Category Archives: Debate

Are computers sending art historians straight to the dole queue? Not likely . . .

Dole queue

‘Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists’, reported Matthew Sparkes in yesterday’s Telegraph. The article was reporting on a paper put together by a bunch of computer scientists from the Computer Science department at Rutgers, State Uni. of New Jersey, and is available online here.

The gist of the article is this: the identification of similarities between works of art has long been the prerogative of art historians, but now computers, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, are ready to take their place, being capable of identifying instances of formal similarities between given works of art that have hitherto elided the experts.

‘One important task for art historians is to find influences and connections between artists’ say, quite rightly, Babak Saleh, Kanako Abe, Ravneet Singh Arora, and Ahmed Elgammal — the paper’s authors. We’re off to a good start.

But things quickly go awry . . .

‘It must be mentioned that determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’ This is mad as far as I’m concerned. Michelangelo never declares that his conception of God from the Sistine Ceiling was inspired by Ghiberti’s similar airborne God from the Gates of Paradise, but on the basis of formal and circumstantial evidence, which is to say it looks a damn lot like it and Michelangelo will have seen Ghiberti’s sculptures daily in his youth, I think we can say that it’s probably the case. But this isn’t my real issue with the paper; the article does after all acknowledge that instances of artistic influence proposed by art historians are usually demonstrably right, even if there is no “proof”. For example, we might not know FOR CERTAIN that Francis Bacon ever saw Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (do we? Raphael’s Julius II makes for just as neat a comparison?), but since the former’s picture of a seated, grand, albeit tormented, bloke really does look like the latter’s Papal portrait, then there most likely IS a relationship. Hence the comparison has found its way into the mainstream literature on Bacon.

Velzquez, Innocent X

Bacon, after Velzquez, Innocent X

My problem instead is with some of the previously undiscovered, but for my money far-fetched, relationships between works of art that the computers have apparently managed to unearth, as well as some of the frankly flippant, if not wholly misguided, claims the authors make along the way. (An important caveat here: the authors do admit that ‘We are not asserting truths but instead suggesting a possible path towards a difficult task of measuring influence.’) Let’s look at some of them.

‘Although the meaning of a painting is unique to each artist and is completely subjective, it can somewhat be measured by the symbols and objects in the painting.’ Art historians will nowadays wince at those words, and Roland Barthes will probably have had chickens . . .

‘The earliest style is the Renaissance period with artists like Titian and Michelangelo during the 14th to 17th century.’ Notwithstanding the arbitrariness of the period style classifications that the article leans on more generally (Renaissance, Romanticism, Baroque, Pop, Abstract Contemporary, American Modernism, Post-Impressionism…etc.), this statement is a bit worrying… Pedantry, perhaps, but Michelangelo and Titian weren’t about in the 14th century or the 17th, and if we’re being picky, traditional narratives of art history don’t usually include 17th-century art under the rubric of the Renaissance.

And the most major problem, I think, is this clanger:

‘Paintings do not necessarily have to look alike, but if they do, or have reoccurring objects (high-level semantics), then they might be considered similar.’

My issue here is that they’re effectively saying that even if pictures don’t look alike to the eye, computers, with all their mathematical wizardry and algorithms, can nevertheless spot relationships that otherwise defy human perception. Problem here, of course, is that people make artworks, not computers, and so if two artworks by two artists don’t look alike to the eye, then it is really doubtful whether there ever was a meaningful relationship between them. Common sense, which computers don’t possess, dictates as much.

See: Frédéric Bazille’s Studio 9 Rue de la Condamine (1870) and Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barber Shop (1950). The computers threw this up as a match, and ‘After browsing through many publications and websites, we concluded, to the best of our knowledge, that this comparison has not been made by an art historian before.’ The authors’ faith in the technology is thus vindicated. But, hang on, there’s probably a very good reason why art historians have never spotted a relationship between Bazille’s Studio and Rockwell’s Barber Shop, which is that they simply don’t look sufficiently alike to warrant the positing of anything more than a coincidental relationship between them. Which is precisely what the next sentence says: ”The painting might not look similar at the first glance, however, a closer look reveals striking similarity in composition and subject matter, that is detected by our automated methodology . . . [emph. mine]’ I don’t buy it. And what the authors neglect to mention is what we, that is to say art historians, call iconographic conventions. Bazille’s picture belongs to a rich tradition for showing artists working in their studios, and perhaps Rockwell did, either knowingly or inadvertently, look to that that tradition for his Barber Shop. That’s a sound art historical judgement. But it doesn’t mean that Rockwell was influenced by Bazille. The authors also fail to mention whether there is any inkling whatsoever that Rockwell knew Bazille’s work(s)? These are the kinds of questions art historians ask, whereas computers, it seems, do not. Or perhaps can’t ask?

