Data Visualization: Is It Art?

Depicts 20,500 tuna, the average number of tuna fished from the world's oceans every fifteen minutes.

Depicts 20,500 tuna, the average number of tuna fished from the world's oceans every fifteen minutes.

Zoomed in even closer

Zoomed in even closer

Does art spur emotion or does emotion spur art? (Well both, duh.) But data visualization seems to throw its weight into this debate.

Here’s a fascinating article from the NYT on data visualization. I’m such a visual learner that data visualization is right up my alley. I can’t fathom a string of numbers, but I can get the essence of 1,000 sharks’ teeth or 2 million fish. (I was talking yesterday with a colleague about that other type of “string” — string theory. You can imagine that my eyes were glazing over.) I wrote something about “volume” on my blog recently in the “Guiness Book of World Records” post… someone had collected thousands of graffiti stickers and then posted them in a room and called it art. And there was the photo of hundreds of clergy at St. Peters. These perhaps lean more toward the wow! factor than being art for art’s sake. Maybe.

So what is data visualization? From the NYT:

Data visualization…is an interpretation, a different way to look at and think about data that often exposes complex patterns or correlations.

Data visualization is a way to make sense of the ever-increasing stream of information with which we’re bombarded and provides a creative antidote to the “analysis paralysis” that can result from the burden of processing such a large volume of information. “It’s not about clarifying data…It’s about contextualizing it.”

My favorite (and the most easy to interpret) example of this is Chris Jordan’s portraits of global mass culture in the “Running the Numbers” photography series which he uses “as a bridge between alienating information and its emotional impact.” The photos above, for example, illustrate a specific quantity of something: the number of tuna fished from the world’s oceans every fifteen minutes.

But is this art? In Chris’ work, which largely shows the effect of human consumption/impact I guess you could say that he used emotion (poor tuna!) to spur art:

large amounts of fact data > emotion > “emotional” data > becomes art

Which turns on its head the below philosophy that puts art at the beginning of the chain — that seeing a piece of art spurs emotion:

art > perception of art > perception of beauty > spiritual and physical love (emotion)

This second concept flow is the central theme of Degrees of Freedom.



  1. Long ago people used to ask the question “Is photography art?”, as though the nature of the medium or process defined art. In those days photography was at least a craft.

    Surely not every Powerpoint pie chart can be considered art. The work of Chris Jordan, however, is highly original, beautifully crafted, aesthetically engaging,and makes its viewers think and feel something. I’m not sure that’s all that defines art, but I would certainly consider it art.

  2. Fred, your comment just spurred an hour of searching out more on this topic! This foray of artists into the computerized “data visualization” arena is refreshing. (I read somewhere that DV started from the use of computer modeling and simulation in scientific/engineering practice. Plus, I see it ad naseum at work.) Here, I don’t think the ultimate goal is beauty or originality or to incite feeling (tho people are getting creative with their PPT slides these days to keep people from falling asleep in meetings). PPT seems to be just a method to convey a point clearly & succinctly. They crunch non-emotional data pieces.

    Compare this to what I saw at that small gallery in Budapest (I blogged about it on here somewhere) where the artist was creating mind maps to map out societal and political views, “personal space” as a dimension, etc. I do think that to separate the pure number crunch from the artistic approach that you need to have that emotional element involved.

    Here’s a cool site devoted to all sorts of data visualization tools

    Thanks for your comment!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s