, at least in terms of keeping the camera in the same spot (height) while moving around the object. I know that I took enough pictures, so I don’t think the issue was in the overlap. However, even though I was not entirely successful with my 3 D models, I would love to improve and be successful in using this software.

This semester I have learned a great deal about digital art history and the digital humanities. I now know the difference between a digital project and a digitized project. I can also pinpoint the inherent difficulties in the acceptance of digital art history in the field at large. I have learned about different software programs and digital tools, and know the pros and cons of each. I also have gained an understanding and appreciation of everything that goes into a digital humanities project, and that makes me a good future colleague. On a personal note, I have learned how warm and welcoming the other graduate students and faculty are at UNC, and am so happy to have found a scholarly home there. Happy Holidays everyone and have a restful break!



Edward Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” Educause Review (August 5, 2013).

Sydni Dunn, “Digital Humanists: If You Want Tenure, Do Double the Work,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 January 2014,

3-D Modeling with Agisoft

I wanted to present Agisoft with a challenge for our 3-D modeling project, so I selected a sculpture of Holly Fischer’s, who is an artist and faculty member at my undergraduate school, Meredith College. Holly is an amazing artist, and was kind enough to let me photograph one of her sculptures in the 3-D studio at Meredith. Here is a photo of the sculpture.

Holly Fischer, 2019

I wanted to find out how Agisoft would handle such a shape. I took 30 pictures, from all sides, about 2 ft. away, as I had the sculpture on a turntable. I also photographed the top and bottom of the sculpture. Here is the result:


What you should be seeing is a fairly accurate rendering of the background of the studio, not the actual sculpture itself. I should have placed something plain behind the sculpture so the software couldn’t see the colorful background. That was my first attempt.

For my second attempt, I removed the background completely before I began the rendering process. However, my laptop is still rendering, and I left it running overnight. I am not filled with optimism at this point. If I had to guess what is wrong with this attempt, it is that perhaps I took too many pictures. I will let it run a bit longer and see what happens.

It just finished rendering, and the second attempt came out worse than the first. I am not sure where I went wrong, but clearly I haven’t done all the steps correctly. Over the weekend, I will take new photos of something else and try again.

I am also having difficulty embedding the pdf file. I added a pdf embedder plug-in, which is working, but I am not seeing anything when I preview the post. I don’t know if this is something that will only work when it is published, or not.

Even though I am having difficulty with Agisoft, I think this technology is amazing, and has many applications for art historians. Being able to view an object from anywhere in the world, from multiple perspectives, without damaging the object is an amazing opportunity for scholars.

The articles we read for class discussion this week relate to digital humanities as applied to the field of art history. Sydni Dunn’s article discusses the difficulties facing digital humanists in using a digital portfolio, or project in place of a traditional paper for their scholarship. So many of them fear being denied tenure with digital-only projects that they wind up doing twice the amount of work as those choosing more traditional modes of scholarship. While universities are being more open to digital projects, they are not completely embraced in the same manner as traditional scholarship. This creates a lot of uncertainty for academics in the digital humanities. This will continue to be a problem, because as we know from our readings and discussions this semester, art historians in general are rather wary of digital projects, and publishing still remains the gold standard of scholarship. Many art historians don’t see the need for digital art history, and unfortunately many examples we are shown are not entirely convincing. It seems that many of these projects fall into the interesting, but not necessarily revelatory, category. Until there is a digital project that could not be done on paper, and provokes some new understanding about the material it examines, art historians will remain exactly where they are now, using PowerPoint.

Dunn advises that when assessing someone’s digital project, evaluators should be told to examine the work in its digital form, not screenshots, thumbnails, or a printout. This shows very clearly the level of familiarity that most have with digital projects. If you have to tell them to look at it in its native state, you’re already in trouble. It seems pointless to be evaluated on a digital project by those who don’t understand what went into its creation. Dunn does say that it is advisable for the digital project to be evaluated by those in the digital humanities, but this may not be possible in all departments. This poses a real problem for those working in the digital humanities, and it is not easily overcome. This explains why these scholars find themselves doing double the work, by providing their tenure committee with not only their digital project, but a traditional paper as well. Those working in alternate academic careers may be able to provide solely a digital project as proof of scholarship, but many of these positions are not tenure-track positions. There remains a skepticism towards the scholarship of a digital-only project, which keeps many art historians from embracing digital art history.


