Mapping Digital Art History

If you have read any of my blog posts from this semester, it will come as absolutely no surprise that I consider Johanna Drucker’s article “Is There A Digital Art History?” to be one, if not the, most foundational texts in the field of digital art history. Drucker articulately summarizes all of the issues that have prohibited the growth of the field in comparison to other disciplines in the humanities, differentiates between digitized and digital art history, and outlines some future opportunities for the field.

In contrast, when I think of the best example of an article that utilizes digital art history, Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich’s “Local/Global: Mapping of Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market” is the first one that comes to mind. The article was published in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture, a “scholarly, refereed digital journal devoted to the study of nineteenth-century ” art of all kinds and is open access as well as born digital. Founded in 2002, Nineteenth- Century Art Worldwide is known for its acceptance of digital art history article publications and is fitting as the place in which Fletcher and Helmreich decided to publish their article.

In “Local/Global: Manning Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” Fletcher and Helmreich use digital technology to demonstrate the ways in which the art markets in London evolved over time, highlighting different aspects of the social culture during the nineteenth-century. They write:

In this article, we explore the dialogue between the local and the global art markets that established a distinctive dynamic for the British art world as experienced in London. Our analysis derives from two complementary data sets and visualizations. The first is a map plotting the locations of major London commercial art galleries between 1850 and 1914, authored by Pamela Fletcher and David Israel. The second is an analysis by Anne Helmreich, with the assistance of Seth Erickson, of sales data drawn from the stock books of Goupil & Cie, and its successor Boussod, Valadon & Cie, which cover transactions at the firm’s various branches located in Paris, London, The Hague, Berlin, Brussels, and New York during the years 1846–1919.

Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, with David Israel and Seth Erickson, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 11:3 (Autumn 2012).

Before I begin to delve into the article itself, I wanted to note the fact that not only is this article co-authored, but they also acknowledge the many people who helped them in their scholarship. One of the inherent aspects of digital humanities projects is the fact that in almost all cases, projects are collaborative and involve a variety of people contributing to the scholarship, ranging from librarians, computer scientists, and many others. This has been one of the ways in which the development of digital art history has been hindered in the realm of academia; as the promotion and tenure process is so focused on monographs produced by a single author, many academics can be discouraged by the idea of collaboration with other scholars. In this article, we see multiple scholars working together and acknowledging the labor that went into the project and dataset creation. The clear articulation of the division of labor and acknowledgment of the variety of people who contributed to the success of the project.

Another reason that I view this article as a wonderful example of digital art history is the authors’ clear articulation of the ways in which the technology that they utilized changed the research question they were able to ask and subsequently answer, embodying the digital in Drucker’s digitized/digital conundrum. In talking about the historiography of this topic, they state:

With the exception of Bayer and Page, scholars have generally adopted the case-study approach, using carefully selected examples from which to draw broader conclusions. Given the sheer quantities of data involved, drawn from the thousands of exhibition catalogues, auction records, dealers’ stock books, collectors’ inventories, and press accounts that detail the daily workings of the market, case study analyses of individual dealers, artists, galleries, or patrons are a strategic response. Yet some questions cannot be answered—or even posed—without using larger data sets and finding ways to mine and visualize effectively the material they contain. Bayer and Page, for example, bring the tools of economics to the study of London’s art market, basing many of their conclusions on statistical and econometric analyses of databases they composed from records of auction sales.

Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, with David Israel and Seth Erickson, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 11:3 (Autumn 2012).

In this statement, the authors give a succinct overview of the historiography of this topic and then note the ways in which the advent of digital technologies are able to change their scholarship. By utilizing these large data sets and mapping technology, they are able to ask a fundamentally different question than any researcher before because of the tools.

Not only do Heimrich and Fletcher clearly articulate the ways in which they are able to advance their own scholarship with the advent of digital technologies, they also lay out the ways that the field has benefitted from this technology. They provide a variety of examples of projects that provide tremendous access to primary sources as well as the new digital publishing opportunities in the field, citing not only Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide but also other digital publications. They provide an overview of the four distinct areas of digital humanities (text analysis, spatial analysis, network analysis, and image analysis) and then highlight the ways in which these can specifically apply to art historical scholarship:

Building on this unprecedented capacity, we should be able to work across the boundaries of periodization and national borders that often define our field of study. Visualizations of spatial and network analyses have the potential to demonstrate that local and global markets are not really bounded or distinct, but rather are constituted of different sets of overlapping and intersecting networks that artists accessed and activated in different ways. The digital humanities are, thus, well aligned with art history’s rising concern with mobility and exchange in a transnational framework.

Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, with David Israel and Seth Erickson, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 11:3 (Autumn 2012).

Fletcher and Helmreich respond Drucker’s article “Is there a Digital Art History?” with an emphatic yes in their article “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market.” Not only do they demonstrate the ways in which digital tools allows them to ask a new research question, they also provide an incredible articulation of the ways in which the field of art history, as a whole, can benefit from these new digital technologies and should be engaging with them.

Mapping Tools

After discussing Helmreich and Fletcher’s article, as well as many other articles that discuss mapping in relation to art history, we were able to play with a few mapping tools ourselves. StoryMap from Northwestern University’s KnightLab is one of the mapping tools that we looked at; not only can you create annotated maps, but also you can create annotated images. Below is my first try at StoryMap- there is so much more you can do with this technology and I look forward to playing around with it more in the future!