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Using digital searches in a art-history dissertation. Exercise Block 2 Sec. 4.3.2

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 7 Dec 2018, 18:27

Using digital searches in a art-history dissertation. Exercise Block 2 Sec. 4.3.2

Now read H. Brandhorst, ‘Aby Warburg’s wildest dreams come true?’ (2013) and consider the pros and cons of digital databases, particularly for your own research.

This wasn’t for me a useful read because if anything it reinforced a strong message in this section of the course that image research is ultimately a means of modernising Panofsky’s iconographical project. It may be that the course is actually saying that. There appear throughout it hints of the best option for a safe way forward, particularly ones which make you think you are dealing with theory whilst actually reproducing the hoariest of approaches to imagery and the image.

Reading Brandhorst feels like reading Frances Yates except for the sense you need to devote your life to projects in Yates is missing in Brandhorst, who is described as an ‘independent researcher’. In a sense this essay is really just a version of debates about metadata in digital technological circles – the words, phrases and other signs used to store, categorise and connect data in a knowledge web. Inevitably, even for images, these have to be words and subject to linguistic disciplines of a kind. Hence the act of storing is always already an act of interpretation, as it was for Warburg and Panofsky if in different ways, since the former embraced, even if sometimes reluctantly, the subjectivity and potential to mania involved in the project.

There is a sense in which all research is like that from George Eliot’s Casaubon onwards – from pigeonholes to connectionist webs. Like them connections can often depend entirely on how you write the categories used for storage. Like Dorothea most of us, really, can’t wait for the Casaubon in us to kick the bucket in order to make our connectionism more visceral and organic.

For me, looking for the category of ‘nude male groups’ (nude AND male AND groups in Boolean terms) is anyway a way of connecting Bruno Latour’s views of the relationship between assemblies and representation to concerns with bodies arranged in and as part of the total space that makes up an artistic composition. But once you create such a category you are dependent on others having done so too if your search is to have many hits.

However. I’m left here I a kind of quandary. What does the discussion say?


Brandhorst’s article reveals the ways in which a fairly simple image – a man carrying another – can actually be linked to a variety of themes (moral and religious) and iconographic meanings. His article reveals a very crucial part of art historical investigation, ‘the associative links that connect visual and textual images, motifs, and themes’ (Brandhorst, 2013, p. 73).

Even if you don’t subscribe to the iconographical approach as articulated by Panofsky, the ability to interpret images and understand their meaning is a crucial part of art history. The ways a motif might be copied, and how its meaning changes in that process, is again something art historians are particularly attentive to. You will recall from A843, Block 3, that the practice of iconography emerged from a text-based approach to images; however, there is also a fundamental visual element to the way meaning is made through mapping images and bringing together different types of image.

Most importantly, Brandhorst articulates the difficulty in using language for images, particularly in terms of categorising them in databases or collections. Gathering information about images, and, in particular, historical images or ones that are removed from our own cultural and social understanding, involves a complex process. That is, we can’t expect digital databases or photographic collections to necessarily give us answers; they are tools by which we build up knowledge to eventually make connections that can construct an understanding. The digitisation of images is thus not only about making more images available, but needs to be thought of in terms of how we do art history, and how we approach images and texts and the relationship between the two.

Back to me

Well! I was convinced before that the project ‘involves a complex process’. In the end research involves a dialectic where struggle with the materials is still the main point. That is what I gained at the end – as well as an irritation with the digressive return to iconography which certainly doesn’t help me, given the latter's focus not only text and image but on image as one element of a whole composition we recognise s a picture. My interest isn't in one configuration of the 'figures' available to painting from the visual world – whether ‘man carrying another’ or ‘woman as gift-bearer’.

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