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.

References:

Diane M. Zorich, “The ‘Art’ of Digital Art History” (presented at The Digital World of Art History, Princeton University, June 26, 2013), https://ima.princeton.edu/pubs/2013Zorich.pdf.

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.

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