What do Art Historians Produce?

By Dr Irene Noy

Alternative dissemination methods within art history have fascinated me for quite some time, so I was delighted to find out about a talk dedicated to The Future of the Art History Book given by Dr Charlotte Frost from the University of Hong Kong. The event was organised by Dr Alixe Bovey (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and linked to The Academic Book of the Future project funded by the AHRC in collaboration with the British Library. Both responded to pressing concerns relating to how scholarly work in the Arts and Humanities is produced, read and preserved.

Frost addressed these points when she listed numerous examples of platforms that seek to develop new systems for aggregation, annotation, collaborative writing, data visualisation, open access and peer review. For example, CommentPress Core (founded in 2006) proposes to turn ‘a document into a conversation’ and Open Humanities Press (2008) is an open access resource for ‘leading works of contemporary critical thought’. Book Sprints (2005) is a collaborative process where a book is produced from the ground up in just five days. Here, like in most of these initiatives, there is an emphasis on how technology can be used in order to congregate subject-matter experts ‘in a manner that would be nearly impossible using traditional methods’.

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All these examples highlight the close link between how art historians create research and what it is that we produce. Frost focused on the fact that art history is behind in developing robust publishing models, but I would argue that this should be viewed within a greater context of what art history is expected to create and how it is disseminated. We are all too familiar with what is expected of art historians: learn how to look (better if you know how to listen too), read a lot, write papers, give talks at conferences, be active participants in various networks, teach and mentor students, make research accessible to non-academic audiences, curate exhibitions, when possible and so on. The ideas we exchange with each other verbally ultimately feed into publications – which are only one aspect of research’s dissemination – but it is the one which is valued most. This is probably the core issue. Art historians have to create text, preferably a lot of it (and then bind it into books) and preferably publish it with the most prestigious publishing houses.

Creativity is certainly encouraged within art history and, as Frost reminded us, we should be inspired by artistic practices. Though aren’t we already? As a PhD student, I was involved in a number of rewarding cross-period and cross-discipline collaborations which resulted in experimental presentations (we even called them performances) such as ‘Stepping Out and Into Rhythms: Moving Corporeal Inquiries from Music, Art History and Cultural Studies’ (Edinburgh, 2011) and ‘Listening art historians: a cross-period collage of seeing and hearing’ (Aberystwyth, 2013). These performances challenged the traditional formats of academic papers and conferences and we received encouraging feedback from our colleagues. These were incredibly nourishing projects but disproportionately time-consuming when compared to ‘value’ of the outcome. Only one of them resulted in a ‘formal’ publication. The most valued practice is still the production of text.

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Text is our most trusted source of recording and archiving. We perceive it to be less ephemeral to recordings of, say a text read aloud, or a video of a conference (so we publish conference proceedings). It is also about how we can ‘work’ and engage with a text, as it is something ‘solid’ that we can annotate and comment (although there are an increasing number of students who prefer to read from screens). At the same time we spend an increasing amount of time with mediated images and sounds. Of course, alternative mediums such as podcasts and videos present other challenges. Whether we want it or not, they have become an integral part of our research. If we want to tighten the gap between the content and the medium of our research, and not for the sake of experimentation with new gadgets and apps, but in order to integrate what we research about and what we ultimately create, we have to allow all of these forms to become part of what is valued within the evaluation structures that eventually determine what art history is.