The moment of digital art history?

December 7, 2012

2012 has proven to be a significant year as art history continues its transition into the sphere of the digital humanities. The following post aims to provide a summary of discussions around "digital art history", which at present describes a mode of practise without a fully articulated definition. This summary will also extend beyond the institutional considerations primarily expressed in recent reports, and consider the implications for digital art history on public engagement, including the involvement of new media practitioners, such as bloggers and users of social media platforms.

In May 2012, the Kress Foundation published a report authored by Diane Zorich. This report addressed the challenges faced by academic art historians and relevant institutions in transitioning to a digital model of teaching, and for the digital dissemination of information. The Kress report also advocated for, and recognised important centers of digital art history research and earmarked art history as having an increasing role in the global movement known as the "digital humanities". The report established the importance of digital learning initiatives in art history, but stopped short of providing an all-encompassing definition of the concept.

Arguably, a stringent definition of digital art history may not be possible at present, as many individuals and institutions are yet to understand the impact of technology on their work practises. It was this state of awareness which the Kress report sought to document. Describing the aims of the report, Diane Zorich outlined the method used to gather data:
In the spring of 2010, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation sponsored a Web-based survey of art history research centers in the United States and Europe. The survey revealed that digital projects and activities undertaken in art history research centers are impressive in their scope and execution, but are relatively uncommon. When they do occur, they tend to be the singular interest of an art historian based at the center, not the focus of a center’s mission or research agenda. Instead it appears that an increasing amount of digital innovation in art history is taking place outside art history research centers, in university academic departments, in museums, or as independent efforts led by individual scholars.[1]
The report went on to list recommendations for integrating digital initiatives into traditional art history departments, based on the responses received from the survey. The summary of the survey results highlighted a degree of uncertainty among some practitioners:
The art history community is ambivalent about the value of digital research, teaching, and scholarship. Those who believe in the potential of digital art history feel it will open up new avenues of inquiry and scholarship, allow greater access to art historical information, provide broader dissemination of scholarly research, and enhance undergraduate and graduate teaching. Those who are skeptical doubt that new forms of art historical scholarship will emerge from the digital environment. They remain unconvinced that digital art history will offer new research opportunities or that it will allow them to conduct their research in new and different ways.[2]
Essential collaboration
Since the 1980s, organisations such as CHArt (Computers and the History of Art) and the Getty AHIP (Art History Information Program) have sought to understand the role of art history and the changing digital landscape.[3,4] Initial efforts were primarily concerned with image and archival issues. In more recent years, the advent of the web, search engines and internet browsers has drastically impacted how we access information online, and also how we as interact with individuals and a potentially large, global audience. In October 2010 the European Science Foundation hosted "Networked humanities - art history in the web". From the conference overview report written by Dr. Arianna Ciula:
...the evidence of a somewhat promising generational gap in the academic community of art historians with respect to the interaction with the digital medium emerged from some of the studies presented by the speakers and from the atmosphere at the conference itself. For instance, early career researchers do not seem to hold great reservation towards electronic publishing and seem to be willing to embrace collaborative working models. Of all the detrimental digital divides (west/east, rich/poor, passive/active), the generational one could be an opportunity for change.[5]
In 2011, the University of Málaga and the Getty Research Institute (GRI) co-hosted a conference addressing digital art history specifically, focusing on "challenges, tools and practical solutions".[6] On the topic of collaboration, Murtha Baca, Head of Digital Art History Access at the GRI (and colleagues) described foundational projects exploring the role of collaboration. One case study presented was the Digital Mellini project, formed around the transcription of a 1681 Italian text.  The broader questions which this, and the other initiatives sought to answer were stated as follows:
  • How can we develop critical and interpretive studies in digital media in a collaborative way that accommodates multiple scholarly perspectives?
  • What are —and what should be— the behaviors of art historians using collaborative digital work spaces?[7]
The answers to these questions were provided in the context of each presentation. Strategies and guidelines have emerged from these initiatives, particularly around art imaging and access, but these guidelines are not uniformly applicable to other contexts. Presently, the body of research is small and inconsistent in aim and scope, making it difficult to discern significant long term patterns or policy guidelines by way of statistical systematic review. This seems to be the case for many entities engaging with digital tools, including the various branches of the media and publishing industries. In a recent panel discussion at the Florens 2012 cultural heritage event, National Geographic's Terry Garcia noted that the full scope of business models based on digital distribution and new media are not yet fully discernible.[8]

Those working at the forefront of digital art history readily acknowledge the necessity for collaboration with other disciplines, including disciplines more familiar with digital learning and distribution models. One of the barriers to this collaboration was identified as a prevailing divide between the humanities and other disciplines, including the sciences.