Sydni Dunn, “Digital Humanists: If You Want Tenure, Do Double the Work,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 January 2014,

Crowdsourcing or Outsourcing?

Nancy Proctor identifies ways in which the role of the curator is changing in her article, “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media.” She notes that curators’ roles are moving from ‘stodgy’ experts who control the collections and information to being those who embrace change, and take a more collaborative approach to the community. Museums have typically been viewed as authoritative and snobbish, and they are working to improve their image with the public. Museums have had to embrace social media, especially since a museum’s digital presence is no longer confined to its website, and thanks to social media, it has lost control of the digital media published about its collection. Proctor summarized the challenges to the art museum in three points:

“First, a shift from substance and solidity towards activity and performance, and from history to the contemporary. Second, a privileging of the temporary exhibition over the permanent collection. And three, exhibitions that focus on creating events and sensations rather than generating knowledge.”

Nancy Proctor

She notes that the role of curator is increasingly one of “storytelling” or generating narratives rather than producing classical art historical knowledge. How did generating knowledge become bad? I understand that museums are trying to engage more sectors of the public, and that is a positive step, but I think there is room for all kinds of viewers; those who want sensory experiences, those who want to learn, and those who want both. I like the idea of curators being approachable, but I don’t think of them as ‘collaborators’ with the public. I do think curators need to be acutely aware of the community they live and work in, and it should inform their decision-making process, especially in the creation of exhibitions. However, scholars who have spent years researching and studying a field are experts, and should remain so. On a separate yet related topic, I disagree with the current trend of decreasing the word count on the wall labels at museums, as well. Typically, this is done to feel ‘less educational,’ and to make visitors to the museum feel more comfortable. Can’t they just read less if they want to? What about those who would like to read more? There must be a way to reach more members of the public while still keeping current museum-goers happy. I believe there is a vast difference between making information more accessible and losing depth and nuance.

This week in class we discussed crowdsourcing, and its use in museums. Museums are working to increase their members and attendance, as well as to stay relevant in today’s world. One way that museums use crowdsourcing is in transcription. The museum will set up a project, for example, transcribing handwritten letters, and ask members of the public to work on it. Museums view this as leveraging some of their most passionate users. Data sets can be made available to scholars, which expands knowledge generally as well. Crowdsourcing projects allow those who are interested in history to actually work on it themselves, while making them feel that they’re helping to build something they care about. Using crowdsourcing for transcription of handwritten documents that OCR is not able to work with is quite valuable. This can be tremendously helpful for research institutions that have vast amounts of archival material, in a variety of forms. In addition to letters, there are also items like exhibition contracts and art dealer stock books. These types of projects are quite valuable to local history projects and restoration projects, especially for small, public history institutions places who have a small staff. This kind of work becomes a symbiotic relationship between the public and the institution. Particularly valuable are the older members of the community who have a lot of knowledge to contribute. I do think there is a difference between crowdsourcing and outsourcing. The difference lies in the collaborative relationship between the community and the institution. For example, in a transcription project, the transcription is one aspect of a larger project. Not only do the museum staff need to plan and set up the platform, they will also vet and process the data after transcription has taken place. The members of the community are contributing to a larger project that the museum staff is also working on as well. Crowdsourcing can also be seen as a form of engagement in which users contribute directly to the knowledge creation for cultural heritage. These projects can be very successful when users feel that they are part of a community working toward the goal of knowledge creation, as well as the ability to interface directly with the project team. Crowdsourcing, social media, and engaging with the public are some ways that a museum can create a sense of community, which has tremendous benefits, even if it is a virtual community.


Nancy Proctor, “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media,” Curator: The Museum Journal 53, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 35–43.

Virtual Reality & Academics

Architectural historian Diane Favro, discusses the use of Virtual Reality models in the chapter, “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Virtual Reality Re-Creations and Academia,” in Imaging Ancient Rome. Favro focuses on how historic sites were viewed, experienced, imagined, and held in memory. She identified two goals in the Cultural VR Laboratory at UCLA. The first, was to ensure that models would be created scientifically, and be architecturally accurate. The second, was to contextualize individual structures in broader urban and geographical settings.

