Making art history digital

Yesterday I gathered with a group of art history graduate students at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media at George Mason University for the first day of a two-week workshop on the digital humanities. When we tried to define this field that each of us has been hearing so much about we couldn’t come up with a satisfying definition, other than to say it is more than MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) or simply placing information online. Things got even more contentious when we tried to come up with the “threshold values” for teaching students art history. My work group proposed that the most basic and major principle of art history was getting students to take the visual seriously and understand that it has serious consequences. This involves getting them to recognize a number of factors: that makers have to make decisions about every element of an artwork (visual analysis), that visual objects embody changing ideas (context), that time and place can change the meaning of object to viewers (reception). So how can the tools of digital humanities help art historians convey these basic tenets in our teaching and in our research?

I am here because I have a couple of ongoing projects in which I think digital media would help me convey my findings and arguments better. The first is my dissertation. I am researching the meaning of images of Croatian folk culture in interwar Yugoslavia, and specifically I am looking at the folkloric works of modern Croatian-American artist Maksimilijan Vanka as a guiding thread. Because no catalogue raisonne exists for this relatively unknown artist, I have been compiling a small but thorough catalog about his folkloric works (about 17 works) which I would like to integrate into my dissertation so that the reader has points of reference.

The project explores national identity, but it is also problematicizing how folkloric imagery has been rather simplistically categorized as nationalist when in fact it represents a broad range of early-twentieth-century Central European identities of which Croatian nationalism and Yugoslavism were just two multifaceted and competing forms. If we take the standard definition of nationalism as the desire to bring political borders in line with perceived cultural boarders, sometimes this plays out in the visual culture with which I work as the tracing of borders through images of regionally-specific folk culture. But one of the points I am laboring to convey to my reader is that Vanka did not participate in this Croatian border building, instead his paintings depict the folk cultures of a remarkable variety of distinct locations, but all within a small region of Central Croatia. Since the average reader does not the geographic knowledge of Croatia to fully comprehend this argument in written form, I would like to find a way of mapping this.

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