In a research paper published in 2005 by Criminisi, Kemp and Zisserman, this division was given an historical context, relating it to the practises of artists working with linear perspective during the Renaissance:
In the twentieth century, art and science were generally perceived as very diverse disciplines, with very few points of contact between them. Although there are signs that the schism is less sharp than it was, we are a long way from the situation that prevailed in the Italian Renaissance, when the distinction between those who practiced what we call art and science was not sharply drawn. At that time innovative artists were seen as ingenious people (credited with “ingenium”), capable of inventing their own systematic techniques for rational representation, designing new instruments and graphic tools, and striving to achieve their goals according to their own kind of “science”.[9]
This inherent tendency to isolated research was a poignant realisation, and was also identified in the 2010 Networked Humanites conference. In the Highlights and Scientific Report published by conference chair Prof. Hubertus Kohle,  discussing the complex dynamics of large networks such as the internet, this observation was made:
...the fundamentally uneven structure of the Internet...proves the necessity for the humanities and its respective institutions in the university and museum world to unite their forces in order not to get lost...[10]
The topic of collaboration was revisited at a recent conference hosted by the New York Institute of Fine Arts, with a series of fascinating talks affirming the present course of digital initiatives in art history. Perhaps the most resonant message heard throughout these talks was the essential need for art historians to improve their knowledge of digital initiatives through collaboration.[11]

This was tweeted during the conference by Dr. Beth Harris of Smarthistory/Khan Academy[12]

This seems a positive step forward from the controversial statement by Dr. Laurence Kanter in 2010,
Art history has been hijacked by other disciplines...Original works of art have been forgotten. They’re being used as data, without any sense of whether they’re good, bad or indifferent.[13]
It is noted that Dr. Kanter was referring to connoisseurship and the methods by which attributions are investigated. Notably, there are direct parallels with broader digital humanities initiatives as attribution research increasingly relies on a collaboration by a team of art historians, documentary and technical specialists working to reveal as much as they can about a piece. This was demonstrated by recent investigations of works like the Salvator Mundi and La Bella Principessa, featuring input by Oxford Leonardo specialist Professor Martin Kemp.[14, 15] Also in the UK, the work of Philip Mould and Dr. Bendor Grosvenor has revealed much of this process to the public through the fascinating BBC program Fake or Fortune. Each of these investigations involved significant collaboration with specialists and technicians in various fields.[16] (see also "related links" below).

Digital art history also extends into the fields of collation and distribution of information and images. Beyond the creation of digital archives, access to this information must also be considered since the advent of the web provides an unprecendented means to store and recall data. Raising the issue of digital strategies among art historians invariably results in a discussion of around dissemination of research and problems with image rights.

In a landmark article published on November 19, 2012, James Cuno of the Getty Trust writes:
Keeping up with the pace of change in the digital world is challenging, and harnessing its potential can be frustrating. But the biggest mistake many of us in the arts and humanities academy can make is thinking of that potential only in terms of how we can use the new technology to more quickly and broadly disseminate information.[17]
Taking cues from both the Kress report and the Cuno statement, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Stephen Zucker of Smarthistory/The Khan Academy respond in great detail in a post at the e-Literate blog entitled How Museum and Library Image Policies Undermine Education (source)
The study and appreciation of art’s history is being thwarted by outdated, artificial restrictions on documentary photographs of works of art in the public domain. By accepting these conditions, art historians and our professional organizations have diminished our discipline. That there hasn’t been a greater backlash by art historians is not surprising given the findings of another recent study that outlined the disconnect between the discipline and digital technology. Art historians have accepted the legal overreach by museums, even while admitting the harm done to their own scholarship and that undertaken by their students.[18]
Digital art history beyond institutions
The Kress report also revealed that their consultation process with art historians had tentatively identified the role of individuals outside academia or the discipline who possessed skillsets relevant to the online dissemination of art historical information:
A more radical suggestion is to bring in “instigators” or individuals from outside the research center who possess a unique set of technology, humanities, and people skills. Their role would be to push against institutional barriers without being intimidating to others nor easily thwarted themselves.[19]
This was relevant to my own activities as an independent researcher, communicating primarily through case studies and reviews presented as blog posts and shared within social media platforms. Beyond my own experience however, it is noted that blogs which include art historical content are not solely run by art historians. It is also observed that an increasing number of art historians are maintaining blogs, but very few of these are doing so as an active part of their paid positions.[20]

