Digital Art History: “Think Digitally Rather Than Just Doing for Doing’s Sake”

By Danuta S.

google artproject-470x316

One of the things that I read this week, a blog post by Miriam Posner, talked about the issue of the digital humanities community’s focus on creating digital projects rather than on teaching folks to think digitally about their disciplines. This is also something that my classmate, Sara Nixon, talks about in her blog post this week. She notes that we need to be taught more about how to use digital tools, rather than just learn about the digital humanities projects that they created. I’m afraid that I have to agree with both Posner and Sara here. Coming from the field of Art History–a field just beginning to dip its toes into the realm of digital humanities scholarship–I feel that there is a real need to teach digital methods of inquiry rather than how to create digital projects.

Dr. Shawn Graham and my classmates in HIST5702x have taught me a lot about how digital techniques can be applied to the field of history, which has been great. I have learned many new things about what things work and what doesn’t when it comes to creating a digital history project. However, throughout the semester I have had a hard time trying to translate what we are learning in Digital History to Art History. For some reason, I find it easier to think digitally in a Public History sense rather than in an Art Historical sense.

Screenshot of the Google Art Project

For the most part, Art History has only been focusing on digitizing images and creating databases of images (the Artstor database and the Google Art Project are the first examples that come to my mind). These are digital projects that make studying Art History a lot easier, but I don’t think they start with digital methods of inquiry. Art History needs to start thinking digitally.

As Posner says, “What if we viewed digital methods as a contribution to the long arc of a scholar’s intellectual development, rather than tools we pick up in the service of an immediately tangible product?” This is why I hope there will be a continued effort in the Digital Art History community to teach others interested in the field how to think digitally rather than just doing for doing’s sake. Luckily, there are several initiatives that are addressing this issue this year, such as the College Art Association’s THATCamp, and three summer institutes that the Getty Foundation has funded at George Mason University, Harvard University, and UCLA. To quote Nancy Ross rephrasing Ghandi: “Perhaps the fastest way to change the discipline of art history is to teach the change you want to see.”

Maybe I’m still being too hard on Art History and its forays into digital scholarship, but it’s been difficult trying to understand how it works and how it thinks. I have been searching for something more to teach me what Digital Art History is for almost a year, and I am only starting to find things now—the community is somewhat hard to find (which is something that it may need to work on in the future). I want to know things about Digital Art History that goes beyond simple digitization, and learning how to think digitally in a Public History sense has been a very useful step in translating what I know to my own field.

Perhaps my Unessay for HIST5702x will explore this further.

Source: Danuta