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Digital History Spring Series Book Review #5 - Digital Art History: A Subject in Transition

Bentkowska-Kafel, Anna, Trish Cashen, and Hazel Gardiner. Digital Art History: a Subject in Transition. Bristol: Intellect, 2005.

Nearly a decade on, there is much about Digital Art History: A Subject in Transition that remains of interest to those wondering about the relationship of art history and digital scholarship. Some have gone so far as to ask whether there is such a thing as "digital art history," a question that is not entirely unwarranted. Within the robust community of over 240 HASTAC Scholars, the Art History Working Group boasts two members, including yours truly. In a two-year master's degree program in art history at the school that would later debut the Mellon Research Initiative, I was never encouraged to use the Internet for anything besides looking up traditional journal articles in PDF form; nor did I even hear the term "digital humanities" until I started getting ready to go to library school. That isn't to say that there haven't been a number of important initiatives a in universities and research centers, and a proliferation of individual digital projects, an excellent sampling of which can be found in Holly Hatheway's "Digital Art History" library guide at Yale. 

Yet in 2012, writing in The Journal of Digital Humanities, Diane M. Zorich ws still asking, "Are these [research] centers broadening research traditions to include digitally-based research agendas? Are they serving as incubators of digital projects, tools, and scholarship? If not, where are the frontiers of digital scholarship in art history? […] Who will develop the tools, services and infrastructure to support art history as its efforts and byproducts increasingly become digital?" Summarizing a 2011 study she undertook with the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Rory Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University that encompassed over fifty interviews, eight site visits, and a literature review, Zorich finds that "the art history community is ambivalent about the value of digital research, teaching, and scholarship." Art historians suffer from many of the complications that attend digital humanities research in the disciplines - the scholarly reward system, apportioning credit for collaborative and iterative works, and a division between digital and traditional modes of scholarship. The discipline is faced with some unique challenges, such as image licensing and metadata, and is behind the curve in other respects, such as the adoption of social media as a form of scholarly communication. 

According to Zorich's interviewees, a major source of resistance to digital scholarship in art history is the perception that digital projects have not adequately demonstrated promise in transforming art historical scholarship. That is, detractors agree that "projects that pull together materials into a new online resource or tool are valuable, but […] do not believe they make the big, convincing statements that demonstrate how 'digital' can advance scholarship and result in new art historical methodologies and frameworks." Although the case studies in Digital Art History grasp toward such "convincing statements," ultimately, year after year, it would appear that such projects have not been enough to bring about the anticipated sea change in art history.

Digital Art History: A Subject in Transition was the first yearbook-format publication of the venerable UK organization Computers and the History of Art (CHArt) which originated in 1985 as "a forum for the exchange of ideas between people who were using computers in their research," primarily academic art and design historians. CHArt has grown to include GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) professionals as well as academics and continues to maintain an email list, hosts an annual conference, publishes its conference proceedings, and has published three yearbooks in 2005-2007. As of the latest May 24, 2014 update, the CHArt website was still "in progress" with the uploading of conference proceedings as far back as 2007. 

This brings me to my first negative impression of Digital Art History: for a talented and erudite group of computing enthusiasts and visual/design professionals, CHArt takes stunningly little advantage of the affordances of digital publishing. Although perhaps somewhat limited by the constraints of its time, Digital Art History does not even hint at digital publication models beyond the concept of the traditional academic codex. It is an ebook in the most basic sense: it is a book that has been made electronic, and nothing more. My university library does not carry the print copy of the book, so I was obliged to access Digital Art History through the library's subscription to Ebrary, a distinctly incommodious experience. To avoid using the clunky online interface - which required me to search for the item and log in anew each time I wished to resume reading - and to enable offline reading, I ultimately downloaded each segment of the book in a separate PDF and then manually recombined them into one document. I had to wait a certain amount of time between downloads, and was forced to log out and log back in every couple of chapters due to page limits. All in all, it was a tedious hour or so between first searching for the book and actually beginning to read. I cannot speak to the production values of the print edition, but the digital edition contains only black and white illustrations of middling quality (yes, even the chapter on "Digital Ways of Studying Colour in Abstract Art"). The document makes no use of hypertext whatsoever, and the text is marred by the distracting Ebrary watermark. With the wide open possibilities of digital publishing and the rapidly growing attention to alternative publishing platforms for digital scholarship, I believe we can do better.