Favro notes that the virtual reality models enable viewers to move through digital environments in real time. This is an intriguing idea. I’m curious to learn more about it. Does it mean we could “walk” through the streets of Ancient Rome or Greece? How does it work? Favro goes on to explain, that the vast possibilities offered by connecting Virtua Reality re-creations with sensorial simulations and complex metadata archives are forcing scholars to assess not only the symbiotic research relationship between different disciplines, but also the theorization of re-creations. So, in short, these virtual reality urban simulations cause scholars to work together collaboratively, as some of the research across disciplines overlaps, as well as to analyze the meaning of these re-creations.

She goes on to state that in the United States, academic advocacy for immersive historic urban re-creation is centered in fields such as preservation, museum studies, and cultural management programs, rather than in the academic fields of archaeology and architecture. Favro notes that these other fields embrace these visualizations as part of their education program. Why aren’t scholars in archeology and architecture embracing the re-creations of cityscapes? They believe they are too simplified and too hypothetical.

“Not infrequently, all historical urban re-creations are tainted by association with populist representations made for the entertainment industry. Immersive simulations of ancient cities, regardless of accuracy, have enduring sensationalistic appeal. The politicization and exploitation of popular images depicting ancient cities for formulating national identity have, in the eyes of many scholars, further debased the status of reconstructions.”

Diane Favro

Favro then describes the “cloud of suspicion which hovers over all historical re-creations in academia.” This particularly related to those cityscapes whose scale of necessity requires a high percentage of conjectural representation. In addition, this “suspicion” also arises due to a scholarly discomfort with the visual representation of ideas. Favro asserts that once a visualization becomes part of the cultural memory, it gains a life and iconic power of its own, and is freed from academic constraints. These images forcefully shape our thinking. She asserts that images are potent bearers of meaning, as well as constituents of knowledge, and archaeologists, rather than confronting this fact, have ignored this role of images. From an art historical standpoint, the image, or object, is everything.

Favro addresses the scholarly challenges that historical cityscape re-creations face. She notes that while it is possible to reconstruct a single building with a fair degree of accuracy based on the physical remains and analogs, the same is not true for expansive urban cities. Any urban re-creation that aims to represent environments holistically must, of necessity, involve extensive reasoned approximation. By far the most common criticism of the virtual reality models is that they are too conjectural. It must be explicitly explained that the virtual reality models are based on extensive research, yet in order to show the buildings holistically, significant sections are based on reasoned conjecture. Scholars believe that the educated, or reasoned, guesses the recreations make devalue the overall authenticity of the project. I think it would be difficult to get a group of experts to agree on all points of a cityscape recreation, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up, or state that they don’t have any value. Speaking as a visual learner, these recreations have a tremendous educational value, regardless of whether they are one hundred percent accurate.

Favro adds that in these recreations, the ageing of materials is not depicted, and this can cause some confusion in the viewer. The viewer is asked to accept the omission of unverified aspects, such as color and sculpture, while simultaneously being asked to accept the inclusion of hypothetical components, such as floors and urban infill. She notes that the distinction between the two categories can become blurred in the mind of the viewer.

Scholars and the general public are polar opposites in their reception of these historical recreations. Lay observers tend to criticize the lack of painterly qualities in the digital recreations, while scholars the presentations are too aestheticized. Scholars maintain that the aesthetics of a color palette, rendered shadows, and textures, conveys unverifiable, and even biased interpretations of facts. I think there must be a way to meet somewhere in the middle. Perhaps scholars could agree on a certain amount of accuracy that would be acceptable for K-12 educational projects.

There are a host of benefits to this type of digital humanities project. The construction of virtual reality models has stimulated interdisciplinary exchange between scholars in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. These projects are collaboration intensive, and require teams of experts working together to achieve accuracy and success. Virtual reality models create new avenues of research, interdisciplinary collaboration, and add to the educational resources of teachers. I would love to see one for myself, and am excited to work on our 3-D project. One of the aspects of the cityscape recreations that Favro mentioned really stuck out for me, and that was using these recreations to get the mood of an ancient city. That idea has captured my imagination. To explore an ancient city, in real time, and get a feel for its mood? To experience that, I would be happy to accept the “reasoned conjectures” of the team programming the cityscape.

