Scholarly Video: Thinking Through a New, Public-Facing Rhetoric

 Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

By Karen Schiff

My current research — new interpretations of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon — has such a strong visual elements that I have been considering communicating my ideas in a visual medium. The project involves literally a new view: when I focus on particular details of this famous painting, and view them as if from a specific vantage point, I can interpret the pictorial space of the entire work differently from how it has traditionally been seen. And while it is possible to convey my ideas about this through verbal descriptions, in careful and footnoted (i.e., standard) academic prose, this rhetorical form requires a lot of visual, imaginative work from the reader. The visual reframing would be most accessible if I can demonstrate it skillfully in a video. After all, one of the hallmarks of Picasso’s revolutionary technique of cubism (which this canvas presages) is how imagery appears to change before the viewer’s eyes. What if I could show readers/viewers those perspective changes happening in real time? Also, the entire argument could be made available to more people if I can post that video online. Given that I interpret Picasso’s spatial vision as being connected to a general social vision that I think he was trying to promote, it would be fitting to share my ideas freely with a social network beyond just an academic journal. If I post a compelling video on YouTube or Vimeo, maybe the project would start conversations that might not happen if I conveyed these ideas only in printed prose.

So far, this reasoning points toward my producing a video about my ideas and posting it online. But I am concerned that this plan might work against my research goal of having my interpretation considered seriously by scholars in the field; in any case it prompts methodological and logistical questions. This series of blog posts addresses related issues in three categories:
[I] the perceived intellectual respectability of the video genre and how it might affect the reception of my work;
[II] the rhetorical strategies that best suit the genre as I wish to engage with it, and;
[III] the logistics of production and circulation of the video document.
I hope that these blog posts can articulate issues that might face anyone thinking of using video to bring scholarly ideas
to a broad, media-savvy audience.

Scholarly Video [I]: Intellectual Respectability

Because I wish to have my thinking about Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon considered by experts in the field of art history, I want my video to meet traditional standards of intellectual respectability. If I assume that such respectability is possible for a video, I must then address the question of how I can adapt the qualities of “solid” academic research, which have been refined over time and in the print medium, to the relatively new medium of video. The qualities of a scholarly text are familiar: it [1] makes a new claim in a given field; [2] reviews scholarship related to that claim; and [3] documents that background research through footnotes and a bibliography. The best texts also convey their arguments with finesse: [4] respected authors are skilled in the rhetorical arts of persuasion. And the results are only published if they pass through various stages of review and editing; the most respected scholarly texts have been [5] evaluated blindly/anonymously by more than one reviewer from the academic field. If I can incorporate all of these qualities into my work, I might claim to have made a “scholarly video.”

The existing discourse of scholarly video is uneven, especially in terms of the last two variables of rhetoric and review. Four online academic journals specialize in videos, representing the fields of scientific experimentation, media studies, and embodied phenomenology. They share a clear directive: these topics can be explored most effectively using the video medium. In the scientific Journal of Visualized Experiments, founded in 2006, researchers found that it was expedient and helpful for readers to witness a scientific methodology in process, so it could be replicated properly and an experiment could be verified in laboratories around the world. The media studies online journals Screenworks and [in]Transition were founded on the two sides of the Atlantic so that
scholars could reflect on film clips and on techniques and phenomena identified with time-based and/or digital media. Screenworks went fully online in 2016; the online archives of transition go back to 2014. Finally, the Journal of Embodied Research tends toward corporeal topics, from performance and bodywork to an inquiry into movements while wearing body armor. It is the newest venue, founded in 2018, and the JER editor, Ben Spatz, refers to the other three journals in his introductory statement. Clearly, this most recently founded journal is positioning itself with respect to its predecessors, and of the four, its goals best align with my research priorities.

All of these publishing outlets meet the first few standards for scholarly discourse: their videos make new claims in their fields and substantiate their claims in various ways. Their narrative techniques will be the focus of my next blog post. For now, I will evaluate their intellectual respectability, especially with regard to the Journal of Embodied Research. My video involves the subject of embodiment — the perspective on Picasso’s painting I wish to promote includes the viewer’s body being suggestively implicated in the scene depicted. Perhaps I should make a scholarly video to publish there? Of the three humanities video journals, JER also seems to prioritize scholarly accountability over formal innovation.

