Art history, digital publishing, and democratization

The week’s events
The cancellation of A-level and AS-level art history in the U.K. this week (similar to AP Art History here in the U.S.) sent a vivid signal to our community. Griselda Pollock offered a swift response, cutting to the heart of the matter and warning of the serious consequences of this decision:

“The killing off of art history at A-level is a blow against democratisation. A lack of art history will deprive all young people of opportunities for new kinds of knowledge of the world they live in. It will close down the chance to acquire an understanding of the past and of the present through image and object, place and building, powerful patrons and craftspeople and makers.”

Jeremiah (detail), Claus Sluter (with Claus de Werve), Well of Moses, 1395-1405 (prophets 1402-05, painted by Jean Malouel), Asnières stone with gilding and polychromy, slightly less than 7 meters high, originally close to 13 meters with cross. Located on the grounds of the former Chartreuse de Champmol, a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, France established by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy

Jeremiah (detail), Claus Sluter (with Claus de Werve), Well of Moses, 1395-1405

Can open-access digital publishing help?
Digital formats liberate publishing from many of the economic constraints of bound and printed volumes and can better support open access and the democratization of knowledge—the very things Pollock was rightfully mourning in the loss of A-level and AS art history. We were excited, last night, to attend Publishing Art History Digitally: The Present and Future organized by Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the NYU Center for the Humanities) at the Institute of Fine Arts. It was especially interesting to us to hear about publishing in specific areas of art history, including Meredith Martin speaking about Journal 18 (on 18th century art and culture), Martina Droth on British Art Studies, and Betty Leigh Hutcheson on CAA’s publishing strategies. And we were excited to learn that there was interest in collaborating across journals and areas of study.

Publishing art history digitally offers an important opportunity to bring the bifurcated practices of the academy—research and teaching—closer together. As we heard last night, the flexibility of the online environment allows for more types of content to intersect. We now have a greater opportunity and responsibility to bridge the gap between our scholarly audiences and the general public.

Jeweled upper cover of the Lindau Gospels, c. 880, Court School of Charles the Bald, 350 x 275 mm, cover may have been made in the Royal Abbey of St. Denis (Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

Jeweled upper cover, Lindau Gospels, c. 880, (Morgan Library and Museum

Smarthistory’s role
Smarthistory’s editors have been making the case for more than a decade that art historians need to do more to reach a broader audience. Given the cancellation of A-level and AS-level art history courses, it is more critical than ever for art historians and curators to make the case to students and the general public about the importance of our discipline. More than 200 art historians have contributed to Smarthistory and the public has responded enthusiastically. Smarthistory has more than 59,000 YouTube subscribers (more than every US and European art museum except MoMA and Tate). Over the next few years, Smarthistory plans to more fully embrace the role of a new kind of art history publisher—one that creates and distributes entirely free and open content (both scholarship and learning resources). We are planning a section of Smarthistory devoted to “Scholarship in Process”—a series that makes transparent the mechanics of art historical research. We believe this will be of great value to students of art history as well as to scholars whose work will thereby be accessible to a far larger audience than that afforded by specialized journals (which are often behind a paywall).

Digital publishing also has an opportunity to dissolve the perception of elitism that is hurting our discipline. For example, although Smarthistory began as a resource for undergraduate art history students, its strategies of inclusion have drawn a readership that includes professors, graduate students, undergraduates, and secondary school students as well as the general public. In addition to supporting undergraduate art history curriculum, Smarthistory supports each of the 250 objects that form the core of the new AP art history curriculum and had been working with AQA and British instructors to cover the A-level and AS-level curriculum prior to the recent announcement.

Raphael, Disputa, fresco, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Palace, Vatican)

Raphael, Disputa (detail), fresco, 1509-11 (Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican)

Digital art history for teaching and learning
As we heard last night, digital formats prompt new questions and can sometimes solve old questions. Similarly, the digital makes it possible for students to learn art’s history in far more engaging ways than were possible in the past. A typical Smarthistory video represents an object with dozens of images, custom diagrams and annotations (see, for example, this video on the Erechtheion). More and more Smarthistory essays makes use of embedded or hyperlinked Google street views and other 360-degree images that are critical to understanding context (see, for example, this essay by Dr. Cristin McKnight-Sethi on the Lakshmana Temple). And nearly all Smarthistory content is linked to other high-quality resources on the web, including scholarship that can lead learners to a deeper understanding. Obviously, many instructors bring such tools into the art history classroom, but we can and should use the affordances of the digital to engage a broader public in the important work art historians do.

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