Digital Art History, do you copy?

As a musicologist with prior experience in the delicate crossover between the digital and humanities, I came to the questions of the legitimacy and efficacy of “digital art history” as a discipline with an understanding of issues that plague many humanities fields when they are faced with the reality of ubiquitous digital life. While certain concerns related to art history are unique to the field (such as slide comparison and image parcing), there are several overarching trends which are applicable both in art historical and musicological research. These similarities arise in both the hopes for digital humanities’ possibilities and, conversely, the difficulties that arise in incorporating digital humanities methods into both fields.

The hopes for digital humanities are numerous. From the promise of data mining to produce large-scale patterns (Drucker, 9) to the various aggregational avenues which may offer new insights on collected data, the obviously digital computational processes have proved alluring, despite the obvious and pervasive viewpoint that the digital is so far removed from the essence of the human that it is difficult to justify it in terms of the humanities (to say nothing of the problematic nature of that view in the first place).

Yet another hopeful pursuit in the digital humanities is the accessibility of formally and informally published scholarship to all those with internet access. This endeavor is challenged by the questions of electronically published materials’ legitimacy in the scholarly realm. While scholarship in exclusively electronic journals is rising in legitimacy in both art history and musicology, there are certainly two camps in each discipline, one which embraces this change and one which rejects this attempt at deconstructing elitism within the academy. Finally, the concern for prior printing processes via book publishers and their declining business has also been brought to the fore (Kirsch). For the field to progress, these concerns must be addressed with concrete solutions.

With the possibilities for digital humanities comes the ramifications of embracing such work. Scholars in both musicology and art history tend to be quite solitary in their research endeavors, and often work alone. Digital humanities, however, necessitates interdisciplinary work amongst several scholars for truly terrific work which incorporates uniquely coded elements, expert utilization of audio, video, imagery, and embedded links (some of which are accessible to most users, yet others require assistance, typically from those with coding and IT experience) (Shonfeld, Long). Such interdisciplinary work can seem daunting to those accustomed to more isolated scholarly pursuits.

Various scholars and insitutions have searched for solutions to these issues regarding digital humanities which have given rise to questions enveloping the field. The Kress Foundation and scholars such as Matthew Long, Roger Shonfeld, and Diane Zorich have attempted to help scholars and research libraries to bridge gaps between the current state of digital humanities and digital art history. Others, such as Adam Kirsch, have outspokenly negated the claims of technological integration in academic settings. The issue is still hotly debated in both art history and musicology departments across the United States.

Digital humanities is not only relegated to the scholarly output of research, nor the pedgogical possibilities – digital means are enhancing the social aspects of scholarship as well. Networking and online presence are critical aspects of publishing and scholarly community relations, and the presence of Twitter and other social media are drastically influencing the way scholars interact with and connect with each other on personal and professional levels.

The overwhelming theme of these readings is that digital art history is a silent companion – we as scholars cannot ask it if we are using it to the best of its abilities, if we are retaining our humanness while embracing the digital, or if “digital humanities” is even an oxymoron at all. We can cry for the field(?) of digital humanities to reveal to us what we need to know to legitimize it within our own contexts, but for the moment, all that awaits is uncertain static, filled with opportunity and buzzing with potential, yet in need of fine tuning.


Sheila Brennan, Navigating DH for Cultural Heritage Professionals,

Johanna Drucker (2013) Is There a “Digital” Art History?, Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 29:1-2, 5-13, DOI: 10.1080/01973762.2013.761106

Adam Kirsch. “The Limits of the Digital Humanities.” in New Republic, May 2, 2014.

Matthew Long, Roger C. Schonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Art Historians” (Ithaka S+R, 2014).

“Creating Your Web Presence: A Primer for Academics,” ProfHacker(February 14, 2011).