Digital Art History – Optional Module

The readings for this module covered a lot of ground including differentiating between “digitizing” art history and doing “digital art history.” While digital access to materials is constantly improving, Pamela Fletcher points out that interpretative digital history has a lot of room to grow. She includes a quote by Paul Jaskot that sums up the situation nicely, “The question is not what art history can do with the digital; the question is what are the important art historical questions that can be addressed with the help of digital tools?” Fletcher goes on to discuss several groundbreaking digital art history projects as examples of where the field can go and grow, like Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece, which uses high-resolution macrophotography, infrared reflectography, and x-radiography to allow website viewers to examine the work in incredible detail.

Although Fletcher and Jaskot discuss the importance of looking at the intellectual problems and questions instead of just methodology, Fletcher’s essay also notes how the very process of digitizing an artwork can attach bias. As we previously discussed in Module 8, the metadata can play a role in how materials are accessed and understood. However, Fletcher also explains that the photographic angle and lighting of an artwork or artifact can also impact its representation and interpretation stating,

The choices made at the point of digitizing an image and creating a database—from the lighting conditions and angle at which an object is photographed to the categories of metadata that are used—create a canon of sorts, not only of which objects are (and are not) digitized but one that is built into the very material and conceptual ways in which they are represented.”[1]

Being mindful of bias and how it impacts interpretation is important. However, it’s only a small piece of the Fletcher article, which covers a lot of ground and serves as an introduction/overview to the state of Digital Art History in 2015. Fletcher also delves into Text, Spatial, and Network Analysis as methodologies. When Fletcher wrote “Reflections on Digital Art History”, text analysis was being used heavily in literary DH, but “distant reading” was not often employed by art historians, which prompts her to ask what might be uncovered if a similar analysis were employed on artistic titles.

By 2019, Taylor Arnold and Laura Tilton expanded on “distant reading” and adapted the concept to look at visual materials. In “Distant viewing: analyzing large visual corpora” they lay out a new methodology for analyzing large quantities of images.[2] Before analysis can take place, each image must be described and codified.  The resulting systematic code is analyzed by algorithms. Arnold and Tilton have used this methodology to look at television story arcs, specifically Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. The distant reading showed that Jeannie had significantly less on screen time than Samantha (from Bewitched) and that “the formal qualities of the two shows are quite divergent.”[3] It’s a fascinating way to look at this media in a new light.

In a completely different vein, Johanna Drucker uses a “speculative fictional” narrative of a sweeping tour through a future museum to examine virtual possibilities. While describing a wealth of incredible artifacts, she also delves into the problematic nature of cultural artifacts and museum representation of items that have been obtained through violence and colonialism. This element of the article particularly struck me,

So much of collecting and knowledge production carries the imprint of colonial networks of abuse and exploitation.  Even respectful study was often built on the back of routes established for heinous trade and the trafficking in wretchedness.  The past cannot be remade, only redressed.  The task of unearthing knowledge as a system, a product of forces and conditions, rather than as a study of things and their description becomes evident.  The collection catalogues are overwhelming, and the theater of display of so many possibilities engulfs me in a mournful weariness contemplating the loss of many ages past and the challenges posed by what will be required to preserve so many to come.”[4]

Drucker hits on a topic that’s been hotly debated for years. Should artifacts that were obtained through colonialism still be on display? Is it a form of appropriation to view these objects that were not intended for the outside gaze and were forcefully taken and given a context outside of their cultures? Should the original artifacts be returned to the countries/descendants from whom they were stolen? In the midst of future museum and virtual exhibit possibilities, Drucker takes a moment to bring up an issue that often gets debated and then receives little/no action. As we consider the digital art history future, it is important to reckon with the past wrongs. Drucker ends the article by asking readers to consider several ethical aspects of how we “remember the past in and for the future.”

The Digital Art History readings examine so many methodologies, questions, and innovative ways to look at and question art history through different lenses and previously obscured connections. Did any of the methods make you think about something in a different way or inspire a future project?

[1] Pamela Fletcher, “Reflections on Digital Art History,” College Art Association Reviews, June 18, 2015.

[2] Taylor Arnold and Lauren Tilton, “Distant viewing: analyzing large visual corpora,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 34 (2019).

[3] Taylor Arnold and Lauren Tilton, “Distant viewing: analyzing large visual corpora,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 34 (2019). P. i9

[4] Johanna Drucker, “The Museum Opens,” International Journal for Digital Art History 4 (2019). Page 10.


  • Margaret Bisch-Markowitz

    Paula, I also reviewed the module on Digital Art History. Having completed the module on Distant Reading, I found a number of similarities in the issues that were brought up in the readings on both. Certainly, there are many fascinating new angles to be explored with the use of computer technology. One example is the Dali Museum in St.Petersburg, Florida, that uses Augmented Reality (AR) to enable visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning behind Dali’s complex images. That being said, I think that scholars need to be aware of the limitations of subordinating human agency to computational metrics.

    With regard to your concerns re: cutural artifacts and museums, I thought you might be interested in this: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/dna-analysis-confirms-claim-of-sitting-bull-descendant-180978968/

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