Art Works Blog

Taking Note: The Science (and Art) of Map-Making

A new and accurat map of the world via flickr user Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL

When a young Graham Greene trekked across Liberia in 1935, he chose to title the resulting book Journey without Maps. The work became a pivotal entry in Greene's career as a writer, presenting a tonal stance he would perfect in novels such as Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter. Unlike a conventional guide book of its day, Journey without Maps narrates a sequence of events, observations, and memories bound together not so much by a clear sense of destination as by the author's obsessive search for meaning, a quest verging on spiritual. Far from proving aimless, however, this book and its successors charted a province of the imagination that some fans and reviewers call "Greeneland."

The course of Greene's progress is not atypical for an artist. Regardless of genre or art form, artists begin with a blank page or screen, an empty canvas or stage. They construct patterns and relationships that reveal new cartographies for living in the world. In this respect, despite all the attractive parallels between the arts and sciences---both endeavors reward creativity and both often start from a place of ignorance---scientific research, unlike even the most realistic artistic rendering, involves an acceptance of values and propositions that must be fully digested before they can be refuted.

There is a deceptively similar principle at work in the arts: some of the most influential creations throughout history have fed on an intense familiarity with practices and products that came before, which then act as points of departure. (For two extreme articulations of this principle in literature, see T.S. Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and Harold Bloom's book The Anxiety of Influence.) It's true that art can be understood as metabolizing one's encounters with empirical facts, producing an alternative reality with ties to the known world but utterly unlike it. But to challenge data in the language of science---to conduct research that attempts to prove or disprove a theory---requires a different orientation. The bar for changing observed reality is, if not higher than in the arts, at least more visible. Only facts can refute facts.

Pause. Refresh. Let's try that again: only facts can refute facts; but the way those facts are assessed, ordered, and contextualized can change our relationship to those facts, and their salience in light of other, perhaps yet-to-be discovered facts.  The situation resembles the sort of challenge either a cartographer or architect might face. Whether mapping unknown terrain, or blueprinting what never has been built, the chances are that imagination, ingenuity, and---yes, even art---come into play.

If a lot of the foregoing matter sounds oddly philosophical coming from  a government research director, then put it down to questions set off by a September 20 forum at American University. The event marked the release of How Art Works: The National Endowment for the Arts' Five-Year Research Agenda, with a System Map and Measurement Model. This document responds to the NEA's Strategic Plan, which calls for annual milestones to be developed for the purpose of measuring progress in achieving an NEA outcome: Evidence of the value and impact of arts is expanded and promoted. The report lists recent, ongoing, and future research projects that align with this aim.

But most of the September 20 event focused on the "system map" of How Art Works. The map offers a way to conceptualize and measure the inputs, core components, and outcomes of the U.S. arts ecosystem. Although they have practical value for the NEA's long-term research agenda, the map and accompanying "measurement model" are intended also to start a constructive public dialogue about the place of art in American life, and, if possible, to lend a platform for cultural researchers and policy-makers to communicate about the system as a whole.

Organized by Sherburne Laughlin and Andrew Taylor of American University's arts management program, the forum launched a spirited exchange among panelists, moderators, and audience members. I won't attempt to recap the insightful questions and criticisms, as a webcast of the event is archived on our site. At the NEA, we'll use such feedback to improve our long-term planning of research projects. We welcome many more comments. At a minimum, the current map helps to ensure that the NEA's Office of Research & Analysis conducts its activities in a deliberate and responsible manner, without unnecessary overlap or wasted effort. A "journey without maps" can be exhilarating, but, as Greene found at the end of his long adventure, it can also prove exhausting.



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