Where is the “Art” in Digital Art History?

With so many resources, software, and applications at our disposal, the possibilities for digital projects seems infinite. Moreover, the integration of technology in almost every factor of our lives can easily turn any novice to a computer wiz (at least self-proclaimed). Yet, as Diane Zorich states, a Digital Humanist or Digital Art historian is not one who can effectively use Google or who knows their way around the Met’s online collection. A Digital scholar is one who “adopt(s) the computational methodologies and analytical techniques that are enabled by new technologies” to their own research. I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts the utilitarianism of digital art history/humanities– that it is one method within the scholars tool belt. But Zorich poses a question–and its a big one– where is the Art in Digital Art History?

It’s a good question, right? Something to really keep in mind. As I’ve been researching different projects and initiatives, I’ve asked myself it a few times– where is the art? I want to spend this post unpacking this question because ultimately art historical research does not always have to focus on an artwork(s), yet art should be at its center, if only indirectly. Let me elaborate….

I was taught that art history should always focus on the object– that the art guides your scholarly discussion. Any questions or insights should come from within the object as it is the portal to new ways of understanding realities. With this, any method employed should serve the art. It should provide a frame in which the art takes on new understanding. If digital art history is an alternative method, then it should work the same way and for the same purpose (that is to provide a new understanding of works of art).

I should note that my skepticism is in response to digital projects that deal with large data sets– data visualization, cultural and network analytics, and text mining . At the foundation of the many types of data visualization projects is the transformation of data (which can include numerical data to even text documents) into visual forms that may provide new ways of engaging with the information. It seems that these projects help us comprehend trends over time and place and popularity of terms, styles, artists, schools, etc. Of course, there are so many other insights that these projects could present, but i am basing my understanding from the examples I’ve explored.

Zorich presents a few examples of Art Historical projects that deal with large data sets. Lev Manovich at the City University of New York employed a statistical technique called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) to analyze 60 visual features (or ‘image features’ such as color, texture, lines, shapes, etc.) In one project, Manovich applied this model to 128 paintings by Mondrian, creating a scatter plot organized by visual similarity among the works. From this cultural analysis, he explains how this visualization allows you to see, “the parts of the space of visual possibilities (that the artist) explored, the relative distributions of their works– the dense areas, the sparser areas, the presence or absence of clusters, etc.” (Zorich)

As we can see, the presentation of data provides new insights that allow for further inquiry. It prompts a scholarly discussion that centers on works of art. Even with this comparative image of Mondrian and Rothko, we can begin to recognize similarities and ask questions— all of which originate from the paintings themselves. In my opinion, this is a strong Digital Art History project because it applies a new way to engage with works of art that allow for new avenues of research. I doubt that one could notice the comparisons between Mondrian and Rothko through analog methods. We can page and page through catalogues, but even this might not spark such big insights! Manovich’s Cultural Analytics seems to be an effective way to center works of art within a digital project.

Zorich also includes a topic or textual mining project in which large corpuses of texts are mined and visualized for popularity of words and themes. She includes Dr. Robert Nelson’s project “Mining the Dispatch,” as an example. “Mining the Dispatch” examines the print run of the Richmond Daily Paper from 1860-1865. A number of topics were mined from over 112,000 papers, including Negro, years, reward, boy, man, jail, delivery, black, ran, and color. Like Manovich’s “Cultural Analytics”, the results from this project allowing for new questions– specifically in thinking why these terms might be so popular. Text mining projects like this are extremely interesting, no doubt, but its place of origin– its site of creation– has shifted from image to word. Zorich suggests ways in which Art Historians could use text mining for their work (such as scanning over Academic Journals or even the oeuvres of some of the leading theorists in the field) and I agree these would be extremely insightful and useful contextualizations to any research project. Still, though, I am not totally convinced this would result in an art historical scholarship. Sure, it would be illuminating to topic-mine African Art journals and major publications from the past 70 years to see which countries or ethnic groups are most popular (though I think most Africanists would already have some good guesses), but this seems like a historiography inquiry of the field. Historiography is important and often can be a much-needed addition to an art historical study, but should it be the foundation for said study? Should an art historical project come out of a mining of textual data from the field? Should it be the site of creation?