Bazille and Rockwell

Similarly, the paper heralds the similarity between Georges Braque’s Man with a Violin and Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Still Life as a “discovery”. Nah, not really. Braque and Picasso were immediate contemporaries, they knew one another(!!) and were pioneers of a movement retroactively called Cubism. A perusal of any monograph on cubism will generate Braque’s and Picasso’s names alongside one another and show ample similarities between their art. So, not a discovery after all. . .

Picasso and Braque

If you read the paper, you’ll quickly find that there’s loads of technical jargon, equations and mind-boggling graphs which apparently bestow scientific robustness on the findings:

Classme

Long equation

Erm…. I’m struggling. The tables and charts don’t exactly shed any more light, either:

Diagram

And what on earth is this?

Mingboggling

. . . answers on a postcard, please.

I can’t help but think that all this is a case of all fur coat and no knickers, and that the jargon simply conceals the fact that the computer’s supposed discoveries don’t stand up to the scrutiny of art historians. It’s nonsence masquerading as scientific art history. I really don’t think, for example, that Bazille’s and Rockwell’s pictures look sufficiently alike to warrant the claim that there IS a relationship. And this is where art historians differ from computers: art historians, or else, the good ones, weigh-up their proposals against a balance of probabilities, and posit relationships between artists and their works only where there is a demonstrable formal relationship that is meaningful, and, moreover, can be substantiated by consideration of the likelihood that X artist had seen Y’s Picture. That’s what art historians do, and, on the basis of this article, are capable of doing infinitely better than a machine.

Suffice it to say that I don’t think we can expect to see queues of bereft-looking art historians at the Job Centre any time soon . . .

Jamie

“Spectacular discoveries”: The Ghent Altarpiece makes the news (… again!)

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo's Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo’s Ghent

Readers might remember that the famous Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck was recently in the news. It last hit the headlines in April because of the ongoing puzzle over the whereabouts of the Just Judges panel, which was nicked from St. Bavo’s in Ghent in 1934 and has threatened to show up a several times in recent years; to no avail, unfortunately. You can read about all of that, plus a bit about the altarpiece’s tumultuous history more generally, on my previous post here.

For now at least, the Just Judges puzzle remains still a puzzle, and the altarpiece’s most recent foray into the public eye is in fact nothing to do with the Judges saga. The altarpiece is instead in the news this time for much more positive, if not exciting, reasons.

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Restorers at work (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Since 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece has been in restoration. The work is being done at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, where visitors can apparently watch conservators at work on panels from the altarpiece through a glazed wall looking into a specially designed room where the restorers are at work (or so Christina Currie told me recently, who is from from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage at Brussels (KIK-IRPA), the organisation responsible for overseeing the treatment). The total restoration of the polyptych has been split into 3 phases:

- Phase 1, underway now and due for completion this October, focuses on the outside shutters

- Phase 2, due to start on completion of phase 1, deals with the upper interior panels (the row commencing with Adam and finishing with Eve)

And…

- Phase 3, scheduled to start in April 2016 and complete the following October, deals with the bottom interior panels, so the Mystic Lamb, the Knights, Hermits and Pilgrims (and presumably they WON’T be doing anything with the Just Judges, which is a replica painted by Jef Van der Veken in 1945 to fill the gap left by the theft of the original)

