UT-Dallas Art History Professor's Video Maps Artists' Movements Across History

The blue lines show the births of famous cultural figures, the red lines show their deaths.
The blue lines show the births of famous cultural figures, the red lines show their deaths.

A recent video compilation of a UT-Dallas professor's research is making the Internet rounds. The film charts complex mathematical data to show where 150,000 "notable individuals" in art history have been born and died. That includes artists, architects, actors and other leaders in cultural history.

The information has one glaring bias : It's incredibly Eurocentric. The data tracks the movements of western European artists for the last 2,000 years and shows where they've migrated throughout history. Blue dots represent births, red dots represent deaths.

Dr. Maximilian Schich, the art history professor and human mobility specialist who authored the study, says the kind of migratory data that was required for the study simply doesn't exist yet outside of western European artists. His study disclaimed and discussed the bias, which is partly why it was accepted into Science magazine this summer.

"The bias is driven by the people that enter the data," says Schich. His study compiled and tracked patterns within certain data, but did not directly log the numbers collected by other statisticians. "Not only are we aware of the Western bias, but we measure it. So by comparing that known migration with the people we tracked, we can have a very detailed picture of our biases."

Schich and his team compiled the confusing numbers into a video that fast tracks artists' movements over time. Fancy colors and graphics in the video aside, the study of artists' mobility is a pretty revolutionary development in the field of art history.

"Up until now, cultural history and art history have not yet joined scientific disciplines to map large scale data," says Schich. "So we collect lots of images and documents, and we know about a lot of objects, but these archives have not been tapped for quantitative research in the way that, say, a biologist would look at a collection of bones or gene code."

With extensive experience in mathematical data tracking and in physics labs, Schich blends the two seemingly clashing fields of the arts and the sciences. "We tried to complement the classic traditional humanities with a system approach," he says. "So we worked to solve the classic contradiction between the humanities, which are qualitative, and the natural sciences, which are quantitative."

The cultural bias could ultimately benefit statisticians who seek to correct the imbalance. "We need more about the Hispanic world, and that will make it possible to do more research so those people will get grants," says Schich.

"I'd like to expand that research. These are [western European] data sets that are collected by large numbers of researchers. I think doing the same thing for, say, Nigerian artists is a couple of years out. If you're talking about Chinese artists, that's something that would be tackled by the Chinese because you have to know the language. But we're looking forward to having that kind of research covering more regions."

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