DAHSS17: What is Digital Art History?

Second in what I expect to be a series of posts about what I learned/made at the Digital Art History Summer School in Malaga this September.

When the summer school opened with the question of “What is Digital Art History?” I realized I might be in over my head. After all, I’m not even an art historian, much less a digital art historian (whatever that is???). I still don’t have a concrete answer to what is digital art history, but overall left the summer school with a lot of interesting insights and new ways of thinking about problems/approaches/questions that could be addressed through digital methods.

For me the initial question really came down to one big question, is digital art history about using digital methods/tools to answer traditional questions or is it a different field/sub-field that asks different questions that the technology now allows us to address that weren’t possible before? What do I mean by that? Well, if we look at option 1, using technology to do something we were doing before; I see it like using a word processor to write your book, people wrote books before typing, but it became easier with computers and therefore we have more books – similarly we could do even more analysis that would have taken longer by hand now that we have new technologies in art history. Option 2 on the other hand suggests that there are questions out there we haven’t even thought to ask yet because we didn’t know how we would answer them, with the idea being that new analysis, new ways of thinking can lead us to not only new answers, but totally new questions. In the end I think we didn’t really answer this question, but for the projects we did some people applied new tech to their traditional questions, and some people tackled totally new questions. I guess that means the answer is option 1 and 2.

One of the most important things we talked about was data itself. How do we even create or acquire data to use for analysis. We talked about how all data is a form of abstraction – in order to turn a piece of art into something digital whether it is turning a painting into a set of pixels in a photograph, or coding relationships between collaborators, or creating metadata that gives additional information about an image.

For me, as an archaeologist I’m always thinking about context. The context is the frame that allows us to say anything at all. In the same way data requires context. Greg Niemeyer explained the process of working with data in the following way.


data: original abstraction from reality

record: addition of context (metadata, framework for coding, etc)

information: addition of value propositions (this is a type of interpretation, what do we add, how do we select what is “information?).

knowledge: addition of experience (bringing it all together)

action: this is the step where we transform from abstraction to practice


In the end, Greg said we need both new tech and new ideas to move forward. This will allow digital art historians to be prophets and revolutionaries.



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