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Digital Art History
A Subject in Transition Computers and the History of Art Volume One
By Anna Bentkowska-Kafel, Trish Cashen, Hazel Gardiner
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
History of Art in the Digital Age: Problems and Possibilities
The IT Revolution. Gutenberg Revisited?
There can be little doubt in anyone's mind now that we are in the midst of one of the most dramatic technological transformations in the history of man. Since the establishment of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, this revolution has affected – both positively and negatively – every society in the world. It has opened up a rich and exciting range of opportunities in the visual arts, as elsewhere – ones that seem to be infinite in their permutations. For many of us the World Wide Web and what it provides are still simply too good to be true. Hardly a day passes without me staring in wonder and disbelief with what I have just brought up on my screen, as I hear outside my window that now all too familiar sound: the beating wings of pigs as they fly by.
In times of dramatic change it is normal enough – after the initial shock – to try and stop and take stock of what is going on. Such surveys cannot, of course, be in any sense definitive, but they can perhaps help us to collect our thoughts and reach firmer decisions about what steps to take next. Having been involved in IT and the Arts in one way or another for more than twenty years I am probably better qualified now for looking backwards than forward. However, I hope that my current paper will end up by being more than a relation of what has happened. I have been involved in a number of projects myself, concerning both visual and textual analysis, teaching initiatives and museum and archive projects. But it is not my intention to give an account here of these. Rather I wish to look more broadly at current practices, and to make some observations, as a user of the rich resources that are now on offer, of the effects that they are having on my own area of expertise – the study of the history of art.
Before going on to consider the ways in which IT is affecting the study, preservation and promotion of art – I would like to step back a little further to take in the nature of the IT revolution itself. In describing this one, a previous upheaval is frequently invoked by commentators. This is the 'Gutenberg Revolution', the establishment in the fifteenth century of the printing press as a means for the mass reproduction of texts and images. This technological advance enabled a new capacity in communication that proved critical for widespread material and intellectual change.
We can see well enough that the IT revolution has brought about an unprecedented access to and interpretation of information. But does this change go so far as to constitute a new mode of thought? The rapid intellectual change summed up in cultural studies by the term 'postmodernism' seems to involve in its own nature that challenge to existing hierarchies that has been at the basis of revolutions in thought, such as that caused, for example, by the 'Copernican Revolution' of the sixteenth century when it was first definitively established that the earth revolved around the sun. This view of the IT explosion as symptomatic of radical intellectual change is certainly supported by the French cultural analyst, Jean-François Lyotard. In The Postmodern Condition Lyotard famously sees the IT revolution as an aspect of the change in 'narrative knowledge' that has emerged in the new technological age.
This challenge is certainly evident in changes in our perception of both history and of art. It was as long ago as 1979 that the French artist and philosopher Hervé Fischer proclaimed in a performance in the Pompidou Centre in Paris that the history of art was dead. Fischer claimed that the 'linear' concept of historical progression was now over, a change that affected both our understanding of time and of activities like art that were dependent on it. Now, he claimed, art like history was dead and we were in the age of 'meta-art'.
The proclamation of the death of art has been a familiar avant-garde strategy since at least the early twentieth century. To link this with the death of history, however, was something novel, and reflects the doubts about linear progress that were soon to grow into a crescendo. Ultimately these seemed to be justified by the dramatic political changes around 1990 that brought about the collapse of the communist bloc and the replacement of the dialectical interchange of the Cold War with more mediated forms of discourse. The 'death of history' has now become a commonplace statement amongst cultural analysts, suggesting we are now in a world in which events no longer unfold in a monumental and predictable fashion, and in which none of the old values can be taken for granted.
