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Jim Cuno Takes On The Art History World

I’d never heard of an online publication called The Daily Dot until it was called to my attention yesterday because, of all things, the president of the Getty Trust — Jim Cuno — had written an op-ed piece for the site.  And in what seems strange to me, his piece has more Facebook likes (262 at this writing) than any other op-ed on the new opinion page — weird considering the esoteric subject.

But maybe, perhaps, not quite so weird because Cuno chastises art historians for being behind when it comes to digital technology, and the site is for web communities. His piece is headlined How Art History is Failing at the Internet. He writes:

…Of course we have technology in our galleries and classrooms and information on the Web; of course we are exploiting social media to reach and grow our audiences, by tweeting about our books, our articles, including links to our career accomplishments on Facebook and chatting with our students online.

But we aren’t conducting art historical research differently. We aren’t working collaboratively and experimentally. As art historians we are still, for the most part, solo practitioners working alone in our studies and publishing in print and online as single authors and only when the work is fully baked. We are still proprietary when it comes to our knowledge. We want sole credit for what we write.

Cuno then goes on to compare the ethos of conservation scientists versus that of art historians — citing the Getty’s Closer to Van Eyck project on the Ghent altarpiece.

In short, humanists largely work alone and on timelines with long horizons. Scientists work together, experimentally, and publish quickly.

Rather, he writes:

…we should be experimenting with ways of compiling archives of formal and iconographic incidents across hundreds and thousands of images and then organizing and reorganizing them in ways that ask new questions and suggest new answers from cross-disciplinary and international perspectives.

To a certain extent, what Cuno writes is self-serving. To a certain extent, he’s also right, I think. Even if he’s mostly wrong, he’s taken up a worthy subject, though I think he could have found a better forum for it than he did. It’s a speech made for the College Art Association.

Photo Credit: Mel Melcon, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times



  1. Art historians (and other humanities scholars) are always trying to make their CVs look that little bit better than everyone else’s, desperately competing with each other for the few paid positions in their fields.

    Scientists can afford to be collaborative with each other on their research; indeed, collaboration is expected and respected. It may not be fair to say that humanities scholars are penalized for collaboration, but they certainly aren’t rewarded for it in the same way.

  2. Josh Reynolds says:

    As someone who has dealt in old master and 19th Century pictures for over 40 years I can confirm Mr. Cuno’s comments as an airing of the art historical ‘scholar’s closet.’ Most art historians want to squirrel away as much information as possible, weave their opinioned webs and then expose them only in published format so that they have created themselves as the respective expert on this or that artist/movement, etc.

    It’s very much the ‘old way’ but understandably so. Mr. Cuno isn’t concerned about tenure or making a living. It’s easy to say what he has said from the top of the ivory tower. Everyone in the field wants to be an expert, a respected opinion, not a brick in the firmament. There is no livlihood in that.

    With all due respect Mr. Cuno – a prince among museum directors – speaks as the unaffected idealist that not many can afford to. Many art historians, Americans, English, & Dutch are very sharing and generous – the French are the least. I am sure that with time, as teachers evolve, actually as techno-society itself evolves, much will change and just as 20 years ago we couldn’t imagine anything but the US Postal Service, we will all embrace the legitimacy of e-mail, exchanges of scholarship, etc. which will be electronically generated. Mentally however, we will all still have our own ‘scholar’s closet.’

  3. The jargon of technological transformation and collaborative approach is a useful tool for those wanting to make a splash right now. It is absolutely everywhere–I am surprised that someone of such standing would credit it, as it most often comes from the fringes of the field. What is wrong with the jargon is that there is no substance underneath the words, no intellectual rigor and no clarity. Intellectual rigor is what creates progress, presenting things “fully baked” as it were so that others may benefit from real conclusions rather than random thoughts. Art historians already share with each other much more than Mr. Cuno gives them credit for. But the system of individual rigor and peer review has served the field much longer and much better than anything proposed here, which is merely a criticism rather than a fully-thought-out alternative.

  4. I wonder if the big issue is less that “traditional”, non-scientific methods of practicing art history and more that licensing issues make a more “open source” approach next to impossible? It’s pretty hard – and expensive – to join the digital world without easy access to content that makes it possible to develop new ways of working. The irony is that the content is ubiquitous on the Internet! I’d love to hear more about how folks are overcoming this hurdle.

  5. Sesquipedaliana says:

    Cuno’s criticism of art historical research is rather Eurocentric. Those of us who specialize in “Non-Western” art have always conducted our research via valuable collaborations with scholars in aligned specializations, such as epigraphists, archaeologists, research scientists, and literary theorists.

  6. The unflattering analogy between scientific and humanistic research posed here, and in other laments about the slow progress of a digital revolution in the humanities, seems misguided to me.

    Scientific research emphasizes reproducibility: the whole enterprise turns on the idea that one’s data, methods, and resources ought to lead to the same results, even when someone else is executing the experiment. To that end, sharing one’s “ingredients” quickly – data sets, models – and encouraging collaboration and communication between researchers can help to determine whether new research is sound, and if not, where the error(s) seem to have occurred.

    Research in art history does not rely on speedy verification or repudiation in the same way, and there are far fewer experts who would be able to “reproduce the experiment,” so to speak. Research is often most valuable in its “fully baked”, “proprietary” format, when someone has looked at a vast amount of material before offering an interpretation. Of course, amassing large collections of images might lead one to see a particular work or an artist in a new light, but looking at them and learning about them still takes a great deal of time. Without a deeper grounding in one area or another, large-scale comparisons seem bound to be somewhat superficial.

    Moreover, art historians DO share our “ingredients” with one another already: in our bibliographies, and in the images that we present in our work. To be sure, this could be done more quickly and regularly, and these resources could be digitized and made available more widely, in open-access formats. I’m all for that. But this is a problem in which a host of institutions (such as publishers) are complicit. It seems unfair – and inaccurate – to identify the lack of progress on this front as a disciplinary failure unique to art history.

    • Thanks for your comment. However, in Cuno’s defense, the analogy was not just with traditional “scientific” research that involves replication. Many digital tools exist that art historians might use, as other social scientists are starting to do. Linguists, for example, who track the use of words and phrases over time. Humanities scholars are also using visualization techniques to new effect. There are other examples.

  7. I think Stephroz is on the right track. Nowadays scientists work collaboratively on projects because the projects are usually so big and so expensive that no scientists could possibly do such research on their own. Indeed I’ve read laments about how scientists now feel they are just cogs in a machine, dependent on others for their funding. Art historians and researchers still have the luxury of developing and demonstrating–of owning–their own ideas; that should be valued.

    • Oh, cogs in a machine will never make good art!

      But to be fair, science is very competitive. Even James Watson admitted in his 1968 book, The Double Helix to snooping around Linus Pauling’s lab – Pauling being the most likely person to figure out the structure of the DNA molecule. Watson & Crick ultimately won the prize – but not before a few more clever maneuvers on their part.

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