It is noted that an increased amount of art history related content and commentary is being communicated online, often from outside academia.  Many of these contributions are featured as blogs in online versions of publications such as the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. Other dedicated arts and culture sites now have teams of  bloggers covering a wide range of topics, such as is seen at Artinfo.

This is welcome sign of growth. In April 2007, a landmark post at The Art History Newsletter asked the question "why do so few art historians blog?"[21] An insightful response was posted at Modernkicks, its author JL commenting:
Art history as a field has always seemed to me more status-conscious, tradition-bound, and cautious in its attitude toward the public realm than other fields. To put it a different way, social scientists' attitudes toward how one engages in public speech may range from scrupulous neutrality (or, in the eyes of detractors, pseudo-scientific posturing) to outright advocacy, but there's a presumption that their work has some relevance to discussions of public policy. Philosophers, historians, literary types, and even lawyers can find within their field some significant (if at times disrespected) models of the public intellectual upon which to rely when engaging in public speech. Art history has little of the same tradition, at least in this country. Even further, the field's ties are closer to the world of diplomacy and even espionage (seriously) than to any sort of public voice.[22]
The topic of public outreach seems to be of less importance to the respondents of the Kress Report. Going back to JL's perceptive comment above, few art historians have been trained to address the public - their mode of writing and use of language is often complex, littered with jargon and conventions borrowed from discourses in other languages, adding layers of obfuscation and distance between the writer and the general reader.

The art critic has traditionally played the role of intermediary between "the art world" and the public. There are still many notable art critics and essayists operating online. Yet, do they have the same voice and influence as in the past? A telling marker of the current state of art criticism was the highly popular Leonardo exhibition in London in late 2011-early 2012. This exhibition was covered profusely in both print and web media. It was heartening to see public commentary at Jonathan Jones' blog at The Guardian online musing about the nature of the attributions chosen by the exhibition organisers:
Comment (abridged) left by user zibbibo at The Guardian, 8th February 2012:
I could certainly have done with a lot more 'cold knowledge' about the artist and a lot less 'personal passion' from the curator who, almost with every label, seemed determined to impress upon us his personal conviction that Leonardo's art "reveals to us a glimpse of the divine imagination" and his "yearning for God"...Many of the curator's attributions to Leonardo were also very capricious as Martin Kemp points out in this month's Art Newspaper.[23]
With such insightful comments posted in a publicly accessible forum, it could be argued that a higher quality of information is being imparted in both directions - not only from the critic in this instance, but from their readership as well.  Owing to the nature of the web, these comments remain perpetually visible and can be directly linked to, unlike similar communications that may have occurred in closed journals or letters to the editor in print publications. Interactivity between authors and commentators in online art historical discourse has yet to be examined fully.

Art historians as digital innovators
Since 2007, the number of high quality art history blogs has increased. The discussion now also extends out into social media platforms, with an increasing presence of art historians engaging on Twitter and Facebook. These developments are being tracked by key individuals with a vested interest in the progress of art history and the web.

A leading commentator in this field is art historian Dr. Charlotte Frost. Her primary interest is art history and the web, which is the focus of her Arts Future Book project.[24] Dr. Frost's highly informative online projects reflect the range of her research interests, which extend into art criticism and art  production in digital spaces. She investigates the complex interaction between art, the internet and their combined impact on the future study of art history. Her groundbreaking 2010 presentation at HUMlab in Sweden on The Culture of Online Art Production and Presentation can be viewed on he web (link)

Dr. Nancy Proctor is an art historian with an impressive list of accomplishments in the museum sector and broadcasting. She is currently Head of Mobile Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institute and manager of MuseumMobile.[25] Among the humanities practitioners that have most effectively embraced new media, the museum sector is the most prolific. Dr. Proctor's exemplary work for the Smithsonian, in broadcasting and various web-based initiatives, mark her as an art historian capable of forging new standards using a broad range of digital tools.

