Art refers to anything that is made by someone who is considered to be an artist; however the meaning of art continues to be debated everywhere — including on this site.

If you’d like to get updates on when this site adds new content, as well as a culmination of monthly art news, please sign up for our free newsletter.

What Is Art

How best to define art is still regularly debated. Many books and journal articles have argued over even the basics of what we mean by calling something art. Theodor Adorno claimed, in 1969, “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident.” Artists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, and programmers all use the notion of art in their respective fields, yet give it considerably different operational definitions.

Furthermore, it is clear that even the basic meaning of the term “art” has changed several times over the centuries, and is continuing to evolve during the 20th century as well. Most people would not have considered the depiction of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal to be art until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, respectively, placed those objects in the context of art (i.e., an art gallery), which then associated these objects with a way that art could be defined.

What Is Art
What Is Art

The nature of art has been described by philosopher Richard Wollheim as “one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture.” Art has been defined as a vehicle for the expression or communication of emotions and ideas, a means for exploring and appreciating formal elements for their own sake, and as mimesis or representation.

Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator. More recently, thinkers influenced by Martin Heidegger have interpreted art as the means by which a community develops for itself a medium for self-expression and interpretation.

Art, at its simplest, is a form of communication (bard.edu). It means whatever it is intended to mean by the artist herself, and this meaning is shaped by the materials, techniques, and forms of the art, as well as the ideas and feelings it creates. Art can also simply refer to the developed and efficient use of a language to convey meaning with immediacy and or depth. Art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations. There is an understanding that is reached with the material as a result of handling it, which facilitates one’s thought processes.

Art and the Transition to a Digital World

The increasing use of digital technologies in research, publication and teaching has spurred change in many disciplines. In the field of art history, the transition from teaching with slides to teaching with digital images is often cited as the “tipping point” that moved the field into the digital world. Using digital images for research and teaching requires an understanding of digitization, online searching, and use of presentation software for displaying and manipulating digital images.

A question that emerges from the new opportunities afforded by digital teaching and research is the role art history research centers play in this process. Are these centers broadening research traditions to include digitally-based research agendas (cje.net)? Are they serving as incubators of digital projects, tools, and scholarship? If not, where are the frontiers of digital scholarship in art history?

Digital Art Video

Another factor to be considered is the perspective of art historians. What do practitioners in the discipline feel is the way forward for both the field and for its research centers? How do they think digital engagement will affect methodologies and theoretical inquiries in the field? How will it alter classroom teaching and the training of future art historians? Who will develop the tools, services and infrastructure to support art history as its efforts and byproducts increasingly become digital?

The Art History Research Center in Context

The discipline of art history is supported by an infrastructure of universities, libraries, archives, museums, publishers, funding agencies, professional associations, and research centers. Among these entities, the art history research center plays a particularly important role.

Future of Art
Future of Art

This unique array of services creates an environment where scholars can pursue their research unencumbered by other professional obligations, yet supported by superb facilities, world class information resources, and well-respected colleagues. In providing this environment, art history research centers advance the field by supporting the research efforts of its practitioners.

Because of the unique role that art history research centers play in the life of the discipline, they seem likely sources of innovation in the emerging area of digital art history. However, preliminary inquiries suggest that this is not the case. In the spring of 2010, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation sponsored a Web-based survey of art history research centers in the United States and Europe. The survey revealed that digital projects and activities undertaken in art history research centers are impressive in their scope and execution, but are relatively uncommon.

Digital Art Now
Digital Art Now

When they do occur, they tend to be the singular interest of an art historian based at the center, not the focus of a center’s mission or research agenda. Instead it appears that an increasing amount of digital innovation in art history is taking place outside art history research centers, in university academic departments, in museums, or as independent efforts led by individual scholars.

If true, this situation parallels circumstances found throughout the humanities, where digital humanities research proliferates outside of traditional humanities centers. Why is digital scholarship concentrated in nontraditional centers? Is this a desirable state of affairs? What is gained by this separation? What is lost?

Summary of Findings

The art history community is ambivalent about the value of digital research, teaching, and scholarship. Those who believe in the potential of digital art history feel it will open up new avenues of inquiry and scholarship, allow greater access to art historical information, provide broader dissemination of scholarly research, and enhance undergraduate and graduate teaching. Those who are skeptical doubt that new forms of art historical scholarship will emerge from the digital environment. They remain unconvinced that digital art history will offer new research opportunities or that it will allow them to conduct their research in new and different ways.

The community’s ambivalence about digital art history also carries into its perception of art history research centers and their role in fostering digital scholarship. These research centers are highly valued, and many professionals feel they should use their respected position in the community to actively promote and support digital art history. However, no one believes these centers have the capacity or desire to transform into purely digital art history research centers, nor do they want them to do so. This raises a number of issues about who can provide the supportive environments needed to create and maintain digital art history projects and what effect will this have on promoting digital scholarship within the discipline.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.