Iconology in the Age of the Algorithm

by Michael Pepi

Spring 2011

Erwin Panofsky, eminent art historian and author of Studies in Iconology (1939) and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955), was concerned with the interpretive strategies available to the art historian. He gave great care to ensure that those methods were considerate of the distinctively humanistic aspects of the production and experience of art. His interpretive system culminated in the analysis of Iconological subject matter—the overarching cultural attitudes and expressions of broad concepts—that were present at time of the artist’s production. Working in the shadow of the Positivist turn in the West, Panofsky resisted the drive to make every corner of human experience iterative and thus friendlier to empirical analysis. In her extensive research, Michael Ann Holly makes evident that Panofsky was adverse to treating art in isolation, as the seminal historian Heinrich Wöfflin was wont to do while ascribing his formal aesthetic categories such as “linear” or “painterly;” as Holly notes, for Panofsky, “disinterested objectivity will just not do.”

Yet almost a century later the discipline of art history has been beset by further historiographical challenges: it weathered post-structuralism, compensated for lapses exposed by feminist and leftist ideologies, and stared curiously at theory long enough to eventually join up with it completely. With so many questions still tender to this day, current debates over art history’s epistemological framework cannot afford to ignore the limitless manifestations of what is arguably the singular cultural and intellectual achievement of our era: the web-based decisioning power of the Algorithm, the method by which we access content that has colonized nearly all aspects of our daily life. By the Algorithm, we also take generally to mean the organizational principles made necessary by the constant flux of content available via rapid advances in information technology.

Art history’s dilemma is at root a distribution problem; it has for its entire history been ideologically tied to the method of production, that is, distribution of its subjects’ content. Whether it was photography, the double slide projector and its concomitant developments in pedagogy, video art and most recently digital, web or net art, the discipline has had to address divergent practices that paralleled the epistemological questions surrounding a society’s ability to control and make meaning of the image. The chief idea of our age now wrestling with the narrative of the arts, thus, is the apparatus wherein our own internal mental process of categorization and production of meaning are pre-structured by rules, most famously executed by organizations like Google, and to lesser extent expressed through the capabilities of Really Simple Syndication, Delicious, Digg, and Twitter. But would Panofsky have considered Google an Iconological category?

For years, when data was produced at a rather sustainable, manageable pace, broad narratives were constructed. Historiographers across all disciplines and ideological persuasions were privy to the seductive powers of narrative and its problematic relationship to objectivity. Now, in the flood of data that is generated by advances in technologies, society has adopted the line of algorithmic thinking to sort through the inconsequential morass, to construct meaning and reconnect with narrative. However, with an increasing portion of the cultural content being digitized and shared virtually, such criteria for historical apprehension will no longer be mapped upon an intellectual, scholastic framework and instead will be processed through an altogether different set of valuations. This has become, in a sense, a set of criteria for art historical apprehension—fundamentally similar to the deep questions at the heart of the disorderly epistemology of Wöfflin and Panofsky’s young discipline.

Advances in information technology and the breakneck pace with which the audience for contemporary art has adopted web-based cultural experiences are sometimes taken for granted as we continue to ponder the future narratives of visual art. Networks for the transfer of ideas as well as the process for research have all been codified in order to comply with the digital format. The assessment of cultural content is no longer an opaque calculus, the proliferation of which can only hope to be tempered by scholars, artists or the remnants of the ecclesiastical system known as the art world. Likewise, a significant portion of contemporary events, ideas and figures in the visual arts are “made historical” by the diffusion of information that is compatible to algorithmic computation. All this is to ask: What are the implications of the Algorithm for the contemporary artist?

In a recent panel discussion on New Media art, participants raced quickly to the problematic issue that the Internet is just about the only forum for discourse. Further, in this exclusively online discourse, value is measured by traffic—a component of the algorithmic orientation of digital experience. Panelists next discussed ways that New Media art might reach “brick and mortar” galleries. The troubling realization was that if traffic equals value, and the process by which we interact with new media is driven by such value-specific characteristics, then the very method by which new work becomes relevant is fully dependent on the developers and online publishers who engineer the platform’s infrastructure. The problem compounds with the passage of time: all attempts to catalogue and narrate this period cannot fail to consider this practice as one of the primary factors used in assigning significance to art, events and ideas.

