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Is visual art a kind of data?

August 21, 2015
"Calculations" - from my sketchbook

“Calculations” – oil pastel & pencil from my sketchbook

I’m off on a tangent here. I’ll have to admit, I am totally mesmerized by the cataloging of data of any kind—organizing, labelling, retrieving, applying. And I love thinking about why each of us may be drawn to different kinds of art. I gravitate to the abstract in art because I get to apply my imagination to what I am seeing, whether I am drawn into a deep space, intrigued by certain shapes, or am completely taken by certain colors.

I grabbed this delightful (and unrelated to art) explanation for visualization (below) from an old copy of the Association for Computing Machinery’s magazine and appropriated it to “the making of art.” I thought it might be an insightful interpretation of abstract art: giving form to unknown spaces and things not already expressed in objective art or in words.

The goal of visualization is to aid our understanding of data by leveraging the human visual system’s highly tuned ability to see patterns, spot trends, and identify outliers. Well-designed visual representations can replace cognitive calculations with simple perceptual inferences and improve comprehension, memory, and decision making. By making data more accessible and appealing, visual representations may also help engage more diverse audiences in exploration and analysis. The challenge is to create effective and engaging visualizations that are appropriate to the data. (A Tour Through the Visualization Zoo, Communications of the ACM, June 2010, Vol. 53, No. 9, p. 59)

I think we need to be better at making the connection between art and life for those of us who are NOT artists. How can art be appreciated if it isn’t “engaging more diverse audiences in exploration and analysis”? Abstract art can serve as a bridge for stepping into a space that doesn’t have an immediately recognizable reference in the real world—it asks the viewer to make a new association. And that’s another step in the creative process.


“Sentinels” – mixed media on canvas, 36 x 48

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2015 2:42 pm

    I had to laugh when I imagined “processing” every bit of data I’m exposed to everyday! Yes…way too much to take in. But I think the difference with visual art is that it is not necessarily routine information so we do stop and interpret. And maybe we make space in our brains for a new category.


  2. Mikki Aronoff permalink
    August 22, 2015 7:47 am

    Gorgeous, esp. last paragraph!

    Sent from my iPad



    • August 23, 2015 10:31 am

      Thanks, Mikki! Connecting art to life is something I think about a lot and want to keep working on. But I also have to admit that’s not the driver when I make art. I just hope some of my perspective gets translated to an understandable or inviting message for people who look at it.


  3. August 22, 2015 6:51 am

    Visually stimulating work. There’s a book “Information is Beautiful” by David McCandless which embodies the quote, and is in essence ‘pretty data’. In contrast, I read your work as abstractions & impressions of data, and much more interesting. All sensory perception is data to the brain.


    • August 23, 2015 10:36 am

      Thanks for your comments! I checked out McCandless’ book and blog–I appreciate your pointing me in his direction. I don’t know if you are aware of “Brain Pickings” by Maria Popova, but she reviewed McCandless a while back and that’s where I got to see some pix from the book. Her website: I like your last sentence, and I think it’s true, but I believe some of the data from our sensory perception gets funneled off to the right brain storage, without a verbal interpretation, and some to the left. …no idea whether neuropsychologists would make that differentiation.


      • August 24, 2015 5:14 am

        I’m sure that 99.999% of data bypasses verbal interpretation en route to the brain – otherwise could you image? We would come to a grinding halt. Picking up a cup of coffee and taking a sip – this one simple task requires a staggering amount of data, co-ordination, and historical data, and its something we don’t think about, we just do it.


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