The Journal of Embodied Research demonstrates that priority of scholarliness by weaving traditional measures of intellectual respectability into its practices. The links under its major menu category, “Research Integrity,” seem to anticipate readers’ concerns, and attempt to assure readers that the journal maintains high standards like those familiar from print journals. While the initial link here, about preventing plagiarism, serves instead to make the journal appear as though it is operating on the level of a freshman composition course, subsequent links about peer review are supported by the review process described in a separate section of the website, about the journal’s editorial policies. Here, a chart reveals that each “video article” that has passed the editor’s initial judgment of suitability is subjected to a “single-blind peer review.” The author’s identity is known to the reviewer so it is possible to reveal any conflicts of interest. While only one reviewer is used, the field of video scholarship is new enough — as is the journal itself —
that the logistics of a two-person blind review process may have been impossible to organize. By contrast, Screenworks — in the more established field of media studies — operates with a two-reviewer blind process; excerpts from both editorial testimonies appear anonymously with each video entry published. [in]Transition has a double “open” peer review process, in which the reviewers’ identities remain concealed unless the work is published, at which time signed reviewer comments appear as part of the publication. At Journal of Visualized Experiments a “rigorous” peer review process involves at least two anonymous and confidential reviewers
whose identities are never revealed unless some specific request is made by a reviewer. A major difference here is that editors charge authors a “publication fee” and also charge authors for the service of producing their videos (at an average of $8000). This can serve as a kind of editorial screening because it is not necessarily possible to pay such a sum. Authors may also self-produce videos, but these are subjected to scrutiny and authors may be asked to reshoot or edit.

When JoVE produces videos for authors, this standardizes the rhetorical forms involved. At the other journals, evaluative practices inevitably become inseparable from the categories within which the videos are imagined, and these categories are generally framed as relating to existing discursive forms. While JER leans on the term “video article,” [in]Transition prefers the more experimental category of the “video essay,” which one of its editors, Drew Morton, defines as “a hybrid of documentary filmmaking and scholarship.” This category expands to include “‘video essay’, ‘audiovisual essay’, and ‘visual essay’” varieties, though the editors not specify the distinctions among the categories. Essentially, the hybridity of content and form in any of the types of the “video essay” means that the nature of the claim or contribution to the field could be in terms of the technique as much as the denotative content of the video. Because this is a media studies journal, it is perhaps not surprising that it exploits the possibilities of the video medium: of the selections in the journal’s flagship issue, the editors observe, “all veer towards ‘poetical’ rather than ‘ideological’ modes, to use the distinction Roland Barthes employed to famously distinguishing a ‘text’ from a ‘work.’” Screenwork similarly prides itself on foregrounding “practice research” which, like [in]Transition, welcomes techniques that might characterize a work of cinema rather than scholarship. Spatz at JER, however, encourages structural inventiveness rather than, for instance, a snazzy soundtrack. While each video published by the JER is presented differently — Spatz says that submissions “should propose their own way of thinking about the relationship between embodiment and audiovisuality” — the logic behind this directive is to make the technique support the content rather than making the technique become the claim itself.

JER demonstrates its allegiance to scholarly standards by having echoes of academic practice in its forms. Each video is accompanied by an “editorial transcript” in which the text of the video is marked up with time stamps, conceptual headings, hotlinked footnotes and supplemental information for the materials that appear in the “video article.” These features give consistent scholarly backbone to inventively presented videos; they refer back to the medium of the printed word and its reliability. And while the submission guidelines admit that the genre of the “scholarly video article” is new enough that its characteristics cannot be dictated, it suggests that innovation in the medium is indeed a carryover from printed texts: “As with a traditional journal article, form and content should be integrated to articulate a substantive critical position.” As in the best of scholarship in print, a respected video author is expected to have rhetorical finesse.

Different videos integrate form and content in different ways. One article’s imagery is captioned with full bibliographic reference data, and a full bibliography appears along with production credits and other acknowledgements at the end of the video. 10 The skeletal structure of the argument is spelled out in printed headings which appear, in words and/or with still/moving illustrations, as an outline; these headings then reappear in superscript to guide viewers through the sections of narration. Another video, however, is primarily documenting a site in the woods; it is a partner to “a written treatment of this material” elsewhere offering “academic analysis and contextualization” — but without this theoretical dimension, the video comes across as a caprice.

