It’s Not Bad, It’s Art

I would first like to preface this with my experience in art history is limited to one (1) survey course I took in undergrad on art history from ancient to medieval and my mild obsessions with both Alphonse Mucha and impressionism. I like being an artist, but the history of art is something that I am not familiar as with. TL;DR, I know next to nothing.

In saying that, I think the first thing that stands out to me as an amateur art historian is the distinction between digital art history and digitized art history. For a very visually-based field such as this one, I feel that this distinction is especially important. We are all familiar with digitized art—these are the pieces that have simply been, well, digitized and placed in an online collection or database. This is moving a physical work into an online format, improving accessibility and leading to unique perceptions of the piece, but not inherently affecting the piece itself.

Digital art history, on the other hand, is a much more complex and entangled game. It seems to me, as a general outsider to the intricacies of the field, that digital methodology has inspired a varied mix of reactions among art historians. One is that art historians have not taken to digital methods as readily as other disciplines in the humanities. In his article “Forgotten Genealogies: Brief Reflections on the  History of Digital Art History,” Benjamin Zweig “questions the assumption that art historians have been slow to embrace digital tools and methods” by examining the early stages of digital art history in the 1980s and 1990s. Zweig shows off the somewhat hidden foundations of digital art history developed during this time, and ultimately attempts to trump the idea that the field is lagging compared to others and has not had the same effects.

On quite the other hand, Claire Bishop’s article “Against Digital Art History” takes a very different stance (if that wasn’t evident from the title). While not a perfect opposite of Zweig’s article—Bishop does not attempt to argue that digital art history has not remotely happened—she instead chooses to focus her argument on the assertion that digital art history is not critical in the correct lenses. Bishop holds that digital methods have pushed to quantify assessment to such lengths that they have blotted out other critical analysis methods, ultimately detracting from the field as a whole.

Again, I am not an art historian, nor am I familiar with the politics of the field. However, Bishop’s article seems limiting and short-sighted. Digital methods within the humanities are still relatively new. As such, growing pains are to be expected. They may not be perfect right now, but to write them off totally seems like jumping the gun. Regardless, the collective of articles for this module have leant me some new perspective—not just on art history, but on critical analysis in the humanities as a whole.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Hi Hayley! I enjoyed reading your perspective. It’s been a while since I’ve studied art history, but I remember interpretation and critical analysis being such a large part of the field that it seems like Claire Bishop is cautioning against losing that element, while also asking her readers to ask better (potentially more interpretative?) questions. I got the sense that she was unhappy with the attempt to ‘master history and the archive.’ I agree with her that there aren’t always tidy or unambiguous answers and that it’s also hard to know what data is missing and how that influences the interpretation. However, I don’t think that should discourage work in digital art history, but rather encourage a critical eye to the datasets, source materials, and the questions one is trying to answer.

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