Post #1 What is Digital Art History?

The selected articles for this week give a historical and critical review of the development of Digital Art History, and Digital Humanities. One point that has been called to attention by several authors is that the use of digital tools helps to decontextualize an artifact, and to bring out the aspects ignored in the canon.[1]

Benjamin Zweig, in his reflections on the Digital Art History, uses MORELLI project in the 1980s to exemplify that a visual archive could exceed human capacity of memorization, and that the images could be linked together in a way not seen in the textual reference.[2] MORELLI project, initiated by William Vaughan, Professor of Art History, was an analytical tool to automatically classified a large amount of images. Its matching and sorting system could gather patterns and at the same time notice anomalies, which might guide art historians to alternative ways of seeing the visual materials. MORRELI, as a pioneer of the analytical tools, not only acted as a cataloguing tool, but also contributed to refine online research environment for scholars. Zweig also lists other digital projects, and presents an optimistic picture of the future of Digital Art History.

Paul B. Jaskot, a social art historian, shares Zweig’s optimism. Jaskot observes that scholars investigate a long tradition of social history, in order to pose and critically answer questions in social art history. As we have discussed in class, since the society is a mass, we need a massive amount of data to study and to represent the society. Jaskot argues that digital methods help to facilitate research projects in a large scale.

Mapping the sites of German architecture, as an example from Jaskot’s subfield research, reveals a “relationship.”[3] The same building type by the German construction firm Dyckerhoff & Widmann found in South America indicates a network in the interwar period, which according to Jaskot, expects “a more complete representation of the historical record.”[4] As in this case, digital methods inspire and propel scholars to change the way of viewing and studying objects, and framing their research questions.

Draft map of the world sites of building activity of Dyckerhoff & Widmann by Paul B. Jaskot

French scholar Elli Doulkaridou introduces a concept of “framing device” as “an instrument of cognitive perception that encourages the articulation of visual elements and their appropriation by the viewer.”[5] In discussing VK project and Aby Warburg’s Picturing Atlas Mnemosyne, Doulkaridou believes that features such as multiple selection and linking series of materials together enable comparison, combination and recombination, closing-looking, rearrangement and linking. The study process thus becomes “a space for reflection,” and scholars weave the materials into “a new pattern of thought.”[6]

The Virtuelles Kupferstichkabinett results display. Herzog-Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig.

We, however, should be cautious about implementing digital methods, as Adam Kirsch reminds us that digital tools, no matter how powerful, are not capable of producing significant new ideas. Breakthroughs in Art History and humanities still need human eyes and minds.[7] It relates the question that Dr. Bauer posed in class: computers are invented by us. Since we are biased, are computers biased? Furthermore, after reading these articles, I am intrigued by how Digital Art History is viewed by scholars and practitioners: shall Digital Art History be seen as a tool, a theory, or a discipline?

[1] Elli Doulkaridou, “Reframing Art History,” International Journal for Digital Art History, no. 1 (2015): 81. Paul B. Jaskot, “Digital Art History as the Social History of Art: Towards the Disciplinary Relevance of Digital Methods,” Visual Resources, 35:1-2 (2019): 28.

[2] Benjamin Zweig, “Forgotten Genealogies: Brief Reflections on the History of Digital Art History ,” International Journal for Digital Art History, no. 1 (2015): 44

[3] Jaskot, 27

[4] Jaskot, 26

[5] Doulkaridou, 71

[6] Doulkaridou, 73 and 81

[7] Adam Kirsch. “The Limits of the Digital Humanities.” in New Republic, May 2, 2014.