Artistic practice, in addition to the methods by which they are historicized, must inevitably face the digital mode of production. This organizational apparatus, loosely defined by the notion of the Algorithm and broadly conceived by a number of New Media or “net” artists, can at times appear to be the only possible direction for the visual arts. For this ascendant group, the image has been exhausted as a unit of aesthetic inquiry, and they instead turn towards an investigation of the methods of digital communication and exchange. Even those that still work with images in the traditional sense are endlessly informed by the epistemology of the Internet.

The phenomenon is not limited to artists who consciously work in New Media: George Condo: Mental States—a retrospective of the artist’s work at the New Museum of Contemporary Art—has an accompanying webpage that collects one-word posts describing the show that are sourced from the popular information network Twitter. The site’s mere presence illustrates how the movement towards an online discourse has been fully integrated into art and its public, regardless of the underlying art in question.

American artist Cory Arcangel’s work more directly references the new digital discourse. Arcangel is amongst the most popular in a generation of New Media artists who have expanded upon the pioneering practice of artists like Fred Forest, whose “anthropological projections” derived from pre-Internet notions of sociological art and primarily dealt with interactivity and utopian reclamations of the real in the “age of information.” But at the Iconological level, all art historical discourse is enveloped by the spectral presence of the Algorithm. The next iteration of New Media artists has instead turned to the self-effacing contemplation of data manipulation, programming logic and web humanism at work in historicizing the present.

Arcangel’s piece working on my novel (2009) uses the search function on Twitter to locate writers who are updating their followers on their progress. The result is a constantly updated snapshot that displays the power of the algorithmic regime to sort through large amounts of data, yet also presents a situation that provokes what Arcangel terms a “suspicion of technology.” In a recent essay in Artforum, Arcangel discussed the demise of links pages, which were personal websites that used to be central to disseminating content throughout the adolescent phase of the Internet. Such decentralized gateways to content provided Google with a fertile ground upon which to develop its now ubiquitous search algorithm. Today aggregators, blogs and social media tactics control the discourse to a degree that might give some historiographers pause.

Other artists working in traditional media consider the lurking subjectivity of manipulated data that often lay beneath ruled-based statistical processes. In James Bills’s drawings, recently shown at YES Gallery in New York, the artist chose to present visualizations of random number generation. The visualizations—entitled Golden Parachutes—implicitly parody the predictive software that have become symbols of the moral hazard present throughout the credit crisis and the ad-based business models of social media networks. These artists’ body of work—both their imagery and their means of production—are firmly positioned amongst what Panofsky may have identified as the “cultural symptoms” that currently dominate intellectual exchange.

The process by which meaning becomes expressed in a specific visual order, the authority to link ideas to images, has been so open ended that we continually lean back upon the intellectual predisposition of the historian. Will the regime of the Algorithm liberate us from this ambiguity, by inserting its own order upon a historical narrative that merely records a chronicle of events, significant items or images, without any consideration of their genesis? Will we be made subjects to an invisible staging of history by way of this digital distribution? The power of the Algorithm, if it fully forms the narrative of contemporary humanism, may overwhelm and choke the development of competing historiographical schools of thought. Consider the intramural debates over artistic intention, class-based critiques of visual art, semiotics and the other doctrinal variations that all compose the art historian’s methodological tool kit. Might these whither over time, as the individual chronicler of art is unable to keep a firm grasp upon the proliferation of content?

What is most tender is the relationship that the image will have to history, and the ways that information about images, artists, movements and meaning will be placed in a hierarchical network. Rarely is this addressed consciously by a singular work. Though eventually art history will be forced to line its archives with recordings of events, texts, and other historical documents that will have been sourced from the crowd. They will have been culled from a range of individuals working from any number of positions within the larger universe that encompasses the culture industry. This new method for staging history may also become the overarching achievement of our epoch, in that historians will soon reflect on the period as one whose narrative was constructed through the Algorithm. Perhaps crowdsourcing will take its rightful place as the de facto historiographical method.