Despite the lack of innovation betrayed in the format of the publication, one feels keenly the sense that the book's fourteen contributors and their conference audiences were at the cusp of what felt like a revolution in art historical research; that "nobody would predict with confidence nowadays what the situation will be like in even five years time […] All that we know is that things - both great and small - will be different. Art will be different, and so will its history" (23). The eight essays seek to address these possible differences under four rubrics: Teaching and Communication, Visualising the Past, Online Art, and Methods and Practices, categories that still offer an apt structure for our present conceptions of digital art history projects.

The opening essay is William Vaughan's "History of Art in the Digital Age: Problems and Possibilities." Vaughn draws parallels between information technology and the printing press in their profound impact on the dissemination of knowledge, arguing that the rise of digital technologies has correlated with a shift toward a more fragmented epistemology that prioritizes "information" over "knowledge" and challenging scholars to resist this tendency, which is seen negatively as a destabilizing force, while still making use of the brute power of computing to perform respectable scholarly work. With the perspective of time, I read this essay as moderately reactionary; I believe the HASTAC community and initiatives such as Postcolonial Digital Humanities have demonstrated that the digital does change the way we approach knowledge - but often generatively, for the better. While Vaughn's point is well taken that we must remain vigilant about the ways in which digital culture informs our thought, the fragmentation and destabilization of digital media offer new avenues for deconstructing and reconstructing harmful and exclusionary paradigms.

The following essays are case studies in the types of projects which are by now familiar to digital scholars, further reinforcing the extent to which our current conception of "digital art history" has been built on the advances that began to emerge with Digital Art History. In "Animating Art History: Digital Ways of Studying Colour in Abstract Art," Mary Pearce describes a multimedia CD-ROM she produced to explore technical aspects of color in the work of Orphist, Bauhaus, and Abstract Expressionist painting and draw connections with music, visual poetry, and other art forms. In "The Cathedral as a Virtual Encyclopaedia: Reconstructing the 'Texts' of Chartres Cathedral," Stephen Clancy simulates both the current and thirteenth-century appearances and contexts of the cathedral, stitching together over 1,600 digital still images, video panoramas, and reconstructions to argue for the digital as a revolutionary form of access to even the most tradition-bound sites of research. Next, Wlodek Witek offers a study of the digitization of the work of Norwegian explorer and linguist Georg Morgenstierne in "With Camera to India, Iran and Afghanistan: Access to Multimedia Sources of Explorer, Professor Dr. Morgenstierne (1892-1975)." Witek promotes the digital collection at the National Library of Norway chiefly as a method "to save these important records from oblivion," implicitly calling into question the value of non-digital archival work and problematically conflating digitization with physical preservation methods. More importantly, Witek hones in on the potential of more granular classification schemes for digitized archival material as well as the increased access to wider populations, including, ideally (and perhaps naïvely), the indigenous populations who were the subject of Morgenstierne's work.

The volume's attention then turns from digitization of analog works of art to the implications of born digital media. In "Towards a Yet Newer Laocoon, Or, What We Can Learn from Interacting with Computer Games," Michael Hammel uses the experience of the interactive video game to interrogate the field of aesthetics, particularly the ways in which the spectator interprets and even changes a work of art. Dew Harrison and Suzette Worden, in "Digital Arts On (the) Line," discuss the curation and social life of online art, particularly those of the Watershed Media Centre in Bristol.

The final two essays seek to justify the computer as labor saving device. Antonio Criminisi, Martin Kemp, and Andrew Zisserman discuss the interpretive potential of algorithms to better understand the use of perspective in Italian Renaissance paintings. In "Bringing Pictorial Space to Life: Computer Techniques for the Analysis of Paintings," the authors argue for the utility of computer science in performing tasks that art historians have previously done with painstaking manual examination. And finally, Annette A. Ward, Margaret E. Graham, K. Jonathan Riley, and Nic Sheen report on the use of Content-based Image Retrieval (CBIR) to Collage, the Corporation of London Guildhall Library and Art Gallery's digital image collection.

Individually, each essay is strong and represents a great deal of behind-the-scenes labor; together, they give a picture of the state of the art as it was in 2005. In the intervening years, scholars have gone on to refine these methods and apply them to greater and greater swathes of cultural heritage. Yet while digital humanities approaches have taken root more firmly in other departments, enabling scholars to tackle new categories of research questions within their disciplines, and have given rise to entire new fields of inquiry, such as critical code studies, Digital Art History reveals that art historians tend to still be asking the same questions now as they were asking ten years ago, and they are still making the same arguments to try to justify their work. It is time to envision our next step.


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