We can see the impact of this in historical studies generally. 'Classic' studies, in which pride of place was given to 'objective' evidence and to 'leading' areas such as politics and economics, have ceded territory to all manner of investigation and to sometimes bewildering degrees of subjectivity. The history of art has been one of the many branches to be affected. The concept of history as a progression of styles orchestrated by Great Masters – has given way to a questioning of aesthetic canons and to the very notion of artistic development. It is significant from this point of view that the schools and departments that teach the subject in the United Kingdom are now increasingly changing their titles from 'History of Art' to 'Visual Culture' – a term that simultaneously obviates both history and art, replacing these with a temporally unspecific and aesthetically non-discriminatory exploration of the pictorial.
This change in academic practice is evident enough. But are we in fact dealing with a phenomenon that has any application beyond that rarefied world? Are we talking here of no more than an 'Ivory Tower' revolution? We are told that history is 'dead', a victim of the new perception of time as multi-layered and multi-dimensional. Yet events still seem to unfold in this 'post-historical' world in a sequential manner as they did before, and to be susceptible to very much the same kinds of description and analysis. We are told that art is 'dead' and that now all forms of visual manifestation should be of equal interest. But this does not seem to stop the public flocking to the old guardians of outmoded aesthetic values such as the Uffizi, the Louvre and London's National Gallery. In fact they come in increasing numbers. Nor does visual culture's exposure of the myth of the 'masterpiece' seem to have put a dent in the auction houses' habit of selling these discredited items for countless millions.
It may turn out in time that the 'revolutions' in thought that we have experienced are less Copernican than they might at first seem. But perhaps we are simply too close to what is happening to understand it. What we can do, however, is to describe the visible symptoms of change, hoping thereby to build up in time a fuller picture of what is happening.
In the following sections of this paper I shall look at some of the symptoms that seem to me to be most telling, particularly in relation to the study of works of art.
Information and Knowledge
I will start with a general issue – that of the nature of the experience we gain via IT. I would argue that the new IT process foregrounds information over knowledge. The latter is a long-term process, conceptualised within the mind. Information is a form of short statement that can be delivered easily by automated processes. The gathering of information becomes much easier by these means. It remains an open question about whether this change is actually driven by the new technical processes, or whether those processes are themselves a symptom of a deeper cultural transformation. We are constantly being made aware of the increasing shortness of our attention span, and the ways in which this seems to be related to the diversions of a consumerist society. It would appear that we prefer, nowadays, the short reports offered in journals and newspapers to the long distance reading required by novels and scholarly investigations. Similarly the process of spending hours in the company of a single image is replaced by a practice that expects the stimulus of continual visual transformation. Reading books on screen is becoming more common – but is still not easy for most of us. The ability of IT to fragment large works – for example the potential offered by DVD to subdivide film narratives into sections – offers a quite different way of approaching texts, both visual and aural. This could lead in time to them being reduced to a mass of information, explorable through all kinds of analytical processes but never appreciated, as they once were, as a totality.
Art and the Digital Image
This practice of fragmentation extends to the digital image. The very process involved in its construction represents pictorial continuity as a series of distinct units, even when these are perceived by the spectator as an integrated whole. It should be remembered in this context that a digital image is not a 'reproduction' in the way that an analogue image is. Rather it is a transformation of an image, a translation from a continuum to a set of discrete units. When displayed on a screen the image is re-performed according to a set of encoded instructions.
The physical means of display encourage a fragmentary approach. The limited definition offered by most screens restricts quality, encouraging this process of fragmentation in the way we look at them. The 'whole' reproduction of a work offered on the screen is usually a schematic mnemonic, put up as a guide for the spectator. It is only the individual details that can be provided in anything approaching their actual quality. Such processes can perform brilliantly for certain types of technical analysis, for example those required in conservation processes. But they do raise real questions when it comes to the issue of offering a surrogate for the experience of a traditional work of art.
As screen sizes increase, making possible larger and more detailed visual representations, it may be that this problem will diminish. Nevertheless, I suspect that the temptation to explore the fragment rather than absorb the whole will persist.