Dr. Charlotte Frost, Dr. Nancy Proctor and Dr. Alexandra Korey

In Italy, another innovative art historian is Dr. Alexandra Korey, now working as a project manager at Flod, a digital marketing and graphic design agency based in Florence. Dr. Korey was one of the web's first professional arts and culture bloggers, formerly writing for the Regione di Toscana at Tuscany Arts. Tirelessly advocating for innovation in the Florentine cultural landscape, she successfully convened the first international blogging and social media team for the Florens 2012 cultural heritage event. Dr. Korey also has a passionate interest in museology, and continues to work with progressive museums to promote public engagement using social media.[26, 27]

Beyond the above examples (whose work is well known to me), there are many talented people striving to promote art history and cultural engagement using digital strategies and new media. Their continuing efforts in this varied and exciting field are to be applauded (see references and key bibliography for more information).

Moving forward
The shift in art history to incorporate digital tools and new media represents an exciting if sometimes daunting challenge for a discipline steeped in academic convention. Pioneering research centres are actively engaged in the process of understanding the implications of digital tools on their practises, representing a vital step forward. Further developments will consolidate the parameters of digital art history in its various contexts, within institutional settings and beyond.

nb. Updates and key links reflecting significant events in digital art history will be added to this post periodically (see below)

1. Zorich, D. Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship. Kress Foundation website June 1. 2012. Accessed December 6 2012. link

2. Zorich. As cited above

3. CHArt. Computers and the History of Art website. Accessed Dec 6 2012.  link

4. Baca, M. Getty Research Institute. Digital Art History Activities: An Overview. Posted at GRI website Nov 2011. Accessed December 6 2012 pdf link

5. Ciulia, A. Networked Humanities: Art History in the web - An introduction to the conference.  European Science Foundation website. Accessed December 6 2012. link

6. Digital Art History: Challenges, Tools and Practical SolutionsWorkshop, September 20th-22nd, 2011. University of Málaga. Abstracts link Presentations link

7. Baca, M. As cited above.

8. Niyazi, H. Art History and the brave new, digital world. 3PP. November 10 2012. link ; coverage of Florens 2012 "Cultural Dissemination" panel discussion on November 7 2012 at which writer was present. Mr. Garcia of National Geographic was among the panel speakers.

9. Crimisi, A. Kemp, M. Zisserman.  A. Digital art history - a subject in transition. Intellect. 2005 ; article exploring computer aided analysis of linear perspective and 3D spaces within paintings. full pdf posted at Microsoft Research. January 2005. Accessed December 5 2012 link

10.  Kohle, H. Highlights and Scientific Report. Networked Humanities: Art History in the Web. European Science Foundation website. Accessed December 6 2012. link

11. New York Institute of Fine Arts. Digital Art History Conference. Nov 30 - Dec 1 2012. Program: link ; January 2013 : NYY UFA posted the videos of the conference online link

12. Beth Harris @bethrharris Tweet: "#ifadhl Carole Ann Fabian - digital humanities/digital art history - must be a team sport..." December 2 2012 link ; nb. hashtag "ifadhl" appears only once - during the NY IFA conference #ifadah was used

13. Loos, T. Seeking the ‘Eye’ for Art. The New York Times. August 4 2010. Accessed December 6 2012. link

14. Simon, R. Selected articles on the discovery of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi. Robert Simon Fine Art. Accessed December 6 2012. link ; see also "related links" below

15. Kemp, M., Cotte.P.  La Bella Principessa. A New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Hodder & Stoughton. 2010.

