Drucker’s Digital Art History

As Drucker writes, digital art history is not digitized art history; it must take scholarship to a new level and achieve outcomes not possible without digital tools.  Drucker recounts the methodologies that drastically impacted the way art history was ‘done’; phsychoanalysis, post-structuralism, Marxism, semiotics, feminist theory etc. in order to underline and demonstrate how digital methodologies would need to fundamentally impact the dicipline in order to be worth the time, money and labor required to begin and keep such projects alive.  Digital technologies and interventions would be considered worthwhile and successful if they could radically change the ways in which art historians look at, think about and write on their chosen objects of inquiry.

Drucker continues to address the fact that early digital projects focused around data-mining, metadata, and text-based objects due to the fact that analog text has a one-to-one relationship with that of the digital. The same is not so for the art object, she argues, but various technological processes not based on the visual can still lead to new questions and information regarding our art objects (see page 8 for more details).  It seems that digital tools and technologies might be better suited to tell us less about the art object itself but more about the worlds in which it was made, used, and traveled. We can draw deeper connections between cultures, time periods, geographic regions and the like to create a richer idea of the history of an art object.

Broadly speaking, I think Drucker’s argument is well framed. She takes into account  and discusses the possible impacts of digital art history upon the primary and secondary sources of the field, the conservation of those objects, and general scholarship that could arise out of the use of new technologies and approaches. One small qualm I have with Drucker’s writing is that it diminishes the importance of digitized art history. While digitized art objects may not fundamentally  change scholarship in the field, their existence does facilitate significantly more access to scholars and students alike.  Tangentially, on page 9 of her article, Drucker speaks of the scale of analysis promised through the digital one previously unimaginable in the analog, but does this kind of work not necessarily depend upon mass digitization efforts?

Six years have passed since Drucker wrote “Is there a “Digital” Art History?” and, as we know, six years in technological time is a long time indeed. One example of a digital art history project that came to mind upon reading this article was the pigment timeline.  This project plots the development of various pigments throughout the history of art, while also providing information about the chemical compounds of said pigments. Although I don’t view this project to be as advanced as the imagined van Eyck project in Drucker’s article, I think it is tangential and provides a new way to consider the use of color. That being said, many scholars have dedicated their careers to color usage in art works, and I don’t know enough to say whether this resource is truly taking advantage of all that the current technologies can make possible.

I am primarily interested in working with artists’ archives.  While not as fundamentally or necessarily visual as some other subfields of art history, I think that many of Drucker’s points and questions can be applied to the relationship between digital projects and art history’s primary source archival materials.  Since first encountering the DAH project the Van Gogh Letters, I’ve wondered how a similar model could be used for other archival materials to facilitate a more holistic understanding of an artists’s life, practice and legacy.  After working with the archive of am American photographer last summer, I have been imagining a similar DAH project that could connect written documents (such as letters, manuscripts) to works of art mentioned or created around the same time. It would be interesting to see if some kind of map could also be incorporated into this still-forming DAH project idea, as many artists are/can be nomadic over their careers.  As in Drucker’s van Eyck example, digital art history projects seem to lend themselves easily to visualizing networks in which artists and their works have been enmeshed. I think many arts-related archival collections could benefit from these networks being made more visible and accessible.

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