Being Basic: Digitization

As we learned from Johanna Drucker’s seminal article “Is There A Digital Art History?” there is an integral differences between digitized and digital art history. Digitized art history is often the first step in moving towards digital art history and the various projects that fall under the umbrella of this new academic field. Scanning archival images, creating 3D replications of architectural buildings, or scanning ephemera from artist’s files to create a digital repository is all considered digitizing. As a point of contrast, digital art history differentiates from just digitizing art history as it is fundamentally asking a different research question. It is using the new technological tools that have been introduced and using them to look art art history in a new way.

I write this rather basic introductory paragraph not just as a regurgitation of facts that we have talked about in the beginning of our class, but also as a reminder to myself. While I am extremely interested in digital art history and, from my past course experiences, feel like I have a thorough understanding in the field, I still often times get caught up in the differences between digitizing and digital. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, regardless of the fact that digitizing is the first step towards a digital art history and not necessarily a new methodological way in which you can approach the field, art historians have resisted the use of digitizing in comparison to other disciplines in the humanities. This resistance to the use of digitizing technology might initially come as a shock to people as it now seems so basic, but once you truly ponder why they might have been resistant to the influx of digitization, it makes more and more sense.

Unlike any other field in the humanities, or even the social sciences, art historians are first and foremost focused on the object itself. While the field has embraced new ways of looking at objects, i.e. Marxist, feminist, queer methodologies, the object is always the first and most important field of inquiry. Before we can look at anything else, art historians first, and always, examine the object: the medium, its form, its material, etc. Now, why would the extra emphasis on the object matter so much to art historians? Wouldn’t that be a reason to embrace digital technologies as a way to gain access to more and more art objects? One must only do a simple Google search of a famous art work, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as a pertinent example.

Google image search of the painting the Mona Lisa.
Google Image search for Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Mona Lisa. “

The range of images that appear when searching the Mona Lisa illuminate a pertinent reason why art historians have been resistant to digital technologies. Each of these individual images have a different variation of the painting: from differences in size, color, placement, and much more, one would not be able to tell which was the “right” Mona Lisa and which one was not. Since the object, its color, material, shape, and size, are all essential in the analysis of art history scholarship, it becomes a bit clearer why art historians might be resistant to these technologies. Slides and printed images are considered (by some art historians, not necessarily all), to be truer to the original object of which they are studying.

That being said, art historians have embraced digitizing in their efforts to become more technologically advanced and because of this, it is essential that we are not only aware of its practices, but also be constantly skeptical of the way in which the field utilizes these new tools.

When I think of the ways in which art history can utilize digitization tools, I always think that the first question one must ask is what is actually being digitized. If one of the main benefits of the use of these tools is to increase access to art objects, it is essential that practitioners be cognizant in what exactly they are digitizing. What cultures do these objects reflect? In what ways is digitizing these objects helping the field to expand to create a more diverse field? Are there any biases that are inherent in a department’s digitization practices? How are these technological tools being used to create a more diverse field of art history?

These are just some of the questions that one must ask, as well as remind oneself, when dealing with the field of digital art history. If the first step of this new scholarly practice is digitizing, then we must ensure that we are doing everything in our power to ensure that this new wave of methodological practices embraces a larger field of scholarly inquiry. The first example that always comes to mind is that of the racial bias inherent in photography and digitizing photographs. It is essential that practitioners are aware of the way in which digitizing objects, photographs, and ephemera can affect the way in which future scholarship is conducted. Much like an archive, digital repositories affect scholarship in an extremely basic way: if the object or information isn’t there, scholars are unable to conduct research on the object. While technology and digitizing art history is a great way in which scholars are able to open up the field, it is also essential that we are aware of the way in which it also may close the field.

2 Replies to “Being Basic: Digitization”

  1. Veronica, I appreciate that you brought up the important issue of brining analog biases and issues into the digital. I think that, in all fields (though especially SILS) the shiny lure of the digital can sometimes drown out any possible negatives that come along with digitization and/or digital projects.

    I had known about the inherent bias literally built into photography from my own photographic education but I hadn’t read the article you shared, so thank you for that. I think that the issue with film photography’s bias is a good metaphor for the institutional biases that get inserted or built into projects. I do agree with you, but I also think and hope the digital can be a place where those biases are called out, more directly engaged with, and even worked against. Since I am new to the world of digital art history, and only know of a few projects, none come to mind that overtly work against institutional biases (and maybe that is telling), but I can imagine projects in which digital tools enable scholars to make connections and ask questions that push against harmful biases present in previous scholarship. Could a digital mapping project bring to life areas of black artistic production that have been lost due to pervasive gentrification in the States? Could similar tools be used to trace the trajectories of native artworks through various collectors and institution’s hands over the centuries and give us more insights into the trading routes and tribe relations with those who collected their cultural heritage? Maybe simpler projects where a digital interface allows for the juxtaposition of various artworks could show us more about artistic cultural appropriation than we know. These are just a few random, half baked ideas, but I hope we will start to see some exciting DAH projects that do more of this important work.

  2. Veronica, this is a great post that really breaks down the issues in Digital Art History and digitization succinctly, I enjoyed reading it, and as you said it is a good reminder. Your example of the Mona Lisa and the difference in color that often occurs in digitization of images and being thrown off from the original object, had me thinking about the fact that this isn’t necessarily a new problem for art historians based only in digitization. Specifically I’m thinking of the Night Watch, and how after the varnish had been cleaned, they realized that maybe it wasn’t a night watch afterall. From working in the VRL we know that photoshopping can go into this digitization process to get rid of dust that obviously is not present in the original object, but images can easily be over-photoshopped, just as objects can be over-cleaned. It’s interesting that this happens quite frequently in art history and yet art historians were so reticent to accept digital surrogates, although I guess that’s just it- they’re surrogates. Your last point too about the bias involved in the archive is so important. Too often people forget that so many technologies were developed or trained on homogenous majorities (like facial recognition software!) and thus is incredibly biased. I think a lot of people like to think that because it’s a technology or an algorithm, it’s impartial but that’s clearly not the case as your post shows.

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