The variety of rhetorical formats, even in the humanities-based journal that most effectively strives toward scholarly practices, makes these documents difficult to evaluate. While innovation in argumentation is an exciting by-product of the video medium, it requires new and ever-evolving standards for judgment of quality. Indeed, all four of these venues claim this as a feature instead of as a bug: they all aim, in part, to redefine the nature of academic scholarship. I do not need for my work to take up this goal directly. I only need for it to enrich my arguments, which fit well enough into traditional discourses. And there is a specific traditional discourse I wish to address: I want my video to help to convey ideas to art historians, and that discourse still overwhelmingly relies on scholarship in print. Because my intended audience will not likely consult a journal that focuses on embodiment studies, I will sidestep this publishing option and instead produce a video that can serve as a “moving illustration” for a standard print article. If I can publish in a peer-reviewed journal that offers its contents online with open access, my video can be embedded in the text as a hotlinked image. Then it can be available to a wide audience while I maintain the highest possible (traditional academic) standard for my exposition. This would be seen as more intellectually reliable than offering my entire argument in the video medium, as part of a digital publishing culture that is inventing itself at the same time that it is circulating its products.

Scholarly Video [II]: Narrative Techniques

My aspiration to publish even a “moving illustration” still raises methodological issues about the video itself, especially given that my subject is a still image. If the hotlinked video is archived on Vimeo or YouTube, where it could be watched apart from my primary written text, it will have to function as a stand-alone document while it also functions elsewhere as an addendum to the article in print. How would I compose such a video document? Also given the video’s dual habitats of the embedded illustration and the popular database, how can the language of the video speak both to experts and laypeople?

Perhaps the best way to solve these problems is to address the question of how a video “story” is like/unlike a scholarly “argument.” If I can create a video that is simply engrossing, it will achieve both scholarly and popular goals. And it is especially important for me to consider how to construct a video narrative — a moving image — about a famous painting which stays stubbornly still. None of the video-based academic journals offer examples of meeting this type of challenge, because all of them have as their subject matter images that are in motion.

The most captivating recent video about a famous painting, to judge by its viral success, has been the PlayGround video, “Velaske, yo soi guapa?” (11/25/17) which animates Velásquez’s Las Meninas, a 1656 painting from the Prado that is a Spanish national treasure. The video animates imagery from the original canvas, using crude techniques to make it appear as if the characters in the scene are speaking. It also animates the characters emotionally, by suggesting that the central princess’s gaze is motivated by her invented drama: the five-year-old princess is overanxious about her attractiveness. Her hyperactive worry creates a new framework through which to understand the behavior of the other characters in the scene, and it overwhelms all competing motivations such as the painter’s aesthetic ambitions for his work. This narrative maps onto my own project because my interpretation offers a simple reframing which can create a new lens through which to see everything else in the very familiar canvas.

The PlayGround video uses sound, emotion, and repetition to achieve memorable results. Velásquez assures the insistent, worried princess by telling her about the marriage that awaits her; during this political narration, the video’s techno soundtrack dramatically cuts out. In the rest of the video, the synthesized tones and driving beat help to entertain and maintain the viewer’s attention. While I recognize the power of music and of sonic contrast, I do not wish to make my work memorable using audio techniques. Instead, I will emulate this video’s unrelenting focus on its primary argument, and its emotional emphasis. The princess continually asks, “yo soi guapa? (am I pretty?)” and this repetition lends the video a memorable (and hilarious) clarity. A person who sees the painting after seeing the video could easily recall the video’s interpretation. While I cannot rely on humor to flavor the emotional content of my interpretation, I can emphasize the emotional, human logic behind it. Also, I will try to show and even repeat my thesis as plainly and as often as possible, so it can be easily remembered.

This singular clarity is not shared by a proto-academic video about the same Velásquez painting made by the Khan Academy. This non-profit online educational venue is a primary source for online videos about paintings, in its Smarthistory series, so its techniques are worth studying.

This video familiarizes the viewer with many aspects of the painting’s interpretation. It tries to infuse the dialogue with emotional content by having the two speakers, art educators Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, joke back and forth, emphasizing points through intense intonations and an occasional chuckle. This drama ends up feeling forced, because it is clear that the expressions are scripted. The audio tries to create a further sense of authenticity by transporting us directly to the halls of the Prado Museum, where both audio and video were recorded, but the ongoing foot-shuffling and echoes of ambient sound have an overall distracting effect. Also, the video shifts from a full view of the canvas to various close-up details, in uneven rhythms: sometimes the pace is too fast to digest, and at other times there is not enough motion to sustain visual attention.

The lessons from this precedent are to craft audio and video carefully: these variables will be as important as the verbal rhetoric for composing an effective video document. Also, this video has the challenge of creating consistently compelling visual imagery to accompany the almost six minutes of conversation about the painting; because the subject is a still image, this challenge is formidable. For Smarthistory, this challenge is also unavoidable, because its video aims to give viewers a thorough overview of the painting. If I, by contrast, make only an illustration of a few visual points instead of a “scholarly video article” containing all of my arguments, I can keep my running time shorter and not have to conjure visual content as in the long Smarthistory video.