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 1: outside shutters

Phase 2: Upper interior panels

Phase 2: upper interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

Phase 3: lower interior panels

The cost of all this is pretty eye-watering: €1,260,433.20 (I wonder what the .20 is for?). So what do you get for that sort of money? Well, they’re examining and repairing the panels themselves, to allow for unconstrained contraction and expansion of the wood, thus preventing further cracking (i.e. panels have presumably been cradled at some point, which has lessened the “give” of the wood and caused fractures). They’re also removing those familiar yellowed and cracked varnish layers, which should make the whole thing look just that bit more brilliant. And finally, since they’re removing the varnishes anyway, they’re also examining the paint layers themselves, to establish if there are overpaints and restorations that ought to be removed, and whether any new restorations are required to damaged parts. All the while, the observations the restorers make will doubtless enrich our understanding of the van Eycks’ methods, and most probably shed light on the whole “what’s by Hubert and what’s by Jan?” problem.

And things are already getting very interesting indeed. During Phase 1, conservators have realised that much of the outside shutters actually feature extensive overpaints. And following 3D Hirox microscope and MA-XRF analyses (whatever they are), it was realised that the paint layers beneath the overpaints are, surprisingly, in good condition (I say surprisingly because overpaints usually hide nasty stuff). Consequently the decision was made to REMOVE pretty much an entire layer of paint from the surface of the outside shutters in a bid to reveal the van Eycks’ original paintwork. A CODART release (CODART is an international network for curators of Netherlandish art) tells us that this work is ongoing, and that centimeter by centimeter a steady hand(!!), wielding a scalpel (agh! – rather you than me), is removing the overpaint that obscures the van Eycks’ superior work.

And the results are impressive. The 2 images below from the Joos Vijd panel show sections where the overpaints have been removed, thus revealing the subtler, more nuanced brushwork that has hitherto been obscured:

Comparison of Vijd's hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Comparison of Vijd’s hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd's robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd’s robe (image credit: kikirpa.be)

Other discoveries include a cobweb in the corner of the panel showing Elisabeth Borluut, the wife of Vijd, the altarpiece’s patron; a finding of demonstrable iconographic significance, says the CODART release.

This is all pretty exciting stuff.

But the findings also also beg an obvious question: why were the overpaints done in the first place, if the paint beneath is in such good nick? Who in their right mind would paint over the van Eycks’ brushwork if there was no real cause to do so? From what I gather—and I am by no means especially knowledgable about this—the overpaints are OLD; they certainly have, or had, craqueleur consistent with 15th- or 16th-century paint, and they had, after all, gone undetected by the great connoisseurs of the 20th century (Panofsky, Friedländer and so on never, as far as I know, doubted very much that what they were looking at was the original paintwork–there is a great irony here that much of the scholarship on the altarpiece has been obsessed with discerning Jan’s hand from Hubert’s, whereas it seems, on the outside shutters at least, that up to now we’ve been looking at neither!). When I first heard about the overpaint (again, via Christina Currie), I’d presumed they had been done to conceal fire damage, inflicted on the work in the 16th century–a plausible story, I’d thought. But that can’t be the case, since the paint underneath is superior to the overpaints and well preserved. So it’s all a bit strange. I daresay answers will be forthcoming when the restorations are complete in 2017 and the panels are reunited—less the Just Judges, unless by some miracle it turns up just in time—inside St. Bavo’s, doubtless to great fanfare and accompanied by myriad publications! Watch this space…

 

Jamie

Connoisseurship Now? Continued.

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Regular readers might remember that I recently went off to the Paul Mellon Centre to attend a conference devoted to the subject of connoisseurship and its future directions, or lack thereof, perhaps–you can read my thoughts on that here.

Anyway, the Paul Mellon Centre has made the day’s proceedings available online. You can watch all the papers here.

(Thank you also to Bendor Grosvenor for re-blogging my post about the conference on his own blog, which really is worth a read!)

Jamie

“I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ” Connoisseurship Now?

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

Anon. The Connoisseur, 1830, lithograph and watercolour, Yale Center for British Art

I’m writing (but not posting) this on the train back up to Brum from London. I’ve been at the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, where I’d never been before and is really rather lovely, and which today (Friday 2nd May) hosted a one-day conference dedicated to a discussion of the future of connoisseurship and its (uneasy) place in modern art historical scholarship: An Educated Eye: Connoisseurship Now. And I must say, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and at times slightly strange, conference.