Bishop by annieposlusny on Sketchfab

Above is the 3-D model I built today in class using Agisoft and Sketchfab. This was a fun process, and not as complicated as I thought it might be. I’m looking forward to photographing objects at the Ackland museum next week, and building another model.


Diane Favro. “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Virtual Reality Re-Creations and Academia.” In Imaging Ancient Rome, edited by Haselberger, Lothar Williams Symposium on Classical Architecture and John H Humphrey, 321–34. Supplementary Series 61. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2006.

Network Analysis

Scott Weingart discusses the basics of networks in his article, “Demystifying Networks.” He cautions that, “Networks can be used on any project. Networks should be used on far fewer.” Weingart warns not to apply networks to everything. He notes that network studies are made under the assumption that neither the information, nor the way the information relates to itself is the whole story. I began to have difficulty following the rest of the article at this point. As someone inexperienced with these terms, networks, 2-mode, bimodal, and multimodal sound like another language to me. And it is, a digital language. Weingart went on to stress,

“Besides dealing with the single mode / multimodal issue, humanists also must struggle with fitting square pegs in round holes. Humanistic data are almost by definition uncertain, open to interpretation, flexible, and not easily definable.”

Scott Weingart

He states that many in the digital humanities use or “borrow” networks from others, when these very same networks were creating to answer a specific question in a specific way. Weingart urges us that we “must be willing to get out hands dirty editing the algorithms to suit our needs.” This is sound advice, but I would have no idea where to start editing an algorithm. In the increasing use of digital tools and technology, many, in an attempt to “keep up” resort to borrowing a network, while also lacking the skills to alter it to suit their needs, or the parameters of their project. At times, digital humanities projects offer the illusion of speed and facility, but as we have learned this semester, that is not necessarily the case. From the very beginning of a digital project, there are a great many decisions to make, and these choices impact the success of the project. The careful organization of data, for instance, is one key factor.

Weingart gives a hypothetical example of a digital humanities novice falling into a particular trap. Newcomers will take a dataset, load it into their favorite software and visualizes it to create a network. At this point Weingart blames the ease of use of the software as well as the non-technical description of the buttons for what happens next. According to the author, the novice will press these enticing buttons to see what will come out. The trap is that the novice changes the visual characteristics of the network based on the buttons they have pressed. First of all, as a novice, I resent the implication that I am like a child with a toy, willy-nilly pressing random buttons. Second, even though I am a beginner, I would never assume that my curiosity about what would happen to my network if I changed some of the settings would lead to a scholarly conclusion. I am well aware of what I do, and do not know. It is not the fault of the software if the user is foolhardy in the conclusions she draws from it. Weingart seems to imply that the software should be more difficult to use, and the buttons more technological to impede a beginner’s use, so as to spare us from our ill-advised assumptions. Are we, or are we not trying to encourage more people (especially those in the humanities) to move into the digital arena? If the technology is too difficult to learn or use, then progress towards an acceptance of digital humanities projects will be very slow indeed. Would Weingart prefer to keep digital technology to only those with specific training in the field? If so, then why bother “demystifying” networks, which is an article clearly aimed at the beginner?

One project that we looked at this week was Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network of the Roman World, which is an interactive scholarly work (ISW).  The viewer can plot a route anywhere through the Roman Empire as it existed in roughly 200 CE. You can see not only how long this journey would have taken, but also the route, and the expense, based on modes of transportation. You can even account for the season you will be traveling in. ORBIS is a website with both static and interactive components. I was amazed to discover that it only took nine months to build. The designers drew data primarily from the Pleiades project, along with route information from the Barrington Atlas. ORBIS would be a great educational tool for K-12. One of the advantages of DAH projects is how accessible they are to a variety of students. Everyone learns differently, and anything that makes information more accessible and/or more exciting is valuable.


