In the history of art, “history” is generally foregrounded. For the early modern period, artists respond to earlier artists, art-writers respond to earlier artists and to what has been written. “The word” — both visual and textual — is nearly sacred. It’s incomprehensible (irresponsible) to ignore what has been published, or what survives as a manuscript. I really want my students to read “that article” published in the 1950s! In many disciplines this is absurd.
The work of early modern art historians is generally solitary work. There’s something really pleasurable in working through an idea on one’s own. Maybe it’s like making bread. Weller’s comments about archives rang true to me. I’ve worked in the Vatican Library — a collection of books and manuscripts, and now digital materials, that was organized in the 15th c. That is a powerful environment of scholarship and home to a remarkable genealogy of scholars. An online search doesn’t offer this experience of “being.”
The work in contemporary art can be almost entirely online. The excitement is of a different sort.
I agree with Weller that discipline and area of research matter here. I’m thinking particularly about data collection and data collecting, and what that data is. There’s a difference between what’s available online (articles, primary sources, etc.) and what we do with it. Many museums have done tremendous work in making their resources available, and this has been especially important for researching provenance of works in the 20th c. For academics, digital scholarship is often what we do with students. My project here (the online art exhibit) is work with students.