16. Fake or Fortune. BBC program site link ; see also "related links" below

17. Cuno, J. How art history is failing at the internet. The Daily Dot. November 19 2012. Accessed link

18. Harris, B., Zucker, S. “Can I Use This?” How Museum and Library Image Policies Undermine Education. e-Literate. November 26 2012. Accessed December 6 2012.  link

19. Zorich. As cited above.

20. Steady increase in art history related blogs noted via entries logged at Art and History Site Database and Search (ahdb). An ongoing census of art and history related websites, including as a customised search engine. Also incorporating a list of selected blogs. Project maintained by H Niyazi. Commenced 2010. link

21. Lackman, J. Why do so few art historians blog? The Art History Newsletter. April 9 2007. Accessed December 6 2012.  link

22. JL. Why have there been no great art history bloggers? Modern Kicks. April 9 2009. Accessed link

23. Comment by user zibbibio. Jones, J. The curator who poured art and soul into the Leonardo da Vinci show. The Guardian. 8 February 2012. Accessed December 6 2012 ; article link
; comment link

24. Frost, C. Arts Future Book. Project description page. Digital Critic. Accessed December 6 2012 link

25. Nancy Proctor bio page and links at MuseumMobile. Accessed December 6 2012. link

26. Niyazi, H. Interview with Alexandra Korey. 3PP. 26 October 2010. link

27. Alexandra Korey profile at LinkedIn ; ArtTrav

Key Bibliography
Baca, M. (ed.) Introduction to Metadata. Online Edition. 3.0. Getty. 2008. link
Baca, M. (ed.) Introduction to Art Image Access. Online Edition. Getty. 2002. link
Ballon, H., Westermann, M. Art History and Its Publications in the Electronic Age. Rice University Press. 2006. link
Borgman, C.L. Scholarship in the Digital Age. MIT Press. 2007. Google books preview link
See list of publications, conference abstracts at CHArt website link
Networked Humanities 2010: Conference Papers link
Digital Art History 2011: Conference Presentations link

Related links
Featured articles at 3PP
La Bella Principessa -  attribution investigation summary link
Salvator Mundi - attribution investigation summary link
Fake or Fortune - review of episode on a contested Monet - incl. video clip link

Image notes
Screencapture sourced from Closer to Van Eyck Project site link composite by H Niyazi

January 2013
NYU Institute of Fine Arts has posted video of all presentations from their digital art history conference held on November 30 and December 1 2012. Agenda: link  Videos: link

March 2013
The Getty Research Institute hosted a 3-day Digital Art History Lab, which promoted broader dissemination and discussion via blog posts and social media. 3PP provided a summary of the coverage and relevant links at this post: Getty leads the way in digital art history link

On March 14 2013, my account of working as independent researcher writing about art history was posted at PhD2Published link

*updates will be added periodically


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Hasan. In fact, I am quite amazed - your ability to distill large quantities of technical information into lucid and approachable summaries is something to behold, and learn from.

I do sense something different since your return from Florence. It seems your experiences there were quite powerful, and now drive you forward to great effect. Continue!

Stephanie S

Unknown said...

@Stephanie - cheers for the feedback. It is not easy to describe the impact of my recent trip. I do know that the New York IFA conference talks helped put a lot of the Kress report findings into context, making this summary a little easier to get started on.

"Digital art history" seems to be the new frontier, with parameters and implications so large in scale as to necessitate collaboration, (as seen in the sciences). It is an exciting if not overdue realisation.

Many kind regards

Anonymous said...

Thank you Hasan. Reading your Florens 2012 material, it was natural for you to enter this discussion of digital art history and new media, this "brave new world" you described.

The Kress report was a major step forward, and nicely written by Diane Zorich, who also shares this natural ability to communicate complex ideas in universal language. I wonder if similar consultation is planned in Italy/Europe or Asia?

It is good to acknowledge Dr Korey's achievements here. She has done this in Italy where it is always pushing against resistance from many directions. I am amazed she stays here, but maybe she enjoys this challenge?

Dr. Proctor's great success is well known.. and fascinating to see Dr. Frost at HUMlab Sweden. Her book will be an important addition to this discussion.

Best wishes to you all


Edward Goldberg said...

As you say, these are exciting times and we are only beginning to glimpse where we might all land up...somewhere over the rainbow. And we are certain to encounter many surprises along the way--regarding both the allies and the opponents of Digital Art History. The generational divide is inevitable, I suppose, and there are still many influential figures who consider a little technology to be a good thing if it helps us realize old-fashoned products more easily--which is perhaps better than outright oppostion, but just barely. Your recent participation in Florens 2012 was certainly effective in sharpening your skills as "Instigator"!

Trevor Owens said...

