Digital Humanities and Fine Arts

With THAT Camp quickly approaching, I have been thinking about digital humanities quite a bit. For those that don’t know, digital humanities is a cross disciplinary field that helps explore the humanities through digital exploration. That might mean anything from an online history exhibit to in depth text analysis of literary works. Across the country, Digital humanities centers are springing up to support new kinds of digital research. The reach of these centers varies widely- some are mostly history based, and in fact it seems like a great deal of digital humanities research focuses on history. Others are more broad, and include projects in many humanities disciplines: Art History, Literature, Language, Classics, etc. A big part of the discussion in the Digital Humanities is talking about new models for publishing: what does it mean to publish online? What does peer review look like for online projects? How should promotion and tenure change to account for digital work? (Some places won’t even accept digital scholarship as part of a tenure portfolio).

One humanities discipline that I rarely see addressed in digital humanities, though, is Fine Art, and the question of why has been on my mind a lot. One obvious reason I come up with is that funding agencies for arts and other humanities are different- there’s the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEH has many initiatives to support digital work (see the new Office for Digital Humanities), while the NEA- well, I don’t think it has much in the way of digital initiatives (please correct me if I am wrong.) Which is a shame, really- the NEA could go very far towards “bringing the arts to all Americans” (one of the goals stated on their “about us” page) by supporting digital work, especially if they also supported work that released into Creative Commons or some such license. The separation of funding agencies is one explanation for the divide, but are there others?

To be sure, Fine Art is different from other humanities disciplines. The measure for success is different, for one thing- it’s nice to publish a book, or have a book written about you, of course, but more weight is placed on exhibitions- where do you exhibit? Is it a solo or a group show? The important thing, of course, is the professor’s work, but it is not enough to make work an never exhibit it. I’m sure similar discussions must take place in the academic fine art world that take place in other disciplines, such as: Are there other models for tenure? What should count? What about an online exhibition?

I wonder if digital humanities in general has room for fine art. Where I work, we offer research faculty fellowships once a year to help faculty with digital projects. I don’t think any fine art faculty have applied, but I wonder what would happen if they did. Our Center is not really set up for a fine art project, and, to be honest, I’m not even sure what one would look like. But I would be interested to find out.

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6 Responses to Digital Humanities and Fine Arts

  1. The odd thing about your post is that digital fine arts outside the academy have been thriving for decades. It seems like there’s been grass-roots production and distribution of fine arts since before the Web, with usenet groups dedicated to swapping scanned fine art long before MP3 enabled music sharing.

    Obviously, there’s far more to the digital humanities than publishing analog works online, but neither museums nor universites are taking the lead in making the arts accessible to the public. Do a Google image search for Thomas Hart Benton. How many of the results are from a .edu domain? How many from a museum?

    While running that search, I came across a perfect example of this blindness to digital access. In an article on an exhibit of Thomas Hart Benton’s WW2 paintings (an article illustrated with a single 660×390 image):

    Because of space limitations, the Society is able to exhibit only six of the ten war-themed Benton paintings in its collection. “These are national treasures by a world-class artist,” said Society art curator Joan Stack. “We wanted to make them available to the public.”

  2. That’s a great quote Ben!

    I’m not sure how fine art Faculty are at many schools, but when I got my fine art undergraduate degree in 2006, many faculty stopped just short of open hostility towards digital work. I can’t help but wonder if that is a factor. After all, the NEH probably started offering grants for digital projects because people were applying for grants for digital projects- are people doing that in the fine arts?

    Libraries and museums face similar problems- we want people to come in to the building, and fear that putting too much online will keep people from coming in and therefore make us seem obsolete. However, I think libraries are realizing that you can’t just pretend the problem doesn’t exist and go one with business as usual. I’m not quite sure museums are getting that.

    Where is the drive to get high quality painting images online like there is with books? Or is there one I just don’t know about?

  3. I’m probably stepping well outside any expertise I might have, but I do remember friends at Rice working on a digitization project in the mid 1990s that attempted to put together a digital art exhibit — a sort of online art history slide-deck. This was soundly quashed once the university lawyers got wind of it, with access restricted to the campus network, and an edict issued to faculty and staff prohibiting such digitization efforts. This was before Bridgeman v. Corel, and nobody really knew what the law was. But I’m sure the experience left a bitter taste in the mouths of those involved.

    Bridgeman raises an interesting point about mass-digitization. Museums find themselves in a position analogous to that of of the recording industry. It will be interesting to see how they resolve that.

  4. Hi Karin,
    You raise some great points.
    Where I teach, “digital” seems to get inserted into every conversation these days – ranging in tone from vitriolic to sacrosanct. As a painter turned programmer (I still consider myself an artist), I find the debate tiresome and primarily fueled by ignorance on both sides. I also think many people confuse digital facility with digital literacy (the software industry is quite happy to oblige on this front). Personally, I’ve been working across the digital humanities, digital arts (and beyond) rather shamelessly. Working at the level of code, established disciplinary boundaries dissolve (and eventually the temples that house them will as well.)

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