This week we worked with Gephi in class. Above is a screenshot of my network. I had difficulty in maneuvering the network image around (perhaps using a mouse would work better than a laptop?) but at least this gives you some idea of what it looks like.

Here are a few of the positives of Gephi:

  • Gephi has a simple interface, and the tool symbols are logical and easy to find.
  • The data import process is easy in CSV format.
  • The software produces a graph automatically once the correct data is loaded and mapped together (edges and nodes).
  • Customization. You have the option to change the size and color of nodes and edges to represent different characteristics of the graph.

The biggest negative for me:

  • In Gephi, there’s not much of an export feature for the map you’ve created. Screenshots can be taken, but you can’t currently export to an image or HTML document. So, what do you do with it once it’s been created?

While only having a cursory experience with Gephi, I’m not sure I would want more. The difficulty in exporting the file is significant, in my mind. If you create a network, you would want others to be able to see it, not as a static image, but as a dynamic one. I admit to being biased against text-based analyses. I have always been a visual learner, and for me personally I prefer Storymap or TimelineJS.


Digital Project 3

Here is my completed timeline of Kandinsky that I began working on last week. I had started this project as a way to organize my thoughts on the artist prior to writing my research paper for the Bauhaus seminar. It was definitely useful in this regard. I have never really enjoyed writing outlines, and for me this timeline serves the same purpose, but is significantly better because I can see visuals and text simultaneously. I had way too much fun finding the videos for this timeline — especially video which animates Kandinsky’s art to music. I also enjoyed seeing a clip from a film showing Kandinsky painting. Typically I work in text documents, and this project forced me to look at videos and I’m glad I did, as it opened a new perspective on Kandinsky for me.

Cultural Erasure

Above is a brief example of a timeline I created in class using TimelineJS. I decided to focus on the life of Kandinsky, as I am researching his career as part of the Bauhaus seminar. I thought it would help to organize my thoughts, and to put into visual form the significant moments of his life. I have not had time to finish the timeline, but the above example will at least give you an idea. I find that one of the best uses of a timeline is organization, as well as it affords you the ability to see how different events may overlap each other. Timelines are useful tools for the art historian, and the historian. I had used TimelineJS once before, as we had to create a timeline of German history as a group project in our Bauhaus seminar. The only factor I had difficulty with using TimelineJS was when I tried to add images. There is a specific way you need to copy your image (which I didn’t know the first time I used TimelineJS, but Professor Bauer covered it in class) and if you don’t do it properly, your image won’t appear. This is definitely not what you want to happen during a presentation!

I went to the Digital Conference today at North Carolina Central University, and was able to see Dr. Lyneise Williams’s presentation. She is working on a project examining the images of African-Americans in print, and has run into an issue with archival material. The problem is that when newspapers are transferred to microfilm, the image is distorted and flattened by the process, and many of the gradations from the original image are lost. As a result, the images of African-Americans are obscured by becoming darker than they actually are. If microfilm is then digitized, it is now two steps removed from the original, and the distortions become greater. Dr. Williams explained that the people tasked with digitizing magazines and newspapers are primarily concerned with the text being clear and legible, and that image quality is not considered. She states that the most frequent response she hears when she points out the issue at the various archives she visits is, “We never thought about it.”

This problem has several components. First, Dr. Williams notes that the individuals tasked with digitizing the material are not archivists. They do not consider the image quality when digitizing magazines or newspaper articles. Second, archives are moving completely to digital collections in order to save space, so it will no longer be possible to find the original, primary documents. In this case, Dr. Williams traveled to Paris to find old copies of magazines in shops. Third, the distortion of African-Americans images in history is a form of cultural erasure. Their features can be darkened to the extent that they become a mere shadow, in which they can no longer be recognized. There is something deeply disconcerting about this. Not only is this something that hasn’t been considered, in many cases it is too late to do anything about it as the original photos no longer exist. The idea that people of color are having their features inadvertently darkened to the point that there is a marked difference, and that the move to digitize all archival documents is going to compound the issue is awful.

I also learned that Kodak photographic paper was created and color-keyed for a white person’s skin tone. While this is not surprising, I was unaware that this was the case. This meant that all people of color appeared much darker in the photographs than they actually were. It’s a form of racial bias in the development of photography which I suspect many are unaware of.

