The Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Art History
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The Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Art History

Kathryn Brown, Kathryn Brown

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Art History

Kathryn Brown, Kathryn Brown

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About This Book

The Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Art History offers a broad survey of cutting-edge intersections between digital technologies and the study of art history, museum practices, and cultural heritage.

The volume focuses not only on new computational tools that have been developed for the study of artworks and their histories but also debates the disciplinary opportunities and challenges that have emerged in response to the use of digital resources and methodologies. Chapters cover a wide range of technical and conceptual themes that define the current state of the field and outline strategies for future development. This book offers a timely perspective on trans-disciplinary developments that are reshaping art historical research, conservation, and teaching.

This book will be of interest to scholars in art history, historical theory, method and historiography, and research methods in education.

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Histories and Critical Debates

Digital Methods and the Historiography of Art

Paul B. Jaskot
Art history is almost by definition a field that rests on “big data.” Traditional methods of training as well as interpretation—such as iconographic analysis—have required scholars to accumulate vast amounts of knowledge about visual tropes, for example. We are long familiar with thinking typologically as well as encyclopedically about forms, functions, and artists. In a word, art history has been digital art history seemingly without knowing it for some time. Yet still, digital methodologies clearly bring new challenges to the field. This chapter introduces the reader to the relationship between digital methods and art historiography. It will locate debates in the digital humanities within the debates of art history itself, to see how the one field illuminates the areas of study in the other. It will raise such questions as what is the relationship between digital methods and canonical art historiographic subjects of study? How are digital methods a critical new intervention in the theory and practice of art history? Which art-historical methodological approaches are best suited to digital epistemologies? And what is different (if anything) between digital art history and its predecessors? By focusing on these issues, I will argue for a need to concern ourselves with a more critical digital art-historical practice that is integrated with (and interrogates) long-standing art-historical subjects and interests.
But why this look backwards to historiography when the very notion of the digital seems to speak solely to the brave new world of the future? As Hubertus Kohle has recently argued, the digital humanities promises radical new results, modes of analysis, and publication. At the same time, it may very well not change the interest in fundamental human questions in the process, questions that, after all, are profound and at the core of the human experience.1 If this is so, it is worthwhile to lay out those human questions and concerns at the same time that we outline the strengths and weaknesses of computational methods. In what follows, I will try to do just that. On the one hand, this chapter is concerned with the “big interests” of art history, as they can be seen in important historiographical developments over the past century. On the other, it is equally invested in the “big approaches” of computational methods that cross many different digital applications. It is only by exploring the conjuncture and divergence of these two diverse streams of thought that we can understand where that critical potential may lie.
While art history famously claims to be one of the most interdisciplinary of disciplines, it has certain borders and specific areas of interest that define its methodologies and subjects. Some of these are obvious: Think, for instance, of Erwin Panofsky’s iconographic approach to particular complex images from early modern Europe such as Albrecht Dürer’s oeuvre.2 It is unlikely that anyone but an art historian would delve so deeply into the history of the form and subject matter to analyze its significance and meaning. On the other hand, other art-historical questions seem to be less clearly a matter solely of a single discipline, such as whether a set of stylistic patterns may be part of a specific cultural geography that can be defined as “German” art.3 Aside from particular methodological debates in the field and trends in subjects of study, there are nevertheless some larger patterns in art-historical interests that have crossed almost all periods and times.
First, art historians are interested in typologies. Classification of groups and types is foundational to art history, as it is to many disciplines. Notably, the question of a group style and specific artistic genres were seen as crucial points as the field initially developed its subject of study in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Heinrich Wölfflin’s interest in identifiable chronological and culturally specific styles is the most obvious place to start. For Wölfflin, looking at vast numbers of examples of early modern European art required the analytical ability to characterize them effectively through categories like “Renaissance” and “Baroque” or “Italian” versus “German.”4 While Wölfflin’s samples were by today’s standards small and often relied on easily accessible museums near where he taught (such as the Alte Pinakothek in Munich), his range of visual knowledge was nevertheless impressive for the period and complemented by relatively new modes of presentation such as side by side photographic comparisons. He was joined in this attempt to characterize art by others such as Alois Riegl, who, in a quite different approach, developed a distinctive analysis of Dutch portraiture. He, too, thought that artworks could be described in more collective terms through gesture and composition in order to analyze the dynamic relationship between artwork and audience, for example.5
