Making Computers Work for the History of Art

By Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg | The Art Bulletin, June 1997 | Go to article overview
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Making Computers Work for the History of Art


Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg, The Art Bulletin


The idea of combining computers and the history of art may still be problematic but it is no longer shocking. Art historians now understand that databases, electronic bibliographies, storage and retrieval, and high-quality digitized images may be complicated and expensive to create, and often to use, but are larger, faster, and more reliable forms of what we want and need to carry out our work. The question that remains is: How are these electronic services going to affect the way we work? Simply emulating what we already have, by massing random accumulations of digitized material, brings no solution to the coordination of images and ideas. We are now at the stage when we must think about why and how electronic facilities could change our personal research; how they could transform our approach to teaching; and, in the end, how they will affect the art historical direction in which a new generation of art historians will take the field.l

As I see it now, there are three types of art historical activities that will result from the electronic revolution, all of which will change and benefit the profession: (1) personal database construction, (2) collaborative research, and (3) interactive teaching. I will take advantage of the space allotted to me here to describe what I mean on the basis of both experience and desire.

To my great sorrow (which I have been feeling since the early 1980s), I have not been able to think of a term other than database for a collection of research material on a given subject put together by an individual scholar. Normally, the word database conjures up the notion of something encyclopedic, huge in size and public in nature. What I am looking for is an expression for a mass of material that is intellectually focused on a particular issue, that is constructed and used privately by a scholar in considering a specific problem, and that becomes a permanent, retrievable record of a sequence of personal ideas and sources. Assembling such private databases is the first step in making the computer work for you as more than a word processor. This first step is a big one because it takes some conceptual reorientation and not a little bit of time.

A natural reflex is to think that the computer will receive your facts and ideas in outline form, the way you would arrange them on cards in preparation for a lecture or a publication. You could, in fact, make such a collection using a normal word-processing program, but you would be able to search the text only word by word or, at best, phrase by phrase. You would not be able to search for ideas and combinations of ideas, and you would not be able to ask questions. The way to make the computer work for you is to choose a database program (by now there are many commercial ones available)2 and give it a problem. Suppose you have a series of paintings that have lost their original frames and you wish to study the historical possibilities for reframing them. You have done research on the problem and found many works documented as being in their original frames, all of which match the period of your frameless examples. What the computer wants first-indeed, must have-are the categories that make up the kind of material you have amassed. Technically, these categories are called variables, and to find your variables you must turn your thoughts around and literally (not theoretically) deconstruct your information. If you wish to record information about historic frames you must first think of as many elements as you can that associate one frame with another. Ironically, this means that in order to differentiate one frame from another, you must first consider what all frames have in common. To be specific, frame variables might look like the following: original parts (top, bottom, sides); shape (rectangle, square, gabled); material (wood, stone); dimensions;

surface treatment (molded, carved, inlaid);

decorative style (architectural, organic, geometric);

color (gold, brown, black);

name of maker (document);

date of construction (document);

cost (labor, materials);

associated painting (title and locale);

support (wood, canvas);

type (portrait: independent; altarpiece: polyptych, "pala"; main panel, superstructure, wing, predella, finial)

Tedious as this process may seem, you assign these fields once (in the database application of your choice), and forevermore you have a "place" (a box or pigeonhole) in the computer where that bit of information, and only that bit, is always found.

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