The question remains, what do we do? Archives are running out of room, and soon most if not all of them will only work with digitized materials. But the very nature of the digitization process is inherently problematic for representations of people of color. The materials we use, the techniques we use to digitize newspapers can obscure the features of a person. How do we preserve the original images? And what do we do when the original images no longer exist?

As art historians we are taught to examine primary sources. We examine the objects we research. What if these objects no longer existed? What if a new technology came along which seemingly made these objects more accessible, but obscured and altered the image to a significant degree? What if this is all we had left? This is the issue that Dr. Williams is facing in her research. For art historians, the visual image is the very center of our work. But it is possible, and even likely, depending on the area of our research, that the very images we see are not accurate representations, and may even be misleading.

Perhaps the answer is for the field of digital art history to expand. If there were people trained to consider both the text and the image, then perhaps we could stop any further degradation of the image from occurring. But what about the history of people of color in the United States? Most of the original photographs and/or negatives have been lost or destroyed. We are left with the distortions created by microfilm, or the double distortions of microfilm which has been digitized. I was saddened, but not surprised to discover that we have ignorantly been culturally erasing people of color from history. As art historians exploring digital technology, it is crucial for us to remember that even seemingly small choices matter. The very materials we use to make information more accessible can have flaws which render the images inaccurate.

Digital Project 3

Kandinsky & Klee

I wanted to create several visualizations using the Chrome plugin, Tableau. I was excited to use it, because it enables the viewer to see a vast array of work in different modes, for example you can zoom in, or view in grayscale. This would enable you to examine brushstrokes, colors, shapes, figures, and patterns. However, I had so much difficulty getting this to work! When I clicked on the download quilt button, nothing happened. Professor Bauer gave me some suggestions, which I tried, but to no avail. So I came up with a temporary solution, which was to take a screenshot of the image, crop it, and upload it here. When I am able to download the image, I will edit the post and add the larger image.

The visualization above is the work of painters Kandinsky and Klee, two Bauhaus artists, who became good friends. As you can see, their styles were similar. I also included Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea painting as well, as we learned it is one of the earliest abstract paintings in Germany, and possibly inspired Kandinsky (I am in the process of researching that potential link).

The quilt below is of my favorite portrait painter, John Singer Sargent. I only included his portraits of women and children, because I wanted to see if his portrait of Madame X is the only portrait painting of a woman he did in profile. From these examples, it certainly looks that way, but I would need to sample images of all his portraits.

Madame X is my second favorite painting of Sargent’s, my first is this one.

John Singer Sargent, Pailleron Children, ca. 1880
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This was Sargent’s first double portrait, and it depicts the children of playwright Edouard Pailleron and his wife, Marie. His son, Edouard, and daughter Marie-Louise are pictured. Marie-Louise later became a literary figure in her own right, and recounted, (we hope with exaggerration) eighty-three sittings for the portrait, as well as battles about costume and the arrangement of her hair. Sargent has captured Marie-Louise’s unsettling intensity, in an image that departs from conventional Victorian representations of children. Just look at her face — what fierceness!

Visualization software has a lot to offer art historians, especially when working with large amounts of images or text. I hope to become more proficient in using them, so I can better understand all the possibilities.

With Various Levels of Enthusiasm

Diane Zorich addresses some of the issues raised in her report which was sponsored by the Kress Foundation entitled, “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship.” This study surveyed art historians to clarify the perceptions on the role of digital scholarship and its future impact of the discipline of art history. The article we read for this week’s discussion was based on a presentation she did in an attempt to address some of the pushback she’s has gotten after the publication of the original findings.

Zorich highlights two post-report comments:

“Art History is not behind the curve. We use digital technologies, we search online, we use and create online resources . . .”

“Everyone who comes through our (art history research) center is doing digital art history by virtue of using our databases, our technologies, our digital resources . . . Art history research centers are leaders in promoting digital art history.”