I suppose I will end with this thought– an Art Historian should practice visual primacy. Our discipline utilizes images and objects to understand our world and its histories. And so, I have some trouble approaching art history without a focus on the visual. Am I discrediting textual evidence, historical documents, and theoretical writings? Obviously not! But to ground a discussion on these is not art historical. With this, data visualization projects should follow this hierarchy. If a project, like Cultural Analytics, examines image sets, then we could use this as a foundation for inquiry. If a project does not, such as text mining, then it should be used as supplement. Text mining could definitely unearth new avenues of discussion, but I think should be used selectively and to assist the image. It is one digital method that I can see being employed during the process and not at its beginning. Most of these projects should be situated in a sequence of research (and some might be able to exist at multiple points). But regardless of method, digital or not, the beginning of any sequence must be an image or object. It must be the art.

Nelson, Robert K. “Mining the Dispatch.” Digital Research Lab, the University of Richmond. http://dsl.richmond.edu/dispatch/
Software Studies Initiative. “Mondrian vs Rothko: footprints and evolution in style space.” 2011. http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2011/06/mondrian-vs-rothko-footprints-and.html
Zorich, Diane M. “The ‘Art’ of Digital Art History” (presented at The Digital World of Art History, Princeton University, June 26, 2013), https://ima.princeton.edu/pubs/2013Zorich.pdf


  1. Veronica says:

    Hi Taylor-
    As always, I am very appreciative of the critical lens with which you look at our week’s topic. I wanted to specifically reflect on the questions you raise regarding art historical scholarship utilizing topic or text mining technologies. While I agree with your assertion that the object should not be lost in art historical scholarship, I would disagree with the idea that no scholarship could begin from a project similar to the ones that we looked at in Zorich’s presentation or throughout the semester. I wrote in my blog post, as well, about the fact that text mining decades of art historical journals would most likely reinforce what we already know, but I also think there is still value in doing this exercise: what if something arises that we didn’t already know? Or what if our assumptions were corrected or altered when we are able to analyze such a large corpus such as all of the journals from the Art Bulletin? Without actually utilizing the technologies available, we don’t really know if our assumptions are correct. Additionally, I would pushback in your argument that the only way that these technologies would be useful to the field if it was approaching a historiographic inquiry- I think text mining could create a new question for a scholar that had not thought about before. Thinking of Emily Crockett’s master’s thesis in which she is working on Veronese paintings of women bathing, it could be useful to do a text mining study to see the different ways in which the paintings were discussed or analyzed within the field and why this occurred- this is a historiographic approach and question, but could be just one aspect of her thesis and not her whole argument.
    Also, I would say that as art history graduate students, we have certainly read a lot of articles and monographs on theory and historiography that do not incorporate any images and are often not written by art historians- how would are perceptions of the field change if art historians were the ones doing this type of research?

  2. Taylor Barrett says:

    Taylor – While I agree with you that our art historical inquiries should be object based, I also want to play devil’s advocate for a moment. I can’t remember where I read this, but I once came across the idea that art history is really just history in drag. While I don’t necessarily love the use of the word drag in this instance, I think what the author was trying to convey is that art is just another entry point into history in general. While the art object is crucial to an investigation, I often ask, “what is this art object telling me about the time/society/culture in which it was made?” Maybe this is blasphemous as to say as an art historian, but often times, art is an access point and maybe not the whole picture. But I digress. I think you analysis of the Lee MAnovich project is spot on; that kind of analysis on a massive scale would likely allow for discoveries that analog access just couldn’t (also, the impossibility of getting an entire artist’s output in a single space to enable analysis is unlikely. Even if you could argue a retrospective would provide that kind of opportunity, it’s not like they let you move paintings around to compare them with one another). While I do understand where you are coming from about the issue with textual analysis focusing on word rather than image, I want to push back a little bit and make a plug for my favorite thing (surprise): artists archives! They provide such a wealth of contextual information about artworks and artists lives; they are necessary for our research. Archives of any sort are usually messy, crowded and hard to sift through – text mining is a great way to get a sense of what the archive contains before you really roll your sleeves up and dig in. But I do agree, there does need to be a focus on the art and we need more DAH projects that function in this way. Thanks for all of your thoughts!

