The “Maps As Art” Debate

Ah … art. Art is a contentious area for discussion. One person’s work of art is another person’s random spots of paint on a canvas. As Rudyard Kipling once put it, “it’s clever, but is it art?“.

Even artists can’t seem to agree on this topic. Compare and contrast Picasso’s comment that “everything you can imagine is real” with Warhol’s contrarian stance that “an artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have“.

Now add maps into the equation and you have a debate where people probably won’t always agree. So it was with a conversation on Twitter between myself, Steve Chilton, chair of the Society of Cartographers and psychogeographer Graham Hooper. We were talking about a map like this one …

Graham kickstarted the discussion with a fear that the ultimate map, by today’s standards, is merely more accurate old data in a new format. He’s got a point. A lot of today’s maps, particularly digital ones, do take existing data and put a subtly different slant on the way that it’s visualised. He continued with “surely maps, in the broadest sense, need to add value to what is mapped rather than just copy or repeat it in inferior form“.

Here’s where the debate gets onto thin ice. The notion of what’s inferior is a deeply subjective thing. Likewise, adding value is a much maligned phrase that can mean pretty much anything depending on your interpretation. My ultimate map, if such a thing even exists, will probably differ significantly from yours.

Steve countered with “maps represent the real word, it’s not about being inferior; they can categorise, explain, illustrate and open up that world“.

The map in question is one of those produced by artPause and Graham questioned whether any of these maps “present a new or better understanding, appreciation or awareness of our world“.

I should probably nail my colours to the mast here.

A map can be art. I think I have to side with Steve on this point. Maps as art definitely illustrate our world and they definitely make us appreciate someone else’s view of our world. Yes, they’re produced from existing data, or at least the current data at the time they were made. But if you like maps, you’ll probably like maps as art, even if you sometimes need to put your head to one side, squint a bit and mutter “it’s clever, but is it art?“.

Photo Credits: artPause and Kaptain Kobold on Etsy.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

2 Comments

  • It’s an important debate, and i like the fact that it’s renewed. I’d also like to point to the (imho) central author on the subject : John S. Keates (Cf. “Understandind Maps“, 1996, Addison-Welsey).

  • Some of the typographic maps are really attractive artistic representations, which sometimes have no particularly function, but do open up a new view of ‘place’. See for example the axismaps example at : http://spatialanalysis.co.uk/2011/01/typographic-maps/