Nice post! It's exciting to hear about the various ways art historians are getting into working with digital tools and methods. With that said, I think it's also important to consider the important role that born digital art should play in digital art history.

There is a great deal of great work happening in projects like Rhizome's ArtBase and a range of work in new media studies that takes a historical approach to born digital art, Bogost and Monfort's Racing the Beam comes to mind.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Mauro - Cheers. The Kress Report written by Diane Zorich was indeed presented in clear and accessible language. I believe this is essential in conveying this type of information. The last thing anyone needs is excessively technical descriptions, which can tend to occur when discussing computing projects. There is of course of a time and place for everything, but for documents intended to promote widespread awareness, a more universal mode of discourse is required.

@Ed - Cheers Ed! This should be less about rainbows and more about realising sustainable projects which involve universities collaborating with other universities and institutions. At the moment we have these pockets of funding being allocated to wonderful initiatives like the van Eyck, Cranach and Rembrandt projects - which bring together specialists in a collaborative web project. This is all fine, but it would be nice to see an initiative that actually funds a platform or project that will unite many institutions/students/academics as a global, ongoing collaborative exercise that contributes to a particular body of knowledge. The focus at the moment seems to ostensibly be on archives/databases and high res images. This hopefully will move on to sustainable projects that contribute knowledge and allows students to connect their own learning to a resource that is applicable to galleries, museums and the general public - like a "global digital fellowship" for want of a better description. It is not a matter of feasibility anymore.. simply of "when?" and "who?"

@Trevor - cheers. I love Rhizome, and the Bogost/Monfort volume on the Atari platform was a solid step forward in the "art and videogames" debate (which I have written on regarding Mass Effect 3 and the artist/patron model). For the purposes of this summary I did not want to cause further confusion by venturing too far into "digital art history and digital art" but did touch on it when describing Dr. Charlotte Frost's work on internet art collaborations (as showcased in her HUMlabs presentation). It is an extremely exciting area, though one which traditional art historical discourse has yet to tread, for most part.

Many kind regards

Anonymous said...

It is pleasing to read of these developments in an open forum, online.

Art history can be the last place one may expect to see "individuals from outside the research center who possess a unique set of technology, humanities, and people skills" but they must obviously be out there, with the innovators above and Hasan himself as shining examples.

The leading research centers in question would do well to consult with as many of these unique individuals as they could find, as their grasp of what the web and technology can do is a type of experience that is not easily reflected in a formal academic CV.

In some ways this reminds me of the early days of the film studios, who united both artists, technicians and traditional theater types to make the most of the new technologies being developed - a notion preserved to this day in the name of the Academy which brings us the Oscars - The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

How wonderfully exicting!

Warm regards, and good luck

Unknown said...

Cheers Elizabeth - I love the comparison with the film industry - it is wonderfully analogous - considering the great leap in technology the motion picture camera, and then film with sound represented.

Many people like to draw comparisons with the internet and the printing press - which is valid of course, though I think your example is quite apt too. The web (and digital tools) provide for a *multimedia* experience combining audiovisual input - it represents an enhanced way to present information, more sophisticated than anything beforehand. eg. at Smarthistory - it is nice to see mixture of text, audio, video and even simulated environments using Second Life. A very unique approach to art history :)


K. Bender said...

A few comments and perhaps a contribution to the discussion.
1° I quote from your excellent and very useful review: 'The focus at the moment seems to ostensibly be on archives/databases and high res images..." and "....the biggest mistake ... thinking ... only in terms of how we can use the new technology to more quickly and broadly disseminate information." Very right.
The term 'digital' - literally numerical - got a semantic shift and got the meaning 'related to the new media technologies' in the Kress report. In my view this is a rather poor meaning. Digital art history should be much more: it should also apply and develop concepts of cybernetics, the term used since the advent of computers to understand informational and communication systems. Branches of cybernetics like 'connectionism' and 'memetics' can help to understand the creation of art, its evolution and its impact on society. I refer to my post of August 3, 2012 (I am not referring here to 'cyberart').
2° About "...the divide between the humanities and other disciplines..." Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute, San Francisco, is a scientist whose research is focused on visual neuroscience and computational vision. See his websites 'Art and Optics' and 'Art Investigations'.
3° We all agree that quality is more important than quantity, especially in art. But should the quantitative approach to art history be dismissed? In fact, any 'catalogue raisonné' is also a quantitative approach. The Montias database is essentially a quantitative approach since very little or nothing is known about the quality of the artworks listed. Another example is the Goupil database at the Getty Foundation. Quantity is part of the historical complexity of art production and the flow of artworks.
The 'digital turn' offers excellent opportunities for thoughtful quantitative approaches in art history. It is much more than applying 'new media technologies'.

