Art Historian Suzanne Hudson on Artsy's Educational Possibilities

The Art Genome Project
Jul 18, 2013 7:33PM

Suzanne Hudson (Ph.D., Princeton University) is currently Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Southern California (USC). She is co-founder of the Contemporary Art Think Tank and the Society of Contemporary Art Historians, an affiliate society of the College Art Association. Hudson's work has appeared in Parkett, Flash Art, Art JournalOctober, and Artforum, among others. She also has written numerous essays for international exhibition catalogs and artist monographs and lectured widely. She is the author of Robert Ryman: Used Paint (MIT Press, 2009; 2011) and the co-editor of Contemporary Art: 1989–Present (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). Her book Painting Now is forthcoming from Thames & Hudson. 

She recently spoke with Matthew Israel, Director of The Art Genome Project.

Matthew Israel: Generally, how do you find Artsy useful?

Suzanne Hudson: I’ve taken to browsing the site regularly, though often pretty aimlessly—which is by design. There is something compelling about not knowing where a specific artwork or artist will lead, and not anticipating on what grounds these links will be established: formal, material, geographical. So I suppose I don’t use Artsy for predetermined research agendas so much as let it suggest possibilities for further looking and reading to me. It’s a kind of reverse search, and very different from how I access information elsewhere. 

MI: As an art historian, how do you feel about The Art Genome Project? People have raised concerns about the use of a computer to create an art taxonomy and a similarity search for art.

SH: It seems especially daunting given the scale of its subject. I appreciate the impulse, which is foundational in so many ways to the discipline of art history, for better or worse. (It makes me think of Douglas Huebler attempting to photograph everyone on the planet.) While I don’t object to the attempt to find similarities among things, they seem less facts than arguments, really, at least to me. I find it incredibly provocative to see the deck reshuffled in this way. It’s like any good group show. 

Postmodernism scared so many people away from attempting macro-histories or assembling archives that assumed their own omniscience. But I think what separates The Art Genome Project is its multiplicity of search terms for each item. Maybe the name misleads on this count? A genome implies a transfer from parent to child; it literally constructs genealogy. The Art Genome Project is less linear obviously, even rhizomatic. 

MI: Are there particular features you like using on the site? 

SH: This isn't a feature so much as a category: I like seeing art alongside design and decorative arts.

MI: Have you used Artsy in the classroom? 

SH: I have named it as a reference tool in multiple class contexts. I have also talked about it as a model of transparency where the ivory tower meets the market. The former is always imbricated in the latter. We can’t pretend otherwise. I’ve also used the site as a way to talk about broad and entirely germane questions of the place of the digital humanities now. 

MI: Have you discovered anything through Artsy you'd like to share with us? 

SH: In a conversation last year, you mentioned how interesting it is to see historical works alongside more recent ones and to understand that the shared terminology is applied to—or maybe extracted from—very different visual objects across time. So what is defined as a collage in the 1910s might look very different now, for a host of reasons, historiographical, technological, and so on. This stayed with me. 

MI: Have you made connections between artists or artworks using Artsy?

SH: Sure, many. Everyone dealing with contemporary art comes up against problems of the scope of international production. This isn’t to say that work hasn’t always been made across the world, but that bids for participation in some “global” art-world—however uneven in actuality—are impossible to ignore even as access to far-flung sites is prohibitively expensive. I wouldn’t pretend to have the fluency with art made in some cities or regions as I have with others. So Artsy has been helpful in terms of exposure to things I might not otherwise encounter.

Yet I would emphasize that the onus is on the user to understand why the program is generating one thing after another. . . whether morphological similarities of works from different continents are meaningful or beside the point, and how cultural context matters. These are questions that art now solicits, whether on Artsy or not, but the platform forces us to account for them in an incredibly generative way.

The Art Genome Project