The big question is: does connoisseurship have a future? For the uninitiated reader, the question perhaps reads like an odd one. Isn’t art history all about who painted/sculpted/drew what and when did they do it? And aren’t art historians precisely the sorts of people who are qualified to pontificate on precisely those sorts of things? Art historians can spot their Rembrandts from their Rubens from miles off with their “Educated Eyes”, can’t they? For that matter, aren’t art historians and connoisseurs the same thing anyway? Once upon a time, perhaps the answer would have been “YES” on all these counts; the early days of art history in the 19th and early 20th centuries are marked by a noticeable desire to point out that “X painted Y in Z”, qualified along the way with statements like “We know this because that’s exactly how X did eyes, fingernails, hairdos…, ears,… especially in his “middle period”…” etc. (we’re in the realm of Morelli, here).

Morelli's artists' ears

Morelli’s artists’ ears

But it’s not quite that straightforward. For as long as connoisseurs have existed, they’ve been satirised by artists and derided as phonies (in Bruegel’s famous drawing of the Artist and Connoisseur, Bruegel has the connoisseur wearing glasses, which was probably intended as a dig at the connoisseur’s claims of possessing innately  “educated eyes”).  In other words, the label connoisseur always seems to have carried some pejorative associations. And things then got really tricky for connoisseurs in about the 1970s/80s with the emergence of so-called “New Art History”: so that’s stuff like social art history and feminist art history, with which art history undergraduates become intimately familiar from the get-go at Brum and pretty much every other art history department in the UK . The practitioners of new art histories professed a severe disinterest in the fact that “X painted Y in Z”, and “we know this because X always painted his eyes like that”, which it deemed myopic and trivial. New wave art historians instead sought to instill intellectual rigor into the discipline of art history and to analyse artworks with a view to revealing more profound, erudite insights about artworks in their social, political, religious . . . cultural . . . . etc. contexts.

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

Bruegel, Artist and Connoisseur, c.1565, pen and ink on paper, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

As a consequence, the art world, encompassing the academy, galleries/museums, the art market, and the connoisseurs (which up to then had kind of straddled all those realms) was drawn into a polemic: proper art history ain’t about who did what when, said the new generation of scholars, whereas the art market and museums remained—remain in fact—steadfastly keen on precisely those sorts of things. Let’s not beat around the bush, a picture is worth a LOT more if it’s demonstrably a “Rembrandt” instead of a “Dirk, the painter from up the road”, and the gallery visitor is, I guess, more satisfied to learn that Rembrandt painted this image of himself in 1669, rather than “unknown self portrait of a 17th-century Dutch artist, date unknown”.

This conference was about making sense of those debates, casting an eye over what’s happened during the intervening years since the emergence of new art history, and to cast a prophetic eye into the future and ask what room there is for connoisseurship in art world going forward. And the answer was surprisingly comforting: there is still cause to be concerned with who made what and when, and that this is in fact a prerequisite for embarking on, say, a social art historical investigation into the work of a given artist. As Liz Prettejohn lucidly described, how are you supposed to know what social context to situate a work of art in if you don’t know/care about when/where the artwork was made, which, often, entails considerations of a connoisseurial kind. However, connoisseurship as an autonomous art is no longer viable, not least of all because it’s unsustainable, which is to say that if we cling on to practicing  connoisseurship in the traditional sense, what do we do once we’ve figured out the who made what and when for every work of art there is? We’d have, in other words, nothing left to do.

Everyone in the room seemed to agree here. There was a general consensus that we probably should all care about things like attribution, dates, provenance and so forth, if, for nothing else, for the sake of conscientious history and the preservation of our heritage, and because it provides the bare materials, if you like, for art historical research. There was pretty much agreement, as well, that perhaps connoisseurship should be re-introduced to university curricula–or else, something that is the same in gist but goes under a different name given the dodgy associations of connoisseur (although nobody in the room could come up with a suitable alternative!). As was pointed out on more than one occasion, connoisseurship, but in particular the vital skills of visual analysis and description, are no longer inculcated in university art history degree programs and far too many art historians consequently spend too much of their time NOT looking, or perhaps don’t know how to look, at the objects of their study. Visual discernment has gone out the window, and new art history has come in through the front door (and is refusing to leave the hallway). (PLUG ALERT: I don’t think the last statement holds true in the case of the Art History department at Birmingham. We’re blessed to be based in the Barber Institute, whose stellar collection is at our disposal, and so visual analysis is actually at the very heart of what we do here!)