Alexandra said...

With thanks, as always, Hasan, for the huge compliment you've given me by lining me up with other illustrious women (all women, you notice?).

Re the quote from the Kress report with footnote 19 - I have never heard of "instigators" - is that the same as influencers? It sounds like they are realizing the need to hire outside consultants, perhaps to help communicate academic projects beyond academic walls. Which would be great, and be totally your niche, Hasan!

@Mauro: I stay here, admittedly, out of love, though also love for the place itself. There are times I wonder why. Unquestionably, I like a good challenge. Italy has more need than many countries to communicate it's cultural heritage. The task is too huge for any one person or even institution to take up. But a few people are trying, and I guess I am one of them, though I wish I could do more.

Kimon Keramidas said...

Interesting piece on the transition that art history is making in the application of digital technologies to critique and practice. Great to see Nancy, Beth, Steve, and others recognized for the steps forward they have made in showing people the value of these technologies in the study of art history. I think that the field is one that has suffered in this transitional period from its historical disciplinary orthodoxy, but think your above examples and the enthusiasm towards events such as THATCamp CAA show that the tide is turning.

I would like to count my institution, the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, as an institution that is really pushing the boundaries in this regard. I am the Assistant Director for our Digital Media Lab, which has become a home to a wide variety of projects that are encouraging our faculty, students, and gallery staff to consider new ways of applying these tools to our fields of study(which are centrally art historical but extend to anthropology, cultural history, archaeology, and even media studies). To that end we have successfully graduated our first student with a digital-born qualifying project(a flash-based digital exhibition on the design of early 20th century telephony), have collaborative wiki spaces as the norm for our course, exhibition development and administrative sites, integrate Omeka for the creation of digital exhibitions for both public-facing projects and experimental class work, work with Google Sketchup to train students in the design of exhibition spaces virtually, experiment with Prezi as a tool for not only presentations but as a platform for visual analysis and the construction of hand-crafted visualizations and thought-maps, and are working more extensively on the design of digital interactives both in our gallery spaces and as part of our pedagogical practice in the classroom. We have also hosted a number of symposia, seminars, conferences, and guest speakers on this topic (including a symposium called the Artifact in the Age of New Media and THATCamp Museums NY 2012) which have brought people together (including some of the names you mentioned in this post and even some of the commenters) to create forums for discussion on why these issues are important and why the transitions might be difficult at the moment.

We continue to move forward with new initiatives including the discussion of a digital certificate for our students to achieve upon graduation and the integration of 3D printing and scanning technology into our curriculum. Over the last few years we have begun to host and participate in large-scale grant projects that address the issues of working with multimedia materials and integrating them into teaching practice and/or digital publications. Our history in the study of design and publications has moved us to be particularly interested in what the shape of truly innovative digital scholarship will look like in the future and see experimentation in this realm as an increasingly important part of our initiatives.

I would love to talk to anyone who is interested in how we have gone about changing our institution. I believe in the potential for digital technologies to fundamentally change a field such as art history that is so dependent on visual material that is well suited to the capabilities of he technologies. People can feel free to contact me at keramidas[at]bgc[dot]bard[dot]edu or check out our lab's site at

Thanks for writing this piece Hasan, these are interesting times with fascinating possibilities and we all need to talk about these things more.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments

@Bender - quantification applied to elements and objects of human design have been present since the ancients. In the 20th century at least the work of the conservator brought the material sciences into the realm of art history. With the advent of digital technology, we are only now scratching at the possibilities of how it may be utilised to study, create or even destroy. As the generations of individuals that are grappling with this enormous paradigm shift, we are transitioning slowly - we are still used to thinking in "analogue" terms - and infrastructure very much still favours analogue methods of search and display, just "sped up" using digital means.

As more research and projects are undertaken, the need to evaluate the broader impact of their cumulative findings will be necessary. The areas of knowledge to be explored are vast, and the individuals with the insight and opportunity to design such studies relatively miniscule at the the moment. Time will tell how this will all pan out.