Quality and the Aura
Digital imagery opens up a new a point of entry into the debate surrounding the issue of the 'aura' of the unique work of art – that quality famously identified by Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Much attention has been focused on the notion that the 'aura' of a work of art is related to its 'uniqueness'. The digital image can present a challenge to such claims in two ways. First, it is by its very nature infinitely reproducible. Indeed it is nothing but reproduction. There is, literally, no original of a digital image, since every version has equal status by virtue of being absolutely identical. Variation does occur in practice, but only at the point where the image is performed, as the performance is dependent upon the character of the apparatus displaying it. Even here, however, there is no sequential hierarchy. Each performance has an equal relationship to the code on which it is based. The 'quality' of the performance is entirely dependent upon the apparatus used for display – just as the 'quality' of a piece of music performed is dependent upon the skill of the musicians performing it. The second challenge is also dependent on this performative nature. The digital image is a 'passive' reproduction in the way that photographic copying is. It can therefore be creative in its interpretation, fragmenting and analysing as well as reproducing. Yet there are questions about how much these implications can as yet be fully accepted. It seems significant that while contemporary artists incorporate the digital into their work, the production of pure digital art remains a minority activity. I suspect that it is the very lack of uniqueness that hampers development here, in an art world geared to reward individuality above all other criteria.
When looking at the opportunities offered, then one turns almost inevitably back to the question of information. How much easier is it now to access information! A single keyword typed in to a search engine like Google (but let us face it, there is actually no search engine like Google when it comes to quality of performance) can deliver a cornucopia within milliseconds. Yet we all know too that such information can be highly different in quality. Ironically it is the knowledgeable person who gains most here, since scholarly practice familiarised him or her with the process of sifting and critically evaluating large bodies of information. Even such seasoned explorers, however, give up thanks for the increasing number of sites compiling accurate well-researched material. In the visual arts there are textual indicators as there are for other historical studies – such as the Inventory of Artists Papers in the UK. As yet there are far too few actual art texts available online – something that contrasts strongly with historical and literary studies. I have myself been involved in recent years in putting up Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty – which is viewable on the Birkbeck College website. I do hope that art historians will join in making more and more classic texts available online – particularly those that are not readily available these days in modern editions. But the key area for the visual arts is of course the visual archive. Here we have seen great strides in recent years, both in collections making their images available online – such as the Tate Gallery in London which has a full text listing of their holdings and the vast majority of its images. Equally impressive are those collections put together by consortia of museums, such as the American group AMICO. While the Tate website is free, AMICO make a charge – though one that seems to me to be a highly reasonable one. Yet this does lead to other benefits. While the quality of reproductions on the Tate website is limited to that which is useful only as a screen display, AMICO give you images that can be useful for more thorough exploration. The quality of information provided, too, is far more scholarly than that given by the Tate, which is aimed more at a general public. There are also equally important virtual collections, such as that of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi. This aims to give a comprehensive and international inventory of medieval stained glass windows (an art form, incidentally, uniquely well suited for screen display because of its transparency). While the information provided by the Tate is limited, this shows the highest scholarly standards. Such a work will surely in time render the printed catalogue raisonné obsolete – the more so since the online catalogue can be instantly updated.
All this is heartening, but there does, perhaps, remain one unsettling question in connection with such projects. This is the question of durability. In theory the digital image has an indefinite life. The code that creates it does not decay.
However, such code is dependent for its survival and communicability on the electronic processes that store it and perform it. How reliable are such processes? An Egyptian hieroglyph, carved on a wall or even inscribed on a parchment scroll remains readable to this day, thousands of years after it was made. How long will a digital record last? When our civilization follows the course of all previous ones and meets its end (either by catastrophe or decay), how will it be possible for future beings to gain any kind of access to the information that we have been storing in our idiosyncratic and highly vulnerable machines? There may be an answer to this question, but it is unlikely that we will be around to find out what it is.
Excerpted from Digital Art History by Anna Bentkowska-Kafel, Trish Cashen, Hazel Gardiner. Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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