About the project

Why ‘count’ art?

Because all cultures, from the most ancient all the way to your own community, utilize symbols and repetitive elements in art.  By tracking the use and context of these symbols and elements, we gain insight into the meanings behind them.  This is particularly important when we study ancient cultures or those that are considered ‘lost’, but even well known artists often had their own hidden agendas.  Michelangelo, for instance, hid precise anatomical drawings in his Sistine Chapel, but these were only recently recognized.  How much more is hidden in plain sight?  Any image of any kind in any media from any period can be counted.  This is true whether it is a relief image on an ancient Egyptian temple wall, a Rembrandt painting, an Etruscan sculpture, or a modern mixed media work.

Below is a concise introduction to the Art of Counting, followed by a complete transcript.

Transcript:

Why ‘count’ art? Because all cultures, from the most ancient all the way to your own community, utilize symbols and repetitive elements in art. By tracking the use and context of these symbols and elements, we gain insight into the meanings behind them. This is particularly important when we study ancient cultures or those that are considered ‘lost’, but even well known artists often had their own hidden agendas. Michelangelo, for instance, hid precise anatomical drawings in his Sistine Chapel, but these were only recently recognized. How much more is hidden in plain sight? Any image of any kind in any media from any period can be counted. This is true whether it is a relief image on an ancient Egyptian temple wall, a Rembrandt painting, an Etruscan sculpture, or a modern mixed media work.

The method for translating a body of images into their most basic elements is the same:

• An expert in the subject matter, ancient Egypt in my case, closely examines the collection of images or objects and identifies the discrete symbols, themes, actions and components contained within them.
• Next, the knowledgeable researcher enters that data into the database using a series of yes/no answers for each variable across all scenes.
• Once the data is captured in this way, in a language shared by all sciences, it can be displayed as a spreadsheet that allows anyone, regardless of their expertise, to perform basic analyses, such as calculating the frequency of certain variables. Although basic, even these types of analyses can result in important findings.
• More advanced statistical analysis, which can be remarkably beneficial, requires either familiarity with statistical tools OR, as I have done, forming a partnership with a professional data analyst.

A number of fascinating discoveries have already been made utilizing this approach, which has been applied to the visible and intact structures of an ancient Egyptian temple.

• Correlation results pointed out the highly unusual nature of the king’s costume in four scenes found the corners of the first courtyard. This led to a deep examination of these scenes and resulted in the recognition of their profound importance as representing all aspects of ideal kingship.
• The same correlation analysis highlighted a very close connection between scenes where the king is shown in contact with a deity and a particular type of garment. This type of scene is rare, with only 31 examples of the 653 times a deity is depicted, but in all but one of the instances, he wears this regalia element.
• Another element of royal dress in the temple, a type of heavy gold collar, is worn in nearly all scenes where he wields a scimitar, is depicted within a shrine, or is shown seated.

These are but a few of the great many insights that were simultaneously gained about this particular ancient Egyptian temple. Once the data from a body of images has been entered in the database, that information can be analyzed in infinite ways, quickly and easily, bringing to light patterns that have been hidden for millennia. Now that the case study has proven the quantifiable value of this approach, the Art of Counting project aims to vastly expand the database by bringing in professional collaborators. Currently, I am working with a number of other Egyptologists to design a variable list capable of recording and tracking elements from all eras and all types of objects. Experts in other eras of art are being sought to lend their knowledge to build variable lists pertaining to their areas of expertise.

Once these databases have been constructed and populated, collaboration beyond art historical professionals will be possible and should be extremely beneficial. A botanist at London’s Kew Gardens was recently able to instantly identify a fruit found in a Botticelli painting that had been confusing an art historical expert studying the piece. What insights might experts of any number of specialties, such as biologists, jewelers, or physicians, bring to the study of visual history once it is rendered in a language common to all?

Let’s find out!

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The Art of Counting is dedicated to the memory of Margery Meilleur, who first taught me to view history through the eyes of the images we create.