Art History’s Finally Doing the Digital

I’m beyond honoured that Three Pipe Problem’s Hasan Niyazi has featured me in a blog post about the burgeoning field of digital art history.

Niyazi has written a really great summary of many of the recent discussions that have arisen out of events like the recent Digital Art History Conference (organized by Jim Coddington at Institute of Fine Art, New York University), and the Kress Foundation report by Diane Zorich (which looked at the challenges of making art history digital). At the end of his extremely useful over-view, Niyazi has gathered together examples of three established digital art historians to further illustrate the type of work that is going on. In addition to my research on online approaches to art history, he discusses the work of Dr Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institute and manager of MuseumMobile, and Dr. Alexandra Korey, one of the web’s first professional arts and culture bloggers.

It has certainly been an exciting few months since I spoke on the first ever panel dedicated to the digital humanities at CAA 2012. Established figures like Lev Manovich have been attempting to float a #digitalarthistory hashtag and it has been great to see not just more discussion of the issues of digitizing art history but also to see more of these discussions actually happening digitally! And this is perhaps where my work differs significantly from that of other art historians working towards a digital discipline.

I am not concerned with digitizing art history so much as understanding what art contextual studies are and what they might become in light of digital technology. During the New York conference SmartHistory’s Beth Harris tweeted that Paul Jaskot (who was also on the CAA panel is doing great work with digital technologies in art history) had argued that we should ‘put the art history questions first, and then use digital tools to answer them, instead of other way around’. What I am interested in however is what questions we can ask now that we have digital tools and technologies – questions that we perhaps couldn’t ask before. This is because I believe that there are connections between the form and content of an archive and further, that art history is deeply attached to ideas that are formed mostly in co-operation with print.

So for example one of the features of online art contextualization that engages me is participation. I am concerned with the ways in which being able to participate more fully (for example: more easily accessing the images of artworks, writing a blog and having other public dialogues about art, and even – as part of art practices like Internet art – taking an active role in making and presenting artworks) changes not just the ways we work but also the ways in which meaning is made. Participation becomes an archival imperative and maybe even an aesthetic that drives culture and this is, for me, where digital art history gets most exciting!

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