Metamodern Databases: The Future of Art History


Metamodern, Arts. Metamodern Databases of Art History

“While the foundations of databases come from the building blocks of modernism, the resulting databases, the finished building to continue the architectural theme is postmodern. Databases are ahistorical. They not only end modernism’s grand narrative but restructure all grand narratives.”

By Chris Grant Peterkin
“Royal Tide IV” (above) by Louise Nevelson

The internet requires all industries including the arts to categorize and index information and knowledge uniformly within digital databases. Long established Museums of Art are data basing their inventories as are recently emerged online art sales platforms. Artsy’s Genome Project is an excellent example of how complex this process can become. The effect of these databases is to bring together many of Art’s polar opposites: Modernism and Post-modernism, Art and Life, the past and the present, the exclusive and the commonplace. The ability to move between these poles, the fusion of different cultural histories, the romantic notion of improved art access for all, the remodeling of art history, the hope for a Utopian future, are all Metamodern ideologies that databases embody.


Databases share one of Modernism’s major tenets: formal analysis. Formal analysis is required by databases to define their artwork categories, for example: artist, date, location, content (the objects, the subjects, and the styles), medium, size, price and so on.

While the foundations of metamodern databases come from the building blocks of modernism, the resulting databases, the finished building to continue the architectural theme, is Post-modern. Databases are ahistorical. They not only end modernism’s grand narrative but restructure all grand narratives to the metamodern databases.

Metamodern, Arts. Metamodern Databases of Art History
Richard Tuttle calls it “The first piece of the 21st Century”. Richard Tuttle’s “I don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language” at the Tate Modern. Photo by Julian Simmons

In the past ahistorical models of art have been criticized for their lack of contextual analysis, for example Arthur C Danto’s Style Matrix and the 1984 MOMA exhibition Primitive. However today databases provide the mechanisms to incorporate and index the “what”, “when”, “where”, “how” and “why” of artworks, allowing a global audience of users to access and analyse artworks from all cultures formally and contextually. Users move between multiple narratives and multiple histories to create and prioritize their own individual narratives and histories. The freedom to move around art databases exploring “terra incognita” and making choices enhances the user’s “structure of feelings” and creates a Metamodern experience of art.


For all potential users to freely move around an art database and experience Metamodernism the database must be structured for a global audience. To achieve this, a universal standardized method for categorizing and indexing art within databases needs to be established. A Metamodern reconstruction of Art History is required to make the distances between academics and layman, between Art and Life, easier to navigate.

Metamodern, Arts. Databases of Art History.“Violin and Palette” by Braque

The following categories already have indexes that enable a global audience access to artworks: artist, date, location, content (the objects and the subjects), medium, size and price. However, the arbitrary system for indexing Content’s sub-category Style (by comparing artworks to past art movements) prejudices a global lay audience. It requires prior academic knowledge of all global art history, from the “isms” of the West to the varying scroll painting techniques of the East, from the origins of art history to the most contemporary.

To close the gap between the two poles of academics and layman, and thereby enable a global audience to more easily access art history, the online art network Visual Art Trader has proposed using four consistent indexes for the category of style (Representational Art, Semi-representational Art, Semi-abstract Art and Abstract Art) by which to start comparing artworks through universal metamodern databases and lay visual truth to the surrounding visible world. Please read Data Basing Visual Art: Establishing a Global Framework for Visual Style for more information on the workings of the four style categories.

As the style of artworks pass from distortion Abstract Art to mimesis Representational Art they can be a graded between the two poles, much in the same ways as emotion can be graded between the two poles of hate and love, behavior between sincerity and irony. However it is also possible to jump from one of these poles to the other without having to go through all the grades in between.

Metamodern Databases can store artworks that are both sincere and ironic, or that possess both love and hate. It is the same for visual styles; they don’t just travel along a linear line, from the pole of Representational Art passing through increasing grades of distortion until they reach the pole of Abstract Art and then back again. It is possible for style to move beyond Abstract Art and Representational Art, and straddle both.

Metamodern, Arts. Metamodern Databases of Art History.
For example “Blurring” by Rose Jennings (above) could be considered an abstract twisted yellow form; it could also be the perfect representation of a yellow twisted piece of string.

Metamodern Arts. Metamodern Databases of Art History.
“Don’t Park” by Julian Harrigan is a very abstract image made up of three horizontal grey stripes and two horizontal yellow stripes; however it could also be the perfect close up representation of some yellow parallel parking lines. This second view is reinforced by the cigarette butt that helps anchor the picture in representational reality, much like George Braque’s nail in his cubist work “Violin and Palette” (above) of 1909.

Combines, Junk Art, Assemblages and the collages of Dada all have the ability to blur the boundary between Abstract Art and Representational Art. For example Royal Tide IV (1959-60) by Louise Nevelson (top) is a classic example of Assemblage Art. The artwork is made up of many found objects: Banisters, door handles, table legs, babies rattles etc. As individual parts they are recognizable individual objects that should be classified in Representational Art, but once she has placed them together and painted them uniformly in gold, the sum of the parts no longer resembles anything recognizable, it could now belong in the Abstract Art category.

Metamodern Arts. Metamodern Databases of Art History“Da-Dandy” by Hana Hoch (right)

Working in two dimensions the collages by the Dada artist Hannah Hoch pose the same problem. For example, Da-Dandy (1919) uses photos of women from newspapers and magazines that on their own would be considered Representational Art, but when combined in a collage, they represent nothing of reality. Da-Dandy could also start to be considered Abstract Art. All these example artworks not only reinforce the idea that the categories of Representational Art and Abstract Art are joined, but also that the boundaries between all style categories are blurred. There is no precise line or border, the cycle is one continuous fluid group of visual styles leading from one to the next, as illustrated below in the Style Wheel.

All artworks have their place within the Style Wheel and all have equal billing. Rather like Jean-Francois Lyotard’s metaphor of ships sailing between different islands, the style wheel facilitates many new possible oscillations only infinitely faster, bringing together instantaneously numerous polar opposites without prioritizing any of them: the famous and the unknown, the sublime and the ordinary, the past and the present, and between many more opposites.

Metamodern, Arts. Metamodern Databases of Art History.
For art databases this new visually intuitive access route to art history crucially reduces the distance between academics and laymen, but also puts in place the final building block for a Metamodern reconstruction of Global Art History.


David Carrier foresaw how art databases might offer a single model for global art history in his book A World Art History and its Objects (2008).

“The Internet, which makes it possible to present these multiple stories, is part and parcel of the technologies that link together distant cultures. Just as the older Eurocentric art histories are replaced by awareness of the multiple traditions, so older narrative strategies are being superseded by the novel Web technologies. We can superimpose diverse stories, without privileging any of them.”

A database of visual art does not present a global art history based upon the linear passage of time through books, but an interactive global art history, reconstructed by the connections and networks established through the database. In an interactive global art history “Time” is just one of many possible frameworks, not the defining framework.

The temporal narrative employed by all cultures for their art history is essential to understanding the past, but in the future, if all cultures have access to and become increasingly influenced by a global database of visual art, all temporal narratives will become one. The past narratives of Tradition, Modernism and Post-modernism, will in the future be united by continuously shifting Metamodern Databases of Art History.

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