Source: DAH and the Practice of Global Art History

This past week I reviewed the project “Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Interwar Paris.” (link) Scholar Michele Greet has created a database of Latin American artists living and working in Paris and a database of galleries with exhibitions featuring these artists – she then overlays this information onto an interactive map of Paris, showing the precise location of each artist and event, hopefully to allowing for insight into the relationships and cultural exchanges at work their personal and broader milieus. She believes this scholarship is part of “a new type of art history, which foregrounds circulations of people and ideas to complicate traditional modernist narratives.”[1] The phrase “global art history” is one I have heard used in various contexts this past week, and I found myself wondering about the relationship between the methods of global art history and the methods of digital art history. How are they informing and shaping one another? The rise of technology and the Internet was and is fundamental to the globalization of our world, but what does that mean for art historical practice?

Greet’s essay “Mapping Cultural Exchange:  Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars” is part of an edited volume published this past June titled Circulations in the Global History of Art. In discussing the connecting theme of the essays editors Thomas Kaufmann, Catherine Dossin, and Beatrice Joyeux-Prunel define global art history as a project that “calls for a balanced materialist treatment of artifacts and a unified approach that emphasizes questions of transcultural encounters and exchanges as circulations.”[2] This concern with both the material form of the object and the contexts of its exchange, is very similar to the approach advocated by  Finbarr Flood, discussed in a previous post. These scholars are very clear about their choice to use the term circulation, pointing out the inherent “Western and non-Western” binary implied by traditional terms used to discuss the phenomenon, including “diffusion” and “influence.” They are concerned with decentering art history, moving away from the modernist hierarchical narrative.  It seems that digital art history as a method would prove a valuable tool in this effort. Strangely, digitizing an object allows for even greater understanding of its materiality, as Flood demonstrates. We have been talking a lot in our blogs about “de-framing” art history, new ways of seeing art unbounded by physical limitations. Digital art history allows for a space outside of the hierarchical narrative, a space where “circulations” are more readily visualized.

There are still questions that must be asked of this new approach of course, for example scholar James Elkins argues in the conclusion to Circulations that “arguments for or against global art histories or transnational perspectives are presented in art historical contexts that are only comprehensible and potentially persuasive to people who are already well within what I prefer to call North Atlantic art history.” [3] If we are considering global art history in light of digital art history this argument becomes even more valid when we consider the unequal participation in online and digital society by various cultures. I was at a talk a few months ago given by Cliff Missen of the WiderNet project at UNC, and the data he highlighted concerning how limited internet access is in places like Zambia was frankly shocking. The WiderNet project is developing innovative solutions to these issues (featured on this list,) but it would be irresponsible to not consider how many places are denied participation in digital/online society, and the implications for art historical practice regarding the art of these cultures.

With these questions in mind I went looking an international digital art history project to review and I came across centerNet, “an international network of digital humanities centers” and through that the Taiwan Research Center for Digital Humanities (link.) This project is a collection of databases ranging from the Yunnan Folk Archives, a collection of hundreds of digitized land deeds dating from 1671 to 1941, to the Taiwan Ethnological Collections in Overseas Museums.

The latter database was really fascinating, the database itself is bilingual and arranged by museum, from the Royal Ontario Museum to the American Museum of Natural History.

A search for “carnelian” brings up jewelry from the collections at the ROM, with a detailed provenance for each piece.

This database and its bilingual nature is at work in an complex cultural space, and I imagine would be of interest not only the scholar using the content to study the objects, but also to postcolonial scholarship looking at the implications of the form and its positioning of that content.

 

Ultimately I find myself agreeing with both Flood and Elkins, that there is at the same time great potential and also very problematic flaws in the global and digital consideration of art history, and proceeding with scholarly transparency is of utmost importance. I found it very refreshing that the Elkins critique of the essays was included in the same volume as the essays themselves and thought this was in the same spirit as Tim Sherratt’s belief that digital humanities should “focus on the relationship we [the institution and the public] both have with the collections.” [4]

[1] Greet, Michele. “Mapping Cultural Exchange: Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars.” In Circulations in the Global History of Art, edited by Kaufmann, Thomas., Dossin, Catherine., and Joyeux-Prunel, Beatrice., (Farnham: Ashegate, 2015.) 133.

[2] Kaufmann, Dossin, Joyeux-Prunel, Circulations in the Global, 10.

[3] Elkins, John., “Afterword” Circulations in the Global, 235.

[4] Sherratt, Tim, “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People” Journal for Digital Humanities, 1, no. 1 (2011) revised 2012. URL: http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/its-all-about-the-stuff-by-tim-sherratt/