History needs to be more complete, and better integrated

If the closest that you get to painting is making a few swipes and dabs on your iPad, or cleaning up your child after they have decorated the world, you may have missed my recent articles about pigments and art history.

They are an example of what remains worryingly uncommon: technical history, and the use of objective measures in the arts or humanities.

The libraries are full of scholarly and thoroughly reputable accounts of art history, and history more generally, which include neither, and I am not going to try to persuade you that there is anything wrong in that. But what worries me is that very few historians of any persuasion, particularly of art, take technical matters into account or use objective methods of analysis.

My specific example is of Impressionism. Although there are many excellent accounts of its origins and influences, these dwell on issues such as the iniquities of the Salon system and its strangehold on French painting, and the advent of colour theory and its relationship with nascent sensory neurophysiology. Those are relevant and important topics, but fall short of being complete.

It is only relatively recently that some researchers – ironically coming mainly from a background in the applied art history of conservation – have started to study painting materials and techniques in their historical context.

Indeed if you read some perfectly reputable accounts of Impressionism, you would be hard put to learn much about the only reliable evidence which we have: the paintings themselves. For instead of analysing that evidence, the accounts concern themselves with debates between critics of the day, the domestic, social, and even financial status of the artists: almost everything and anything except their art.

Sadly the widespread availability of computers and sophisticated analytical techniques seems to have made little impact in many of the arts/humanities either. Linguistics is the most obvious exception, where computational linguistics has become a discipline in its own right, and even the amateur sat at home can conduct their own research using online corpora. For the professional linguist this might seem a mixed blessing, as it also means that much of that work by non-professionals is misguided and misleading.

I suspect that this gulf between subjects considered to be ‘sciences’ and those deemed to be ‘arts’ or ‘humanities’ arises quite early in education, over the issue of numeracy. Quite how we have ended up with educational systems which divorce key skills such as literacy and numeracy, and allow so many to excel in one and struggle in others, I do not comprehend.

If I can turn this argument back on itself, it has no historical antecedent: the classical education, developed in the Greek and Roman civilisations and kept alive through the Dark Ages, consisted of language (reading, writing, logic, rhetoric), numeracy (maths including geometry), arts (mainly music), and sciences (astronomy, and others as they developed). At some stage after the Renaissance, numeracy and sciences were removed from these to form the ‘humanities’ or ‘liberal arts’.

With computing and technology so firmly entrenched in everything that we do, those who complete higher education without acquiring solid numerical skills, and a broad working understanding of science and technology, are at a huge and possibly irrevocable disadvantage.

When I took my first tenative steps in physiological research in the mid 1970s, I discovered that I was one of the few people in the lab who had a working knowledge of statistics, and the only one who was able to use the early computing facilities which were becoming available. Biological sciences had become something of a refuge for those whose maths was not good enough for modern physics.

Thankfully that has changed now, beyond all recognition. It is time for the same revolution to sweep the ‘humanities’ too.