elcome to my art history class. Since the end of the
modernist age, art history has come under great scrutiny, and
rightly so. Issues have been raised over the unrepresentative
nature of the canon, and some have pointed out that, perhaps,
art history remains among the few fields in our time still
caught in a past implicated for its foreclosure to change.
The advent of literary theory, and eventually of cultural
criticism, have led to a gradual reassessment of the nature
and fate of the discipline. At the end of the 20th century,
however, a new challenge arises; one that roundly radicalizes
our relationship with reality and further places all
histories and their methods under siege. This is the
challenge of digitization.
ore than anything before it, including photography and the
adoption of the found object, digitization loosens every
column upon which the art historical canon is erected. Such
traditional questions as authenticity, authorship, provenance
and patronage, seem to be losing their relevance. Even
fundamental issues of form and dimension, and of the very
nature of art, have come under crisis. The museum has been
overtaken by a new cultural and spectaculary site, one whose
architecture avoids the overbearing stolidity of the museum
and takes the radical, new shape of an infinite web of
hardware spread across the globe, and within these a most
elaborate labyrinth of locations and sites that
constitute in all the most complex and actively utilized
architectural structure ever erected. Yet this structure is
contained within conventional architecture, unobtrusive and
out of sight, profoundly anti-monumental. Inside its spaces a
new code of access is in place. The "Do Not Touch"
sign is down. The 1970s and '80s gave birth to the idea of
the death of traditional art history. Suddenly, the art
history of the 1970s and '80s has equally become traditional.
Whither art history?
n the past art history has appealed to other disciplines; to
sociology and anthropology and archeology and literature, for
its frames of analysis. Shall we, perhaps, once again reach
out for the light from elsewhere? The challenge of the
digital age is a challenge for a discipline erected and
structured around not time or movement, but the pause, the
arrested moment of contemplation, the backward glance, the
concrete. In an age of silent and invisible transit and
fragments and megahertz, reality is no longer approximated by
either the concrete or the still. This is the challenge of
the end of the 20th century. And it is more a challenge for
art history than for art.
©Olu Oguibe 1996