Been there, done that: Art history as a model for the effect of technology on disciplinary development

Evidence of why it is useful to read outside your main areas of disciplinary interest…

I’ve been reading my way through Revisualizing visual culture (Ashgate 2010), on a number of titles I bought from the Ashgate stand at the the recent DH 2012 conference in Hamburg. Most of the chapter thus far have been relevant to work we are doing with the Visionary Cross project, especially now that we are starting to get usable 3D meshes (as time allows, I hope to post some other small posts about the various chapters in this and my other recent reading).

Things seemed to become less relevant towards the end of the book, when the articles began to become more focussed to my eye on questions of the inside baseball of Art History, rather than, primarily, more generalisable aspects of the Digital Humanities.

“Internet Art History 2.0” by Charlotte Frost seemed to belong very much to this last category. While it was about the revisualisation of visual culture through technology, it had taken this topic up in terms of the movement and its place (or lack there of) in official art history. Interesting enough stuff, but not really likely to be that useful in my own research and teaching.

Until the last couple of pages, when Frost turned her attention to the question of why histories of art history have “failed to address the material technologies involved in making and recording… art historical judgements in any sense other than as transparent, naturalized, pseudo-scientific instruments. The main reports on the discipline… all but ignore the tools of the art historian’s trade” (134-135).

What she means by this in particular, it seems, is photography: “it is not until the invention of photography… that the discipline of art history as we generally understand it today was truly formed” (135). This observation, which she has picked up from the apparently relatively few historians who have discussed this, is really interesting and relevant to students of the digital humanities. As Donald Preziosi argues in Rethinking art history: Meditations on a coy science:

The powerful network of apparatuses constituting the modern discipline of art history presupposes the existence of photography. Indeed, art history as we know it today is the child of photography: From its beginnings as an academic discipline in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, filmic technologies have played a key role in analytic study, taxonomic ordering, and the creation of historical and genealogical narratives (p. 72, quoted from Frost, p. 135).

Or as Robert S. Nelson suggests:

Art history is about two hundred years old, but only since the end of the nineteenth century have its practices begun to coalesce into normative patterns. Certainly an art history lecture in 1900 was utterly different from one given a century before, the principal difference being the speaker’s ability to illustrate and thus make present the work of art (“The slide lecture, or the work of art history in the age of mechanical reproduction,” Critical Inquiry 26.3 [2000]: 422; quoted in Frost, p. 135).

I find this such a powerful observation, I think, because it involves an indirect result of technological development. That the computer led to the development of computer science as a discipline, or that you couldn’t have film studies before the advent of film, are examples of the obvious and direct effect of technology on scientific enquiry and disciplinary development. This is different, however, because Art History is not primarily about the technology that (apparently) enabled it: art has always existed as has the urge to talk about it; it never really dawned on me before that it was (of course) difficult to talk about it in a controlled and constructive fashion before the (relatively late) arrival of photography as an enabling technology.*

As I’ve been playing with our 3D models of the Ruthwell Cross, I’ve been wondering how access to the model might change the way we work as Anglo-Saxonists: although the actual things we can do with them are not necessarily revolutionary in and of themselves, the scale, speed, accuracy, and ease is. It is now possible to produce measurements of details on the cross to sub-millimetre accuracy at will: while you could always measure the cross, you could not get our kind of accuracy for conservation and technical reasons (not allowed to touch it and measuring tapes don’t have sub-millimetre accuracy). And you couldn’t produce such measurements just to check out a hunch: gaining access required permission, ladders, lighting, and so on. Likewise, while it has always been possible to compare aspects of the cross, either in person or by taking photographs, the 3D meshes offer an opportunity to do this with an unprecedented ease: any portion of the cross can be instantly compared to any other and at any arbitrary angle you want; you can play with the  positioning of the parts you want to compare until you’ve found exactly the fit you need… and then point to precisely that comparison.

I’m not sure this kind of technology will lead to the formation of a new scholarly discipline–though I think we are only beginning to touch on the Cultural Heritage implications of immersive and 3D technologies in the study of architecture and monuments (see Daniela Sirbu’s article on “Digital exploration of past design concepts in architecture” in Revisualizing visual culture for some exciting work in architectural studies). But I’m pretty sure it is going to change how we do our work in the old.


*One caveat I can think of to this claim is that literary criticism in 1900 and 1800 were also extremely different. Literary criticism of 1800 sounded a lot more like how these authors describe art history of the same time period, rather than its post photographic descendent. This is despite the fact that there was no equivalent change in the enabling technology. From what I remember from Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature, however, one big change was the institutional setting, particularly the widespread influence of the German research university model in America and the resistance to it in English universities (which might be described as having a counter-reformation-like effect). Presumably this same influence affected the development of Art History as a discipline.




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