But what was MOST revealing during the conference are the lingering antagonisms that have persisted from 1980s and continue to divide, say, the art dealer from the art historian.

It’s an antagonism that is brought into sharp focus when we contrast Martin Myrone’s opinions (who is curator of pre-1800’s art at the Tate) with those expressed by Bendor Grosvenor (the chap from the BBC’s Fake or Fortune… but who is also a serious scholar and the author of a very good blog), who represented the art-dealer-cum-unabashed-connoisseur at the conference. Grosvenor is all about the eureka moment that comes from when one is presented, as a connoisseur, with a picture that has languished in some dusty museum rack for decades but is “obviously” a lost van Dyck (= a hitherto undiscovered masterpiece worth squillions). Grosvenor was upfront about it: he needs connoisseurship in his line of work as a dealer because collectors want names. But he was also astounded by how few art historians actually practice connoisseurship and have no clue about how to look at pictures – “it’s like having a fully-trained doctor who is unable to make a diagnosis”, he said. For his money, good old fashioned visual analysis is a prerequisite to proper art historical research, and I think I agree with him here. For his part, Myrone said “so what?” to connoisseurship. In these difficult financial times, should museums/galleries really expend their time, effort and money on all-things connoisseurial? Does it really matter whether a landscape can be proved to be by Gainsborough or not (he had a dig at Bendor’s Fake or Fortune here)? Laying aside the matter of commercial value which is indelibly linked to authorship, a landscape’s a landscape, surely, and can be studied and enjoyed as such?

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

One of these two drawings, both in the BM, is by Michelangelo . . .

In all, pretty interesting stuff. The connoisseur problem is clearly still alive. Hugo Chapman, who is curator of old master drawings at the British Museum, avoids the label connoisseur, beginning his talk with the words quoted in the title to this post: “I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty penknife than call myself a connoisseur . . . ”. Chapman explained that it isn’t necessarily what connoisseurship is that makes him anxious (Chapman, after all, does connoisseurship at work – how else did he decide which of the two drawings in the BM of an Ideal Female Head is by Michelangelo?) it’s more what the word means, or is perceived to mean: snooty, posh bloke who, just by looking, knows instantly what something is, who it’s by etc., and isn’t very much interested in anything else. In sum, then, perhaps connoisseurship is still important and relevant to us all, scholars, curators and dealers alike, but the word has too much baggage. Perhaps, then, we need to stop and have a re-think  as to what connoisseurship is, what it entails, how we do it and for what purposes, and, for that matter, what we call it. And perhaps we really do need to re-consider how or if it’s taught in universities.

 

Jamie

 

Curating Art History Colloquium – Programme

UoB crest

 

There’s still time to buy tickets for this year’s Departmental Colloquium. Tickets can be purchased from the online shop. Students from the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies can confirm their attendance by emailing Faith Trend directly at: FCT357@bham.ac.uk.

The programme has now been finalised and is available below. With a truly international billing–our keynote is coming all the way from Australia–, besides speakers from closer to home, the colloquium promises to be a fascinating exploration into the worlds of museum curating and academic art history, and we hope to see lots of you there!

 

Curating Art History: Dialogues between museum professionals and academics

7th and 8th May 2014

 The Barber Institute of Fine Art, The University of Birmingham 

 

PROGRAMME

 

DAY 1 (7th May)

14:00 – 14:45 Registration and refreshments (Barber Institute Foyer)

14:45 – 15:00 Welcome and Introduction (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Erin Shakespeare (UoB); Nicola Kalinsky (The Barber Institute)

 

PANEL 1: ETHNOGRAPHY AND CURATING NATIVE ART (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Nicola Kalinsky

15:00 – 15:50 KEYNOTE: The Hang and Art History

Catherine De Lorenzo (University of New South Wales, Australia)

15:50 – 16:10 Contemporary Native Perspectives: Dialogue and Exchange in Artistic Practices and Curatorial Methodologies

Helen Shaw (University of York)

16:10 – 16:30 t.b.c.

