Pointers and Proxies

Thoughts on the Computational Modeling of the Phenomenal World

Authored by: Alison Langmead , David Newbury

The Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Art History

Print publication date:  May  2020
Online publication date:  April  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138585584
eBook ISBN: 9780429505188
Adobe ISBN:


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In his 1966 article presenting the results of applying computational methods to the study of the career of John Singleton Copley, Jules David Prown (Yale professor of art history), walked a careful line between expressing his enthusiasm for the research that digital machinery had made possible and acknowledging the skepticism he presumed he would face in applying such methods to his topic. He noted:

At first consideration the art historian and the computer would seem to be eccentric companions. Art historians are concerned with qualitative discriminations that reveal themselves slowly, and at an unpredictable tempo, to the investigations of a trained mind and sensitive eye. The computer, on the other hand, deals with quantitative computations at an unvarying pace with incredible speed. Its monotonous, inflexible, unthinking efficiency sends a shudder down the spine of any self-respecting art historian. 1

This vivid tension between the sensitive, human-oriented approach of the humanist and the aloof, numbers-oriented techniques of the technologist has long been a topos of the digital humanities, and more specifically, of digital art history. Even so, art historians have participated in the conversations surrounding the application of digital computing to the humanities almost since its inception. Indeed, this is true in spite of the fact that the earliest machines could only present numbers and uppercase Roman, alphabetic characters, thereby restricting art history’s engagement to texts and catalog entries describing their image-based objects of inquiry. 2 As Prown himself asserted, “The obvious, primary application of the computer to the history of art will be in automated retrieval systems for art libraries and photographic archives.” 3

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