Digital Dimensions at CAA 2015
I was inspired by Mark Sample’s post on the digitally-inflected panels at MLA 2015, to write a (much shorter) roundup of those panels at the College Art Association’s Annual Conference in New York, February 2015.
This was supposedly the year that “digital art history [took] off.” But it is interesting to see the limited way in which this conversation has galvanized. There are only two panels specifically centered on “digital” methods in art historical research. One is a roundtable called “Doing Digital Art History” that will report on the summer institutes funded by the Getty and the Kress Foundation, and hosted by UCLA, George Mason University, Harvard University, and Middlebury College.1 (Full disclosure: I will be doing a lightning presentation on my work at the Kress/Middlebury institute during this session).
The other is Emily Pugh’s and Petra Chu’s panel devoted to “Art Historical Scholarship and Publishing in the Digital World”. Our discipline (or, at least, major funders in our discipline) seems to have latched on to digital publishing. Along with yet another panel on digital publishing, the conference this year will also feature workshops on the digital curation and publishing platforms Omeka and Scalar. There will also be a workshop on the technical problems presented by digital images. Notably, CAA 2014 also featured a panel on digital publishing in art history largely centered around the Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative (OSCI).
I do not wish to minimize the fantastic, innovative work being done in the OSCI and other digital publishing realms. A great deal of the displeasure around the “digital humanities” at the MLA has focused on the privileging of research computation over digitally-inflected publishing and pedagogy. I am glad to see that art historians and our funders are tackling that issue head-on, and not as an afterthought. However, it seems few, if any, projects presented this year at CAA will claim that computational methods (quantitative, spatial, network, text, and image analysis, to name a few) have led them to fundamentally new research questions and interpretations, not just new ways to communicate. I’m hopeful this point will come out during discussions in New York. But it is telling that computation’s impact on research results is not being explicitly articulated in session or paper titles this year.
This is not necessarily a CAA problem. Last week, CASVA’s symposium “New Projects in Digital Art History” featured six project presentations. All had generated impressive resources, from a virtual reconstruction of a Pompeiian villa, to a GIS of Rome from the ancient to the modern era, to a concordance of the text and images in multiple editions of Orlando Furioso. In my view, however, only Paul Jaskot and Christian Huemer explained precisely how computer-aided analysis had led them to new conclusions about their subjects. At the risk of sounding strident: what is the point of any of this work, if not that? Are we trapped within what Johanna Drucker has called a “digitized art history” rather than a “digital art history” that grapples with the full theoretical implications of humanities computing?2
CAA director Linda Downs is excited about the transformative potential digital technology may hold for our research and publishing. Me too. But we’ve got a ways to go on the research end, and an increasing number of people asking “where’s the beef?”