Art History in the Digital Age

This week, The Getty is hosting a Digital Art History lab with the intent of making progress on the question of how the field of art history can and should function in the digital age. As Diane Zorich masterfully outlined in her 2012 study of the state of digital art history, there are many obstacles the field faces as it moves forward – and there are also many biases that need to be addressed and dealt with. (I will talk about some of them here; links to this and other recommended materials are below.)

In her recent blog post for the Getty Iris, Murtha Baca, the head of the Getty Research Institute’s digital art history program, talked about what she calls the “St. Augustine Syndrome” — the perception and tradition of scholars writing and researching in solitude. This is perhaps the greatest problem facing art historians as we discuss what “digital art history” actually is, because not only does “digital art history” suggest an immense amount of collaboration and interaction with colleagues and even the public online, but the “St. Augustine Syndrome” also emphasizes the drastic difference between the reality of art history and the romance of art history. The reality of art history as it stands today is that there is a codified manner in which one gets published, advances their career, and becomes accepted and recognized as a member of the scholarly community. The romance of art history is that this can change. Digital art history efforts are increasing by individual scholars and institutions alike, and yet there is a serious problem in that these efforts are given little attention or credence. It is perhaps the worst for those who attempt digital publishing. With some specific exceptions, the work that scholars publish online is often not treated as equal to that of its print counterpart. It is, for whatever reason, perceived as a threat or simply as inferior work. Even if this is an unintentional or unconscious response from the art history community, the truth is that we cannot afford not to address these issues. A serious conversation must begin to take place among scholars about the viability of digital technology for furthering the field.

I mentioned that within art history, there is a codified manner in which we work. Must we feed these conventions? I’m not suggesting in any way that we reject traditional modes of scholarship (e.g., print publishing, conferences, etc.), but I am suggesting a reform within the field that finds impactful ways to use the technologies and international network given to us by the internet. Let’s discover and create new ways of practicing art history. Let’s redefine ‘art historian.’ In doing so, we’ll face practical and ideological roadblocks (discussed in Ms. Zorich’s report), but to get to a point where we can begin discussing these obstacles, we need to do a few things. First, we need to address the fact that the digital age isn’t going away. It’s not a fad. Art history will have to reckon with it at some point, so why not now?  Second, we need to recognize and dissect our biases. It is because these unspoken biases exist in the shadows that digital art history cannot advance. Third, we need to ask some hard questions, including things like: What would digital art history ideally look like? What would its publishing forms be? Where would print publishing fit into this? How would authors secure their copyright in this new form of scholarship? Would ‘digital art historians’ be a new breed of scholar?

I would also suggest that in addition to thinking about how the digital age can assist the art historical community, we begin efforts to make art history more accessible to the public. The Getty Research Institute has been a leader in this regard, as have many other museums and institutions. I specifically mean individuals and their work. Obviously, if one fails to see the merit of digital publishing, then sharing research online to the public is likely a ridiculous idea. Concern about online publication isn’t without reason; copyright infringement and plagiarism are easier than ever with the advent of the internet. But I think that for the public, there would be great value in having professional opinions and research available about art and art history. Misconceptions about art history and art abound, and scholars who are active and make their work available online can assist in dispelling some of those misconceptions. With digital art history, there is the possibility of taking education outside of university walls and into the vast, nearly limitless realm of the Web.  How art history and art historians fit into and interact with the public online is at least something to consider as part of the larger conversation about ‘digital art history.’

Art history is thriving… but more could be done. Right now, the conversation about digital art history is of a murky, confusing, uncomfortable sort, but we must address the elephant in the room, because the elephant is growing. We don’t want to find ourselves unprepared and scrambling for answers and solutions in 20 years because we failed to take the issue of digitality seriously. We are at an incredible moment in history where technology has made the world immediately accessible to us and us immediately accessible to the world. What will we do?


Author’s note: This article stems from a post I made in response to the Getty’s Tumblr asking for input about the state of art history in the digital age. The Getty’s Tumblr entry can be found here. My response received so much support (and was even mentioned in the Getty’s Google+ Hangout) that I decided to write this and expand on some of the ideas presented in that post. You can read it here.

Related links:

Murtha Baca,  Susan Edwards, and Anne Helmreich, “Rethinking Art History,” recording of live Google+ Hangout, March 4, 2013.

Murtha Baca, “Rethinking Art History,” The Getty Iris, March 4, 2013.

Nuria Rodríguez Ortega, “It’s Time to Rethink and Expand Art History for the Digital Age,” The Getty Iris, March 5, 2013.

Diane Zorich, “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship,” Kress Foundation, 2012.

For a nice overview of these issues, I refer you to 3 Pipe Problem’s article “The Moment of Digital Art History?” (December 2012)