Bryony Onciul (University of Exeter)

16:30 – 17:00 Response and Questions

 

19:00 – 21:00 Conference dinner (venue to be confirmed)

 

DAY 2 (8th May)

9:30 – 10:00 Registration (second day attendees) (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 2: KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE AND DEVELOPMENT (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Clare Mullet (UoB)

10:00 – 10:20 Art detective: creating collection knowledge through public engagement

Andy Ellis (Public Catalogue Foundation)

10:20 – 10:40 Cross-talking in Engage Journal 

Karen Raney (University of East London)

10:40 – 11:00 Response and Questions

 

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee break (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

PANEL 3: EXHIBITIONS THAT CHALLENGE CURATORIAL PRACTICE AND ART HISTORY (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Respondent: Richard Woodfield (Journal of Art Historiography; UoB)

11:30 – 11:50 Post-humanist Desire: Visualising Cyborgs and the Hybridised Body

Ming Turner (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan)

11:50 – 12:10 [Re]Exhibiting Impermanent Art

Vera Carmo (University of Maia, ISMAI, Portugal)

12:10 – 12:30 Between a Rock Drill and a Hard Place: Researching and Curating Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Elin Morgan (UoB; The New Art Gallery Walsall)

12:30 – 13:00 Response and Questions

 

13:00 – 14:30 Lunch (Barber Institute Foyer)

Time to look at the Faith and Fortune exhibition in preparation for the afternoon’s paper (Coin Gallery, Barber Institute)

 

14:30 – 15:00 Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts: Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage (Barber Lecture Theatre)

Chairs: Jamie Edwards and Faith Trend (UoB)

Rebecca Darley (The Warburg Institute) and Daniel Reynolds (UoB)

 

15:00 – 16:00 Roundtable AHRC Iconoclasms Network (Barber Lecture Theatre)

A cross-disciplinary debate and Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain

Chair: Lauren Dudley (UoB)

Richard Clay, Henry Chapman, Leslie Brubaker (UoB); Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh); Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums Trust)

16:00 Closing Remarks

Jutta Vinzent (UoB)

 

16:30 – 17:30 Drinks reception (Barber Institute Foyer)

 

Michelangelo’s David: coming to a Facebook timeline (and ammunitions poster) near you

David, Accademia, Florence

David, Accademia, Florence

Expect an explosion of pictures of the David, standing tall, very tall, at the end of a fancy corridor of sorts (lined with other Michelangelos, the “Bound Slaves”) all over t’internet soon. Plans are afoot–might already be in place, actually–for the Accademia in Florence to relax its rules on photography and let its visitors freely take photos of the David.

The wisdom behind this is twofold, perhaps three: 1) the powers that be, including the Accademia’s director Angelo Tartuferi, finally accept that taking a photo of David doesn’t harm it physically in any way, shape or form (although there’s still going to be a ban on flash!); 2) they’ve latched onto the currently trending idea that photos of art/galleries/museums splashed all over social media can actually have a positive effect, getting people interested in art and ultimately increasing footfall, which is, really, the be-all and end-all; and 3) although unsaid, it will just make visiting the Accademia a bit more pleasant for all involved, with less guards exasperatingly screaming “No Foto!”, and fewer bereft, stressed-out-looking sneaky snappers running scared of being berated for their “gross misdemeanors”.

I was one of those sneaky snappers–that’s my pic at the top of the post – success for me!–and I must say that the atmosphere in there was pretty grim. On arrival you’re subjected airport-stylee security. And once inside things barely improve – caliber of artworks notwithstanding. The attendants behaved as if taking a photo of David really is the most reprehensible crime of all time, and the eager tourist spends most of his/her time dodging the attendants’ glances, finger poised to get that much-coveted memento of their trip to visit “il gigante”.

So all this is, I think, good news. And other museums and galleries, including those closer to home, are making similar moves. Just recently, our very own Barber Institute has decided that photos can be taken freely inside its galleries. And if I had to put a bet on it, I’d say we can expect more institutions to follow suit very soon. In the Digital Age in which we live, more and more cultural institutions will, I think, come to realise that iPhones and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. can have positive uses.

