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Should Art History Be More Like Science?

This essay by James Cuno in the Daily Dot on art history and technology nicely represents a strand of current thinking that I’d like to call attention to:

The history of art as practiced in museums and the academy is sluggish in its embrace of the new technology…. We aren’t conducting art historical research differently. We aren’t working collaboratively and experimentally. As art historians we are still, for the most part, solo practitioners working alone in our studies and publishing in print and online as single authors and only when the work is fully baked. We are still proprietary when it comes to our knowledge. We want sole credit for what we write….

Scientists, social scientists, and engineers don’t work this way. They work collaboratively and publish jointly and quickly for professional review…. In short, humanists largely work alone and on timelines with long horizons. Scientists work together, experimentally, and publish quickly.

Therefore, Cuno concludes, “Humanists working alone and in isolation will inevitably be a thing of the past. It is time to embrace the present, let alone the future. The digital world is here to stay and constantly changing. We have to not only embrace it but help to shape it.”

What interests me about the essay is primarily this: not once in the essay does Cuno explain why art historians should be doing what “Scientists, social scientists, and engineers” do. His view is simply that these other scholars are doing new things with new technologies, and therefore any scholarly approach that doesn’t follow suit “will inevitably be a thing of the past.”

I called this “a strand of current thinking,” but really it’s not thinking at all: it’s just reaction. Cuno seems not to have considered for one moment any actual reasons why scholars should do what he wants them to do.

Now, note this well: I think there are valid reasons for some (though certainly not all) scholars in the humanities to do more technologically-enabled and collaborative work. I may even write something about that another time. But if Cuno knows any such reasons he doesn’t share them. I wish his editors had sent back this essay with a series of questions:

  • Why should art historians be “conducting art historical research differently”?
  • What would be the benefits of doing do?
  • What might be the costs?
  • Why is working “on timelines with long horizons” bad?
  • Might there be dangers in publishing quickly? (If you want a hint, here’s one.)
  • Is collaborative work always better than work done alone? E.g., would Dante, Mozart, and Einstein have been better off with collaborators? That annus mirabilis must have been pretty darn lonely.
  • Why should humanists copy the practices of “scientists, social scientists, and engineers” instead of asking those people to copy humanists?

No intellectual discipline will ever make significant advances in its labors by noting what other disciplines are doing and copying them thoughtlessly. But there is value in observing other kinds of intellectual work and letting that observation guide you to serious questions about your own discipline’s ends — What are we trying to accomplish? — and means — How are we trying to accomplish it? Cuno’s flailing in the general direction of “scientists, social scientists, and engineers” is just embarrassing.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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