Thursday, July 3, 2008

Exemplary cartography

A few months ago, I talked about "Experiential and Formal Models of Geographic Space," by David M. Mark and Andrew U. Frank, mostly in terms of its discussion of experienced vs measured space. But the piece that keeps coming back to me is the distinction between two ways of defining something:
Rosch and her co-workers discovered that, in many cases, all members of a category are not 'equal'. For example, when asked to give an example of a bird, subjects tend to name robins and sparrows as examples far more often than they mention turkeys or penguins or ducks. [...] Lakoff (1987) later discussed this in terms of a radial structure for some categories. He noted that peripheral members of different arms of a radially-organized categories may have nothing in common, except different chains of resemblance to some common prototype.
The ideas turned up recently in a discussion at Meeting about Quaker identity... we don't have a catechism, but neither is it an "anybody can call themselves a Quaker" sort of thing. I realized mid-discussion that exemplar-based definitions actually work quite well for Quakers: what we have in common is no one aspect of belief or habit, but a "direction" towards a common ideal. We come towards that ideal (in specific, it was suggested that the Friends Testimonies are the common center) from a lot of directions, meaning there is very little we identifiably have in common throughout the Friends community, but what we share is that common set of ideals we all one way or another strive for.

On the walk home today, it occurred me that the same sort of exemplar-based commonality is true of the art world. I was walking through our building, which is filled with artists studios, and has an open studio every first Thursday of the month, and as usual I was struck by the utter variety of presentations. What on earth do they have in common?

What they have in common is reaction/reference to a common body of visual creations. Some choose to imitate the physical form (paint, pastel, frame, canvas), others the subject matter (landscape, portrait, etc), still others the philosphical emphasis (beauty, truth, ineffability, effability) of some portion of the corpus of western art or of non-western traditions that are generally accepted into that corpus.

But as a whole, there is little or nothing one can say about everything done in the arts world. What makes it art is that it follows one or more traditions of that arts world.

What drives cartographers crazy is when artists dbehave the same way about maps: an artist makes something that follows some aspect of the corpus of the cartographic tradition, and calls it a map. But it doesn't share all or a majority of the aspects, or an aspect the cartographer in question feels is crucial, and so the artis calling it a map feels like presumption, or false advertising.

What's interesting to me personally is that I came to maps out of a desire to make something that looked like a map, not out of a passion for geography specifically. I was playing at maps, really, when I made my first maps back in junior high school—play subsidized by school time, but play nonetheless. I did a lot of making things that looked like "real" things as a kid: a friend and I set up a pretend company that published magazines and travel brochures, flags, and made models. It was a lot of fun.

So like artists who are trying to make something that follows the spirit and/or form of the arts traditions, I started out with a goal of making things that "looked like maps." No ontology, just imitation. But perhaps because maps are such an ontology-grounded field, I've wound up on the other side, grimacing at some piece of art that in no way functions as a practical tool, but which the creator claims is a map.

And they called me an studio art major. Harumph.


Anonymous said...

Just to let you know that the links to the experiential models paper from your blog pages don't work. It may look like a URL-duck, but it doesn't quack like a URL-duck! Google gives the URL for this paper as:

So now I have no excuse not to read it...

natcase said...

Links fixed. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

it's nice to see a blog dedicated to maps!