Issues in Art History

by Annie Poslusny

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 DataBasic.io. 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. DataBasic.io 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 DataBasic.io 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). 

1 Comment

  1. The quote from the Yale professor is quite ironic because Yale was one of the first higher education curriculums to introduce an integration of computers and humanities, When I was applying to college many moons ago, I actually applied to Yale because I was fascinated with their “Computing and the Arts” degree! Both Pierson and Prown point out how computers and technology can aid the research of humanities, but I wonder if they ever thought about the reverse, how can the humanities help technology. Pierson touches on it in his quote when he says, “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.” while I think at first this is what we understood computers as, I think as time has gone on it’s become evident that the “analytical engine” would do well to introduce moral values into its working mode. As we saw in the Trevor Paglen piece JJ introduced us to, computers can’t be trusted to cull out racist or sexist or xenophobic language on its own- it’s up to the coders and technologists to introduce that moral value. Furthermore, though data itself may be somewhat neutral, how it’s used can be just the opposite, thus the importance of ethics in data. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

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