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MA Student Emily Leon on Esoteric Art, Visualization, and Text Analysis

August 31, 2018


Tell us about yourself and why you chose the MA in Digital Art History track.

Emily Leon received her B.A. in Art History summa cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Afterward, she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she worked in arts administration for organizations including SITE Santa Fe and the Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe (CCA). While in Santa Fe, she launched Desert Suprematism, an online journal that explores themes of religious innovation and esoteric spirituality as agents of cultural, intellectual, and social change in the modern era. Her academic work in particular focuses on the spiritual dynamic in modern art. She chose the MA Digital Art History program at Duke University for its promotion of interdisciplinary research and interest in employing digital and computational methodologies to humanistic inquiry.

What is the most valuable skill or concept you have learned so far in the MA program?

The most valuable skill I have learned from this program so far is how truly provocative humanistic research questions can become once one begins to employ digital methods in their work. Without a doubt, new questions will always be introduced. The power of digital and computational methods, however, can often lead to a struggle for truth and interpretation.

How are you using digital technologies in your thesis research?

I employ analog, digital, and historical methods in my thesis to explore an interesting albeit problematic encounter between Swedish artist Hilma af Klint and Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner. In so doing, I will demonstrate that the scholarly tendency to affiliate af Klint with Steiner and Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky as a means of validating her place in the canon is not the historical argument we should be looking for. The speculation around af Klint’s relationship to Steiner claims he allegedly negatively impacted her works between the years 1908 and 1912. Digital methods afford the opportunity to analyze this particular moment with the assistance of interactive data visualization software and text analysis. These systems not only show there was no shift in af Klint’s iconography before 1908 and after 1912, but also demonstrate that art history still needs a clearer picture of af Klint.

How do you see your experience in this MA program advancing your career goals?

This is an incredibly challenging question. The best answer I can provide is that our data driven culture makes technical and digital knowledge in humanities related fields a hot commodity, as scholars, museums, archives, universities, and galleries all employ technology in some capacity. Knowing how to use digital and computational tools in the field of art history in particular introduces new research questions and methodologies.