Falling Leaves: the Ardes blog

Algorithmic Iconography: The Proposal

Ray Drainville

I’ve mentioned earlier that I’ve decided to return and get an advanced degree. I wrote a proposal over the Summer, which has subsequently been approved. For those readers interested in art historical methodology and social media, this is what will be occupying a lot of my time in the next few years.

Algorithmic Iconography: Intersections between iconography and social media image research

Private individuals, professionals, political movements, businesses, and other parties produce and share nearly two billion images on social media platforms daily. This amount to nearly 65% of all social media data. Systematic studies of social media and virality concentrate upon social network forces, social collaboration between individuals, or alternatively on marketing concerns, such as elements of persuasion. In addition, their focus is usually on video, not still images. When they do address the content of social media (images or otherwise), they cite meta-characteristics such as emotive content or appeal to specific demographics. Beyond this, however, there appears to be little analysis of their visual content, including images shared so widely that they are deemed “viral”. How might we go about analysing the content of such images? What methodologies might be useful?

Outlined in its most classic form by Erwin Panofsky in 1939, the iconographic method applies not only to the analysis of the sources, history and spread of specific forms and attributes of content in art, but also to the interpretation of the meaning of art based upon the use of these attributes and the cultural and intellectual context of their production—this context having since been expanded by some to a wider socio-historical context. Traditionally, the focus of iconographic analysis has been “high” art—particularly Renaissance art—steeped in sources from Greco-Roman Antiquity and the Bible. In contrast, I aim to explore whether iconographic analysis is relevant for a medium, cultural register, and sources radically different from the context of the methodology’s development and traditional employment.

Before applying iconography to social media imagery, I will form a systematic overview of iconography’s methods and assumptions, focusing upon the approaches of Aby Warburg, Panofsky, and others. How do their approaches differ from one another? How might we “update” iconography to address the unfamiliar territory of social media? Do images in the “long tail” of sharing mimic Warburg’s estimation of the “lesser” arts’ iconographic value? If we can show that some social images lend themselves to iconographic analysis, do others defy the methodology? Is it possible to provide content-oriented insights for why users so enthusiastically share such images as the “Pepper Spray Cop” from a University of California-Davis “Occupy” protest?

Iconographic practice and theory—in particular, the outsized influence of Panofsky’s rendition of them—have been criticised from many angles by art historians, questioning the methodology’s very validity. What evidence bolsters or undermines the assumptions of iconographers? Can research in other fields aid us in this investigation? For instance, iconographers are sometimes accused of falling prey to certain problems; there is a danger of replicating the same problems if the method is used, say, on digital media. As an example: for iconography, understanding a concept’s portrayal in a visual medium frequently depends upon connecting it to its putative source. It is assumed furthermore that at least a subset of the intended public is familiar enough with the source to understand the meaning rendered in the work. How do motifs convey meaning—e.g., conventions of portrayal, the ideologies behind them, and our reception of them—from one work to another, over time and distance? Can we plausibly claim that social media users and art historians share the same interpretation for a given image shared online? What is our evidence for this? Interpretative issues have been identified previously on theoretical bases, but have been inadequately examined as a psychosocial mechanism. I propose to examine this in part via Bourdieu’s notions of representation and habitus.

As part of this examination, I will investigate a series of case studies of images shared on social media. I will contextualise them through the literature on social media and virality research, examining network, inter-network and infrastructural forces to map their production, recognition, promotion, and spread. I will iconographically analyse at least three new, disparate images/themes—a viral image, a less popular image in the “long tail” of sharing distribution, and an image that has transferred from social media to the material world of the visual arts, to parallel the connections and cultural implications that Warburg drew between the “high” and “lesser” arts.

I will quantitatively analyse my cases with Pulsar’s suite of advanced social media data analytics tools, which will help me track their spread across various social media, time their dispersal, and examine the depth of penetration into various communities and networks. This analysis may provide an opportunity to track the iconographic reception of imagery in near real-time, and—depending upon the users’ commentary accompanying the shared image—provide some insight into how they interpreted the image. I will also attempt to construct a “null hypothesis”, i.e., investigate the possibility that iconography is not relevant to social media.

Select Bibliography

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D’Orazio, F. (2013) How Video Goes Viral, Part 2: The Role of Audience Networks. PularPlatform Blog.

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