Computational Methods (Art History)

The range of potential disciplines that art history can look to for help and guidance in the use of technology is encouraging and is much wider than the small sample of examples that are cited in this collection of wiki articles. Alongside the use of annotation and corpus techniques that might be said to emanate from literary and textual studies disciplines, there is of course the enormous subject of XML and its related methods, the use of which is largely navigated around by the majority of art historians who favour plain or proprietary text formats or if pushed, flat and relational databases. Whilst there is always the option of exporting and re-importing fielded data from database formats that have become unsupportable, the cost and trouble of carrying this work out is often de-prioritised in favour of new projects where the participants can specify new systems from scratch, thereby getting around the challenge of having to try and understand data accumulated by other parties.

In the area of communication studies the desktop communication and collaboration tools and the Access grid techniques referred to elsewhere (see wiki articles) can be augmented by reference to networks in general and their increasing ability to transfer larger images at realistically useful speeds. The prevalence of 100 Mbit institutional connections to the JANET network, and the possibility of 1Gbit internal connectivity within organisations means that many of the old prohibitions on file size transfer no longer apply and researchers can really exploit the detail that modern digital cameras provide, which in the case of semi-professional models can be in the region of 11 megapixels.

Within the discipline of art history, it is interesting that no generally accepted sub-discipline has emerged that might be labelled ‘computational art history’ or some such appellation. There are documented ways that one can explain this, foremost of which is the difficulty that practitioners face with receiving academic recognition of digital outputs to projects; and there are also parallels within other fields, notably within the area of literary stylistics, which by some accounts has had a hostile reception over the years trying to establish itself as a valid area of research within the broad field of literature. Yet, it remains curious that ideas about the significance of the canon of art history and the contentiousness of the inclusion and exclusion of various objects is cited as an obstacle to the creation of the type of corpora that might encourage computational art historical techniques. After all, the British National Corpus has all of the same issues to face in terms of who it appears to include and exclude and yet it has been assembled nonetheless and is a resource that is widely used and very influential.

Chris Bailey and Margaret Graham conclude their paper on The Corpus and the Art Historian by reinforcing the notion that the reluctance to engage with digital techniques is an ideological problem for art history as much as anything.

[quote]Art history's corpora have an appearance of being natural, which the conventional codes of language cannot assume. That it is only an appearance does not matter. The difference may be sufficient to ensure that the contested object of art history continues to evade the interrogative power of digital technology, while linguists and others, whose object both seems more abstract and conventional, make increasing use of it.[/quote]

At a practical level, the art historian has a common need with scholars in every other discipline to know that any tool or method they are going to take time to engage with is going to repay that time in terms of the type and quality of research that will emerge from its usage. The best way of making that case will surely be to look outside of the discipline to see where other subject areas are demonstrating useful and effective research outcomes that involve technogical methods, and to think carefully about how the nature of that research may have a bearing on what it is possible to do in the context of art history.

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