Methodological implications of IT-applications
The history of the arts as a universitarian discipline has been subject
to deep methodological transformations within the last decades. Having
been dominated for a long time by iconography (and before that by style
analysis) the discipline is now influenced by concurring modes of interpretation.
Suffice it to refer to social history, gender and receptionist studies.
Something similar can be said about the area which is covered by art history.
The field of traditional "high" art has been vastly widened now including
especially "new" media like photography and film.
Is it possible to evaluate the effects of electronic data processing
on the methodology and field definition of the subject? The attempt to
do that will certainly be quite speculative, because every possible development
is almost entirely a question of the future. As an essential characteristics
of the information technologies seems to be that traditional linear thinking
is substituted by a linked-up thinking, we can suppose that what has been
alluded to regarding methodological developments will very probably be
enhanced. Art History will more and more loose its autonomous status and
become an integrated part of the humanities. What has been called "Cultural
studies" might foreshadow what is going to come. At the same time tendencies
to transform traditional art history into "media studies" will have to
be taken seriously, drawing attention also to the dangers which might be
incurred by the dissolution of current standards and aims.
How will electronic data processing affect the subject more concretely?
Different estimations might be given, the following ones being only more
or less contingent and may be also embattled examples:
rather obvious are the practical transformations lying ahead of us in case
the potential of the IT is massively used. Electronic images and texts
will tend to minimise the dependency on the availability of the artistic
material, allowing art historians to do extensive research at home. This
will on the other hand maximise forms of "musealisation" which began in
the 18th century or even before, as it will radicalise the museum's tendency
to dissociate the work of art from its original context. It is quite unclear
in how far virtual reality might counteract or enforce these developments.
the exchange of information could be set on a new basis. While traditional
ways of publication are substantially one way directed (even though of
course there has always been the possibility for thesis and reply) electronic
publishing as in the Internet will open more informal and may be more "democratic"
ways of information exchange. There is one condition for that: identification
of the information producer has to be made possible and the longevity of
its registration guaranteed. Especially the last condition does not seem
to be fulfilled with the Internet which is still far away from the stability
of traditional print media.
the use of vast image data bases might incite art historians to reduce
their reliance on traditional canons in favour of a new historical plurality.
While traditionally even to an experienced art historian not more than
a dozen exemplars will probably come to mind, when he is asked for historical
visualisations of the biblical "Visitation" theme, a database retrieval
will radically abolish such limitations, without taking regard of criteria
like aesthetic quality.
content based forms of art analysis, forms of visual analysis that directly
take into account the concrete artistic phenomenon as a non-textual fact
will reintroduce on a higher level old forms of formalistic understanding.
Art works, often analysed by contextualising approaches, will reappear
as technically created media. Some insights into this process might already
be received when we observe what is going on in art historical computer
based learning on CD-ROM: although we are far away from using the whole
range of possibilities yet, the specific potential of the medium is to
be seen in its capability to visualise the very practical ways in which
a work of art is concretely produced and what it materially consists of.
an opposite tendency can be maintained looking at text based data bases,
which are and very probably will remain the reality for quite a long time.
As extremely refined ways of describing the historical reality of works
of art are made possible by such data bases, and as this can be done in
a highly structured and coherent manner, questions about the position of
a work of art in historical life can be answered more reliably than before,
when this could often only be done in a very speculative and general way.
To give an example: A correlation between the iconography of poverty and
famine periods in 17th century Northern Europe can practically only be
examined on the basis of huge and detailed data bases with their rich potential
of field combination.