As for New Media, it is another loaded term with its own history - though in this sense can be simplified to cover what the web and social media have enabled with regards to speed and detail of communication between individuals - which also includes the public to an unprecedented degree. The future is exciting, yet daunting to contemplate, all at once.

@Alexandra - thank you for the wonderful, practical application of digital media to serve a purpose at Florens2012. Specialists and speculators can discuss this new frontier ad infinitum, but having bold individuals like yourself construct a real project out of it with a discernible impact and goals is equally as important. Kudos!

@Kimon - thank you so much for your thought provoking contribution, and bringing to light the wonderful work of the Bard Graduate center. The next step really is getting people who have the skills and insights to discuss, and implement projects that explore the many facets of questions pertaining to cultural information and digital technology.

It is heartening that the predominant theme of this type of discussion has been practitioners from diverse backgrounds agreeing on the need to talk and collaborate further - a great step forward, and especially with regards to art history.

Many Kind Regards
Hasan Niyazi

Anonymous said...

Hi Hassan,

I want to start my post with a thank you for your wonderful blog! I’ve followed your postings for more than a year, enjoyed catching up with your adventures, community of like minded people and their informative responses and exploring the archives while waiting for an opportunity to post. Your previous post on Savonarola and this one provides the perfect opportunity. As a trained art historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance, my recently achieved library and archives degree not only put the issues of the digital humanities front and center but has left me hoping I will be able to participate in this important dialogue on the professional level. Information literacy is the librarian’s calling card and we can now be styled as information technologists. Information literacy is related to information technology skills, but now has broader implications for the individual, the educational system, and for society. Digital humanities, as you and your fellow bloggers/posters know are the future. I also applaud your leadership with regards to challenging academic obfuscation while trying to get independent scholars, academic art historians and the scientific community on the same page.

I am researching portraits of and by Michelangelo. Why there are no traditional portraits of and by Michelangelo remains (and lack of consensus among academics regarding some) an unanswered question. I believe a clue as to why Michelangelo never created a formal self portrait may be found in one of a series of Lenten sermons Savonarola (characterized as among his fieriest) delivered in late Winter/Spring 1496. Alexander Nagel in The Controversy of Renaissance Art (p.14 for full text) believes the following excerpt “most consistently and pointedly confront the problem of religious art” and the only one Michelangelo may have heard:

The images of your gods are the images and similitudes of the figures you have painted in the churches and the young men go around saying about this one or that: This one is the Magdalen, this other is Saint John [sic], because the figures you have made in the churches are in the likeness of one or another woman, which is very badly done and in great disregard for what is God’s. You painters do badly, and if you knew the scandal that follows from it and the things that I know, you wouldn’t paint them. You put all the vanities in the churches.

Recognizing the faces of fellow citizens in in a holy setting while listening to his sermons was disconcerting to Savonarola and beyond the pale as a “vanity”. A church should only be reserved for holy images and moreover be Christ centric. Michelangelo’s art and writings are characterized by his profound religiosity which only increased with age. He was caught between Humanism’s brief flowering and the rise of the Reformation. Both Vasari and Condivi relates that Michelangelo not only venerated the friar’s writings but recalled the sound of his voice more than sixty years latter.

I welcome feedback and look forward to your next posts.

Best wishes and regards
Andrea Walton

Anonymous said...

Hi Hasan. I apologize for misspelling your name in my anxiousness to respond! I look forward to future participation on this blog.


Andrea Walton

Unknown said...

Hello Andrea.

Thank you for your kind comments and supportive feedback. I would prefer to not bifurcate the discussion in this post to Savonarola vs Michelangelo portraits, though would be happy to address them at the Savonarola review post or email (see about section).

Many kind regards

Anonymous said...

Hi Hasan,

Thank you for your comment. I understand your point regarding the Savonarola part of my comment. I missed the Savonarola post and was not sure if comments were closed after the most recent posting. I am a bit confused after reviewing the about section of your blog. Do you want me to repost my comment to the Savonarola post or email you at another address?

Thank you once again,

Unknown said...

Hi Andrea
I think it would be useful to email first, I am interested to hear a bit more about your research. The email is on the about page, or



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