  3. I enjoyed your insightful post this week, Taylor. You, along with Diane Zorich, pose the question, “Where is the Art in Digital Art History?” I agree that some of the digital art history projects we’ve examined in class seem, at first glance to be exciting, but the more we engage with them, the less they seem to be about art, and more about manipulating or displaying data. I too was taught that art history should always focus on the object, and that art is always at the center of your research, or discussion. You pose the question, “Should an art historical project come out of a mining of textual data from the field? Should it be the site of creation?” My instinctual response is no – it just doesn’t seem logical to me. Is text mining incredibly useful in literature research? Absolutely. But should it be the foundation, or as you put it, “the site of creation” of an art historical research paper? Not for me. I agree with you completely that an art historian should practice visual primacy. I appreciate your distinction regarding the use of text mining. You state that while it could definitely unearth new avenues of discussion, it should be used selectively and to assist the image. Your assertion that it is a digital method that should be employed during the process and not at its beginning is reasonable. If art is not our focus, if the object is not the beginning of our inquiry, are we art historians? If art is not at the heart of everything we do, what will become of the field of art history? It seems the more I learn about digital art history, the less I feel it is about art. I know I am not knowledgeable enough about the field to make any kind of blanket statement about digital art history, but at this point in the semester I feel that digital art history is primarily about the amazing things digital art history can do, and secondly, it relates to art in some way. Several of the projects we’ve looked at seem only tangentially related to art. Many of the technologies require a skill set that I have no interest in mastering, like coding, for example. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoy technology as much as anyone, and if something will be useful for my research, I will use it. I just don’t know yet what is worth putting the time into learning and working with on a daily basis. It seems to me that some art history projects are done as a demonstration of the capabilities of the technology, rather than as a helpmate to the research of art. I have no interest in putting technology above art, if I did, I would be in a different field. There are some very impressive digital art history projects out there, one example would be Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich’s “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth Century London’s Art Market.” I’m keeping my mind open for now, but I will always keep art, and the object, at the center of my work.

  4. Michelle says:

    Annie and Taylor, I think this discussion is really important. Taylor, I particularly like your distinction between art history and historiography. This is a rift that I have been trying to grapple with as well in my own thinking the last few weeks. I think your comment, “It is one digital method that I can see being employed during the process and not at its beginning.” is how I’ve been able to think about digital humanities within our field. I don’t think a lot of these tools are meant to be the starting point for art historical studies (perhaps the Manovich model may spur questions), but rather should be a tool to uncover better sources or to contextualize them. Since art historians do use historical documents to analyze and situate works of art, text mining could help us do that more efficiently as one simple example. I have no issue with these tools being used, but in my opinion they should just be a paragraph in a larger art historical paper, not the paper itself (if that makes sense). Really thinking through these tools as means to an end rather than the end itself would help to keep art historical research object based. As an aside, it’s interesting how we each see these tools differently. For example, I looked at Manovich’s models and didn’t see any real use. I actually thought it would be easier to sift through a catalog than to use these models. It goes to show how different everyones interest and capabilities in the digital field are!

  5. Emily Hynes says:

    I like your summation of Zorich’s writing and the preface to it all, that Google profeciency does not a digial humanist make. I appreciated your post, and it makes sense that you are finding ways to utilize digital methods for your understanding of the core of what art historical research is for you – the art itself. While I understand the benefits of having a focused view of what art historical research really is, I ask (with only my understanding from musicological state of the field discussions of similar nature) – where is the harm in exploring an expansion of what the root of art historical research is? In a lot of musicological discourse, we have moved from the idea of the core of musicology as “the work” in all the philosophical and theoretical definitions of “the work” and instead as a field seem to be moving toward acknowledgement that you cannot understand “the work” without the cultural context, the discourse around it, the people involved in its creation. All these aspects are essential to musicological research. So, if “the art” (inherently before we develop discourse around it, before we deem it so) is truly the source of all the “supplementary stuff,” do the supplementals not also constitute as being part of the art? As part of “the work,” just as relevant as the work itself? And with the nature of discourse, is it not necessary to have articles and work centering on all aspects of the art, since all context around the art are inherently in the art already? Additionally, if the art must be visual at the core, does that exclude the other senses? How could someone on the spectrum of visual impairment experience art? Is touch or smell or taste not also a factor, and just as much valid to the ontologies of experiencing art? Like I said, I’m just familiar with musicological discourse around this similar idea, and certainly don’t know anything about existing art historical discussion of similar nature.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

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