Such early art-historical typologies have since been roundly criticized as too hermetic, emphasizing a narrow canon that pretends to be universal in its claim as a stable notion of “art history,” among other points of critique.6 While important, these criticisms often glide over the point that the very subject of art history needed to be defined in this early period, however faulty that initial work proved to be. Since then, though, typological thinking has also been used effectively and critically to relate artworks to social systems by, for example, Richard Krautheimer, in his studies of the formal and ideological influence of early Christian church plans on later European building.7 In digital humanities, scholars have emphasized the importance of developing typologies to establish entirely new areas of knowledge, especially from marginalized groups, as a form of what Kim Gallon calls the “technology of recovery.”8 The power of typological thinking is, of course, its ability to characterize a field by organizing its subject; that method can be as dangerous in forming an unyielding canon as it can be critical in blasting open a set range of problems by introducing entirely new categories of evidence. In this regard, typological thinking is as much a part of the foundations of a field as it is of its latest (digital) critique.
Second, art historians are also interested in visual form, not only in individual works but at scale. Early attempts by Roger Fry, for example, to define a Post-Impressionist style can be put in this category as well as the centuries-long practice of connoisseurship in the study and analysis of Chinese art.9 In either case, close looking and characterization of form is coupled with the categorization of visual patterns. What constitutes “style” in a visual sense was countered by other art historians who began to think of style in more social terms, as in the work of Meyer Schapiro in his fundamental essay “Style.”10 Formal critique at the scale of a definition of “style” can often be as theoretical as it is based on visual evidence, as in the case of Rosalind Krauss’s argument for sculpture in the “expanded field.”11 As with close reading in literature, formalist art historians in the post-1968 world have faced criticism that visual analysis for its own sake is ahistorical and ultimately subjective. More recently in the digital era, we can speak of Franco Moretti’s concept of distant reading as a critique of the limitations of analysis that fetishizes the close exploration of form, among other criteria.12 Such recent debates indicate that the question of the scale of evidence at the basis of the analysis is an important point of consensus or disagreement when one considers the validity of an argument driven by visual evidence.
Third, art historians are interested in subject matter. Since Panofsky, the study of the significance of iconography has weighed heavily on art historians who focus on painting, sculpture, print, and photography, among other media. Panofsky’s influential theory and method of iconographic analysis emphasized understanding the subject matter chosen within the history of that subject matter’s depiction.13 The result of this method means that the art historian must have as thorough a knowledge of other depictions of the same subject as she does of the object under investigation. As with other foundational approaches, the limitations of iconography have been well noted by subsequent generations, even while the importance of understanding the broader patterns in the content and context of subject matter choices have extended into important works in diverse areas such as the study of Chinese painting, feminist art history, and the ideological critique of art.14 For all of these approaches, art historians concern themselves with locating the significant meaning of a work of art by placing it in dialogue with dozens if not hundreds of others.
And finally, art historians are interested in the social world in which art functions. From the initial biographical approach of Giorgio Vasari in the sixteenth century to the emphasis on social class and art in the works of Frederick Antal or Arnold Hauser, the place of an artwork in time has been an important criterion for many art historians across a diverse theoretical spectrum. In these cases, emphasis on the social requires an art historian to research vast areas of human history and experience covering ever more terrain at both the micro level of the work and the artist and at the macro level of the social system. While systemic questions have been especially of interest to Marxist art historians like Schapiro and Hauser,15 specific social research extended in the post–World War II era to the broader field of art history through institutional studies of the global spread of national art academies, interest in artists beyond the white male canon, and a more diverse geography of art.16 Art historians have also been critical of this work, particularly on the question of the role of mediation between the meaning of a work and its social context, as in the famous critique of Hauser by Ernst Gombrich.17 These criticisms, though, have not dampened the continued interest of a wide array of art historians across the discipline in seeing the most crucial question in art history as how artworks and artists interact with social environments...

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