I am not advocating that we abandon older forms of scholarship, or stop carefully looking at objects, but we have to be working faster on the new and different ways of generating knowledge about art via computers.
James Cuno, who currently heads the J. Paul Getty Trust, recently wrote a short op-ed piece that nails it: “How Art History is Failing at the Internet” (http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/art-history-failing-internet/). Of course, it’s not really about the ‘internet’, it’s about computational approaches to gathering and working with digital information, with an eye to how we’re not making the most of the possibilities yet in art history. Here’s the heart of the concern:
“The power of our computers to store massive amounts of information and then order and reorder it in a near-infinite number of ways should be producing new paradigms in art historical research. Imagine what Panofsky or Aby Warburg could have done with our technology.”
Most of the article focuses on the tension between the older model of the solo humanist print-oriented scholar vs. the collaborative, team-based researcher who proceeds quickly to generated results. Art historians are trained lone wolves, and that just isn’t possible to do in the larger, more technically complex, and multi-skilled projects that are how computational research must be done. With my two recent digital projects (Warhol and Charles Fraser) I have found myself needing to work with a digital librarian, an undergraduate student in data science, and an archaeology student with a facility in GIS. All of have skills that I do not, and do not have the time or the facility to learn. I cannot be all things. Rather than resent that, I’ve come to love it—I can share problems and questions, hand over things that I can’t solve to someone who can, and produce something larger and more interesting than I ever could have done alone.
Art historians in general tend to be a traditional lot, but we can’t afford to be so on this one.
We can choose not to participate, but the fact is that other scholars will increasingly poach on our visual territory. Already I have been finding research by computer scientists working with large amounts of visual imagery to find formal, color, and style patterns. I’ll post a bibliography of this material one day if anyone is interested, but the fact is, they don’t and won’t ask the questions or consider the problems in the way that art historians do, to the detriment of art history, and the scholarship produced about the art.
We have got to get involved, now.