Friday, November 2, 2007

Class Acts and Right Maps

[note: sorry to re-edit afterposting, but I just re-read this and parts make no sense even to me. Hence the rewrite —Nat]

I read The Invention of Art by Larry Shiner almost two years ago, and since then it's been at the center of my arguments, at first about maps and art, and more recently about cartography as a tradition. So I went out on the web recently to see what other folks were saying about Shiner and found... precious little. Disappointing. I did run across an interview by Stewart Home with Roger Taylor, who wrote a book almost 30 years ago called Art, an Enemy of the People. The interview is largely taken up with comparisons between Shiner and Taylor's approaches. The book sounded interesting, so I got it from the library.

It's been a slow slog. In spite of his goal of "writing for the people," the style is, well, thick. But it's an interesting read for all that. As the interview alludes to, while Shiner talks about the class-based origins of Fine Arts in the 17th and 18th century and then moves on, Taylor's standpoint remains rooted in questions of class (Shiner moves away from class discussions in discussing Art's alienation).

I don't think about class much as such. As an American, I've learned it's impolite to talk about class. I know class is a larger part of European public consciousness, but... I've never honestly seen it so starkly illustrated as when comparing the American (Shiner) with the Brit (Taylor).

Taylor's history of the rise of Art is a bit more nuanced than Shiners. He puts the initial formulation of Fine Arts somewhere in the sixteenth century. It was (he says) initially a theory grounded in the concept of "Truth": Art is Truth, non-Art is not-Truth. This idea supported the idea of hereditary of nobility. Art is Art because it is essentially truthful, and no context can make it otherwise, just as nobility are noble because they were born that way. The formulation was in defense of the bourgeois idea that quality can be earned,.

As the bourgeoisie burgeoned, and the art market became just that (a market), Art became a matter of "Taste" and then of "Beauty." No longer was art of the aristocracy being defended from bourgeois aspirations; now it was the art of the haute bourgeois being defended from common craft. Taylor's argument is that art is never about "the masses." To the extent that is it is advertised as "good for the masses," it is essentially reinforcing bourgeois values on the proletariat.

I like this guy. (Oddly, he's not a Marxist. Socialist, yes, but not Marxist. Whatever.)

OK, I haven't finished the book yet, so I can't summarize everything he says, but I started thinking ahead to how cartography would fit into this scheme. We are not a proletarian discipline. Not a lot of farm-workers and factory-workers at NACIS. But we also tend to have a relatively "proletarian" attitude towards our work, to wit: "enough with the theory, make the map they've hired you to do."

Which is pretty much the attitude of the colleagues I work with. And it's a lot of what drives Denis Wood and other theorists batty. You're oppressed, dammit! Shake off your chains!

More later.


Which brings me to Stephen Holloway's really wonderful "Right Map Making." Stephen presented it at NACIS this year. I appreciated it at the time, and then went off to listen to the other panels, but it has kept coming back to me. Which was the idea, I guess. It's a broadside in a couple of ways. First, it's a beautiful single sheet printed piece (a broadside).
Second, it neatly sidesteps the whole philosophical/ontological debate/sargasso sea and attacks the problem of ethics and maps and our effect on the world head on, a shot not philosophically across the bow but right into the heart of our day-to-day work, using the Buddhist language of "right practice."

Go read it, it speaks for itself.

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