Smarthistory has also, unsurprisingly, created a video about Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. This video is also almost six minutes long, and it falls prey to the same general problems I have noted about the Khan Academy video on Las Meninas. So here I wish to address the more directly relevant matter of animating potential perspectives on the painting, which is what I aim for my video to do. The Smarthistory video shows a way of viewing of the painting that is different from what I will propose; this passage starts at 4:08. To my eye, this animation technique is as crude as in the PlayGround video of Las Meninas, and it leaves me slightly confused about how to view the painting. The narration suggests that we are to see “the central [sic] figure as one that we’re both looking across at, but [sic] also looking down at, as if we are standing over her while she lies on a bed.”(1) But the video shifts this figure’s position as if she is also receding from view, as if we are looking up/down at her figure from a position below her feet. Such a position is not clearly signaled in the painting. I hope for my animations to give viewers perspectives that they can more readily adopt as their own.

Technically, the Smarthistory video animates Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by isolating one figure against a black ground and shifting its position with respect to the viewer. I think that my digital animation might be more successful if I can keep the entire painting in view at all times. After all, a museum visitor never can look at details while blotting out the rest of the painting. A focus on a specific part of the painting can be achieved through dimming the exposure or blurring the focus on everything else, or by zooming in the perspective to focus on a detail and then zooming back out to the full view of the canvas, to mimic the physical experience of an actual viewer.

Scholarly Video [III]: Production and Circulation

If I indeed aim to create a short video as a “moving illustration” for a standard, printed article in a double-blind reviewed journal, and if I specify that it be shared also on a public platform such as YouTube or Vimeo, I must consider several questions about production and circulation.

First, should I make the video myself, or enlist help? Both will require time, and the latter may require significant sums of money. If I do it myself, I could school myself as I did once before, using YouTube tutorials for iMovie, which is the video production program I already have. In this production process, I could learn skills that could be useful in my career. Yet other practitioners would be much better prepared to help me manifest my vision for the video. If I cannot hire someone directly, I could solicit help by offering an internship, or perhaps Independent Study credit, for a student. Finding that intern could involve advertising at, or partnering with a student could happen through alliances with professors in Digital Media.

In any of these scenarios, the results depend upon the skills of a single individual; a more predictable level of expertise might be possible if I partner with an entire class of Computer Design students. Daniel Fisher, a Project Director at the National Humanities Alliance, suggested that I apply for a state Humanities Council grant to fund a partnership with a community college Computer Design class. He noted that including the community college component would likely appeal to the funding committee. But applying for such a grant would take time, and the results of the application are not guaranteed. If successful, the resulting work would be “design by committee” which could make it better (or worse) in the end, and results might take longer to produce than if I work with fewer people at a time (including just myself). And would the government funding have an effect on the work’s intellectual respectability? Would it detract from the project by showing it not to be thoroughly academic, or would it give the work an admirable (if not academic) dimension of being engaged in public education?

In the end, I think that the best result will come out of a situation where I can completely communicate my vision to someone who can help me put it into video form expediently and skillfully. The clearest route toward that would be to ask a colleague to recommend a compatible student who may be in need of just this sort of project, in their educational program. If I emphasize this last variable, I can address my wishes both to have the project serve a need that will stand in for financial compensation, and to have the work be part of educational progress.

Let us say that the video is done, and it satisfies both me and the editors of the print journal. Though I admit that this is leaping ahead in time, and presuming many kinds of success, it allows me to broach the issue: how will people come across the video, if they are not reading the article? I assume I will post links to social media, but I would not want to be solely responsible for the work’s promotion. Will the journal publicize a link, or will the link to the video only appear in the printed article that is uploaded to the web? Can I submit the video to a venue such as the Journal of Embodied Research, apart from my other publication? I think not: it would be too much of a duplication of work already appearing in another peer-reviewed venue.

At this point, these questions remain far in the future. For now, I can be grateful to the ReinventPhD blog for the opportunity to think through the issues facing the imminent production and contextualization of a “moving illustration” which I hope can be a useful companion genre to the evolving category of scholarly video.

(1) This interpretation of the figure’s “erected recumbency” (1988, p.33) was first floated in the United States by critic Leo Steinberg in his 1972 ArtNews article, “The Philosophical Brothel” (reprinted in October in 1988, and in the catalogue of a Picasso retrospective in France and Spain that same year). It was presaged by German critic Günther Bandmann (who Steinberg cites in footnote 21, misquoting the page number), and it has been repeated by many critics ever since. (Note examples of this interpretation in subsequent scholarship, with publication details?)