But I guess that you could also debate the merits of implementing a photography free-for-all inside galleries. Such a policy can, I suppose, have negative or else strange consequences.

David armed

David armed

Perhaps, for example, we can expect to hear more stories like the one that recently broke about the Accademia and Italy’s Culture Department getting into a twist about the kinds of uses people put their images of David to. Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, lashed out at American gunmaker ArmaLite, whose new ad campaign features David brandishing a massive rifle (inexplicably the image has been modified to cover David‘s genitals with a fig leaf… apparently it’s OK to promote gun ownership, but it’s definitely not OK to show a penis… eh?) .Franceschini’s department warned ArmaLite not to run the campaign, which it deemed  as being offensive and an affront to Italian cultural heritage. So photographs may not physically harm the David, but is there a real threat of cultural damage? Of defaming a country’s heritage?

And it’s fair to be a bit anxious about the new rules inducing the “Mona Lisa effect”. Legions of people flock to Paris every year to go to the Louvre, which allows photography wholesale, and proceed to follow the “La Joconde” signs. 15 minutes later, they end end up having to wrestle their way through a jostling crowd (all ignorant to the other ace art they pass by swiftly!), pressing forward, camera-first, to photograph Lisa Gherardini (and perhaps a cheeky “Mona Lisa selfie” as well), before spinning on their heels for the café. Again, this doesn’t really harm the physical integrity of the painting, but it makes life hard for those who want to actually look at it with their eyes instead of through a lens–and if everyone did that, perhaps more would realise that Leonardo’s portrait isn’t the most amazing thing they’ve ever clapped eyes on, after all, and certainly isn’t the most amazing thing there is to see in the Louvre.

… Coincidentally, the Mona Lisa has also been used to advertise guns (this time by an Italian firm):

Mona Lisa armed

Mona Lisa armed

Jamie

Empowering or undermining? Imogen and Carly respond to ‘The History Girls’ article.

Earlier this week, the Daily Mail published an article ‘The History Girls: meet the women building a bright future from the past’ which raises important issues concerning women’s positions in academia, and the portrayal and perception of female historians.

At first glance, the article might appear to present an empowered form of female identity, highlighting that women can (shock horror…) be interested in ‘glamorous’ clothes, wear make-up and heels, AND be successful, respected academics. Clearly there are important, and obvious, points to be made here: that history is no longer only written by white, middle-aged men, and that being a young woman who wears heels should not preclude a successful, serious career as an historian. However, the article’s approach to highlighting how young women are rescuing history from the ‘clutches of fusty academia’ might also be seen as problematic, troubling and, er, patronising.

In one sense, the article’s interviews with female academics do present a challenge to particular stereotypes about the identity of historians, underscoring the fact that women do hold professional positions as scholars. However, the overall editorial, including the photographs in particular, means that the article focuses predominantly on the appearance and clothing of the academics, which, it could be argued, subsequently undermines any serious points being made about their research, and trivialises the intellectual rigour and curiosity which characterises their scholarly enquiries. Looking at the photographs in the article in light of this, could it be argued that a manuscript, map or painting becomes framed as a fashion accessory, rather than the object of scholarly interrogation…? The article is authored by one of the featured academics, but what kind of framework and editorial constraints is she operating within, and might Joan Riviere’s notion of performing femininity be relevant here…?

Should it concern us that all of the ‘girls’ selected are under 40, conventionally attractive, according to contemporary social and cultural definitions, and white, and that one of the interview questions probes who their ideal historical ‘dinner date’ would be? You don’t need to be versed in feminist history or theory to question whether it is necessary for an article (which claims to highlight the historians’ professional positions) to mention diligently the marital status of each interviewee, and to be able to deduce what this communicates about attitudes towards women’s agency and independence…

Historians are interested in how the language, agenda and meaning of source material is shaped by where texts are published. With this in mind, how does the fact that the article is published in the Daily Mail affect our interpretation?

Empowering or undermining? We’d love to hear your opinion. Join in the debate below, or on our Facebook page…

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