Zorich’s readers

In addressing these comments, Zorich states that we must move toward a more sophisticated understanding of digital art history, and references Johanna Drucker’s article, “Is There A Digital Art History?” Drucker establishes a difference between digitized art history, which is digital access and delivery of images, and digital art history, which is the use of computational methodologies and analytical techniques enabled by new technology: visualization, network analysis, topic modeling, simulation, pattern recognition, and aggregation of materials from disparate geographical locations. Zorich asserts that until art historians embrace the “computational methodologies and analytical techniques” that are enabled by new technologies, art historians will never be practicing digital art history in a meaningful way. According to Zorich, art historians are merely moving their current practices to a digital platform, and are not using the computer and methodologies unique to this platform to expand art history in a transformational way.

Zorich goes on to discuss three forms of computational methodologies and how they could lead to new forms of exploration, analysis and scholarship that would transform the discipline. She shows some visualization images, the first of which she describes as “low-hanging fruit,” meaning, it was easy to create just by “feeding in some data.” I was a bit baffled at this selection. Did she choose to do a visualization which was simple to create to show art historians that digital art history can be simple? Or not time consuming? It also wasn’t “transformational,” either. Zorich assures us that “data visualization is more than just a tool that gives us a nice way to look at something. It allows us to visually comprehend information in ways that facilitate interpretation and prompt new lines of inquiry.” Next is a visualization called, “Art and Money,” which again, is not transformation or revelatory. The work of male artists sells for the most money? This is not news to anyone. Cultural Analytics is next, in which the works of Mondrian are analyzed. Lev Manovich, a computer scientist at the City University of New York (CUNY), and his students use a standard statistical technique called Principal Component Analysis to analyze sixty different visual features of a work. The paintings are organized by visual similarity. The findings show that almost all of the one hundred and twenty-eight Mondrian works fall into two groups: those dominated by yellow and orange, and those dominated by blue and violet. Manovich notes that his work has been received by art historians “with various levels of enthusiasm.” How are we going to transform art history by dividing Mondrian’s work into yellow/orange and blue/violet categories? Why does this even matter? It would be like counting the number of geometric shapes in Kandinsky’s paintings. Could a machine do it? Yes. Does it matter, ultimately in a statement on Kandinsky’s oeuvre? No. Zorich also displays Topic Modeling, which is a text-mining technique that uses statistical methods to look at words in huge text corpora. Historians have applied topic modeling to historical newspapers. Zorich concedes that she could not find an example of topic modeling applied to art historical materials because she has been unable to identify anyone in the discipline who has used this approach. That alone would have made me wary of using Topic Modeling as an example. Perhaps there’s a reason that art historians don’t use Topic Modeling, for example, that you are now relying on text, rather than visuals. And to rely on text, you are relying on the people that selected the text, or “bags of words.”

I remain unconvinced that the examples Zorich provided are worth the time and effort that would go into them. Perhaps the problem is that Zorich is not an art historian, and therefore isn’t able to target an example that would truly get us excited about digital art history. There are several hurdles that need to be overcome for an art historian to create a digital art history project. First, there is the learning curve of the new technology. Do you want to invest your valuable research time in learning new platforms? Second, is the daunting realization of how much time goes into a digital art history project. Helmreich and Fletcher cautioned art historians about how they underestimated the time it would take to input the data for their digital art history project. Third, I believe that if you wanted to work with data, statistics, models, and computational analysis, you would be in a field other than art history. Grids, graphs, data entry, and scatter plots are not exciting to me. At all. I try to keep an open mind, but a lot of digital art history is a little too close to math, or science, or computer science. These are all noble and worthy fields, but they just aren’t for me. I don’t want to turn the discipline I love into something I don’t. I am not opposed to anyone pursuing digital art history, but I have yet to see evidence which would compel me to do so. I think it’s important for all art historians to know about the possibilities that digital art history has to offer, but I think that after that point, it’s up to the individual to decide what works best for them.


Diane M. Zorich, “The ‘Art’ of Digital Art History” (presented at The Digital World of Art History, Princeton University, June 26, 2013),

Johanna Drucker. “Is there a Digital Art History?” in Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, special issue, edited by Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich, Spring 2013.

