Sunday, June 18, 2006

Data Visualization as Art

Will there be a future Rembrandt whose medium is data visualization? I was thinking about this after encountering Jesse Bachman’s “Death and Taxes: A visual look at where US tax dollars go.”

According to the summary, Bachman spent close to a year researching and creating this visualization of where the U.S. government spends money. I have reproduced a small version below...

...but I highly recommend you scroll around the big version to appreciate the piece’s detail, clarity, and artistry.

I use the word artistry with the idea that some data visualizations qualify as art. Bachman’s piece clearly has artistic intent, from its political message to the name of the site it’s on (deviantART). And independent of the data’s message, the visual design and rendering is...well, artistic.

By comparison, below is an infographic on a similar subject. It is nicely done but feels more like good craft than art. (See here for the full-page version.)

(Yes, I realize at this point that we are ankle-deep in the “What is art?” swamp. Maybe Bachman’s stuff is really “graphic design”? Or can graphic design be art? And so on. For the rest of this post, I promise to restrict myself to sloshing around the edge of the swamp rather than going deeper.)

Bachman is selling posters of “Death and Taxes,” so you can hang it on your wall, art-like. Similarly, data-visualization titan Edward Tufte’s Web site has a “Fine Art” section where you can order large, high-resolution prints of his work.

And then there’s Mark Lombardi, whose work I saw a few years ago in an art gallery. He researched and created highly detailed graphs showing the connections between people and events. Here’s an example of one of his works, “george w. bush, harken energy, and jackson stevens c.1979-90, 5th version.”

Here is a close-up of one little part:

This piece is “only” 20 x 44 inches. Lombardi’s work got as big as 5 feet by 12 feet, dense with connections. Everything he did was researched and drawn by hand. Despite working in the computer age (up until his death in 2000), he used index cards for the research and pencil/graphite on paper for the pieces. See here for more examples as well as, at the bottom of the page, Lombardi’s commentary.

The schematic-diagram look of Lombardi’s work was an artistic choice, a visual antiseptic that left only facts on the page. Because many of his pieces involved scandals, the connections often intersected the famous (George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each got caught in a Lombardi web) with the infamous, leaving the viewer to decide the significance.

I bring up Lombardi because his work and Bachman’s “Death and Taxes” strike me as opposite ends of the “data visualization as art” spectrum. While both render data clearly and with a message—that is, they are not using data to drive abstract art (a whole other category)—Bachman does so with overt artistic technique whereas Lombardi employs the covert artistry of minimalism.

So if certain data visualizations can be art, we might as well ask whether history will judge a future data-viz artist as a master, on par with a Rembrandt. I think it could happen because, when anointing great artists, art historians often pick artists whose work is representative of their time. This being the information age, data-viz art looks suspiciously representative to me.

[I originally found “Death and Taxes” via a write-up on]

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