Data, Data, and more Data

This quote by George W. Pierson of Yale sums how many art historians feel about becoming digital art historians:

“What have the humanities and computers to say to each other? Are they not strangers, perhaps enemies, at heart? By definition, the humanities should be concerned with quality and with individual man, computers with things in quantity or men in the mass. Where the humanist seeks to understand man’s feelings and beliefs, his art and moral values, the analytical engine would seem able to digest only secular facts, or information which has been atomized, probably quantified, in any case neutralized of any value change, desensitized of artistic feeling, and thoroughly depersonalized. What can such automatic calculators have to add to the old calculus of human worth?”

What can such automatic calculators have to add to the old calculus of human worth, indeed. Professor Pierson then considers the other side of the situation:

“Yet the humanities are concerned with facts as well as with feelings; they depend upon the accumulation of knowledge and its systematic arrangement; their lifeblood is communication. And if since World War II man has acquired a clicking electronic facility to make possible the recording, storage, comparison, and repossession of information with an accuracy and at speeds undreamed of in human experience, might not the humanities be able to benefit?”

Prown, writing in 1966, states that it is clear that the computer will be of importance for wide areas of humanistic study. He notes that the amount of time spent in retrieving information is far greater than the proportion to that spent in contemplating, organizing, and presenting the information, and that the computer can be a useful tool in speeding up the retrieval process. He describes museums and libraries as huge memory banks of human history. Prown believes that the power of the computer lies in its ability to free the scholar to spend more time thinking. He asserts that computers will free the scholar from “mechanical drudgery.” If only that were true! This week our topic was tidying data for use in digital art history projects. This is a pain-staking process which takes a lot of time. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to art historians in embracing digital technology is the time required to learn the skills necessary for a digital art history project. I suspect that a lot of art historians (myself included) get bogged down in the sheer volume of tasks involved in digital project. This is why our professor, JJ Bauer, reminds us of the importance of collaboration.

This week we also worked with Excel, Google-n-Gram Viewer, HathiTrust Bookworm, Voyant, and Excel seemed straightforward enough, and something I could work in. Google-n-Gram Viewer and HathiTrust Bookworm were both text-based, and it was fun to look up terms and their recurrence in them. had several ways in which it could be used, as a word counter, a comparison between two texts so you could see how similar or dissimilar they are, and a method for analyzing your data to see how it’s all connected. In terms of my own research, I am currently working on a project which examines the visual images and verbal descriptions of Liberia related to the American Colonization Society. There are numerous newspaper articles I am going through, and it would be wonderful to have a program which could sift through them for me, looking for specific keywords. However, since I am years away from being able to code such a project myself, what I could realistically do would be to input my data into Excel, and use that to create charts. I could also use Google Maps (because I liked it!) to pinpoint where representatives from the American Colonization Society visited in Africa, and show their own verbal descriptions of the topography alongside present day images. It may also be useful to scan for certain words in Google-n-Gram Viewer and HathiTrust to see what results I would get. I may find something intriguing which sparks further areas of research. In order to do any of these tasks I would need to input all my data carefully and correctly into Excel, and select some key words for use in searches in Google-m-Gram and HathiTrust. I don’t feel that I’ve worked with or Voyant enough to be able to say how I could best use it in my own work, and I would like to do further work with both of these platforms so that I get a better idea of their capabilities. One area of research that I am not currently working on, but would like to in the future is in intermediality, which is an area that I think would be excellent for analysis using digital tools and technology. For example, if you were interested in the depiction of a particular item in painting, say a parasol, you could train an AI to spot it for you in thousands and thousands of paintings from anywhere in the world. In this way, you could sift through a vast amount of data in a relatively short time span. It would be interesting to know if any surprises arise in the results. Perhaps you would discover that more parasols appeared in French art than American art, or in what way were most parasols used, as an indication of power or as an accessory. I think that digital technology has a lot to offer all art historians, and perhaps more of us would be interested in using it more frequently if we knew all it has to offer. We are being exposed to it in graduate school, but what about art historians who are currently working in the field? It’s possible they hear about it from some colleagues, or see a presentation at a conference. However, if we are going to take advantage of all that digital technology has to offer, perhaps training art historians on new technology throughout their careers would be a place to start.

References: Jules Prown. “The Art Historian and the Computer.” Art as Evidence : Writings on Art and Material Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001). 

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