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Aesthetics, Uncategorized

The Art of Cartography

A map is more than just a way to convey geographical information about the world. A good map, to me, is the ultimate crossroads between truth and beauty – a work of art that simultaneously manages to be explicit in its imparting of wisdom and reality and yet still indicates subtleties much too deep for a single image to convey. More than that, its form can be as delectably aesthetic and enrapturing as even the most esteemed Van Gogh, for there is nothing more beautiful than an illustration of our sum knowledge of the world we live on.

A map’s aesthetic design can, of course, be beautiful in and of itself. In the picture above, the illustrations around the edges can be understood as an attempt to signify, in some way, the wonder of the world they were in the process of discovering. Still, though, the prime raw beauty of the map lies in the sections displaying the world, not in the artwork around it – one can only wonder at the incredible attention to detail and deftness of hand that one would need to turn information about the entire world from a dozen sources into a coherent whole, all without the artist leaving his studio. As a work of human achievement, a map before the age of satellites stands with few equals.

Since satellites, though, our cartography has taken a different shape. No longer finding it a challenge to display

the shape of the world, we began focusing on what else maps could tell us. Thus the beauty and aesthetic appeal of a map became even less about the form and more about the meaning it could impart. Colourful the map right may be, few would say its appearance alone makes it beautiful. But to me, it is beautiful, and stunningly so, that a few colours, varyingly spaced around the world, can tell us so much and raise questions about so much more.

The blue – that is, the rich parts of the world – is concentrated in only a few sections of the world. That is the truth the map communicates, but it makes us ask something else: what makes them different? We know, of course, that most of the world’s rich countries are built upon a foundation of democracy, human rights, and the free market – but what’s that blue bit in the middle there? Saudi Arabia, the same colour as Canada, Japan, and Germany? A theocratic quasi-command economy lacking every fundamental freedom we in the West hold dear? How could this be?

The answers given by a map do little but pose more questions. But as I see it, this makes it the greatest art of all – what else is art for but to inspire, to make one think, to impart wisdom, to leave the viewer with a sense of awe at the scale of human achievement(think of the work that went into discovering the knowledge in that map!) and hungry for more? True, it may not seem as ‘beautiful’ as the Sistine Chapel or the David – but when we see that beauty for what it really is, that which makes our eyes go wide and our jaws drop and sets our mind to furiously examining whatever we are beholding, we see that a map is the embodiment of true art, in its purest form.

It is with this last understanding that a map’s beauty can be best understood. For all the talk of truth, a map need not be based in reality to be art. Perhaps the most famous fictional map of all time, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, has a beauty of its own. But that beauty lies not in the truth it communicates, but in the possibilities it hints at. What hidden world lies behind its tea-stained tones? As we peruse its markings, we can hardly stop the questions from jumping out, wondering   about what may lie behind the innocuous names of “Gondor” and “Mordor”. What lies out east in Rhun or south in Harad? Does anything exist out across the sea? Its purely visual appeal outside, even a fantasy map shares the greatest attribute of the real ones: the ability in inspire wonder.

I suppose the true beauty of maps lies in the map that is the least like art of all: Google Earth. Almost entirely devoid of human input, Google Earth is naught but a collection of images serving to display our world. But take a moment to open the program, if you have it. Zoom out really far, until the whole brown and blue globe is just a sphere on the screen. Then begin zooming back in, watching as the continents acquire definition, as borders become coloured in, as city names appear out of thin air and roads begin to criss-cross the land. Watch as grey blurs over the land become cities, as 3-D buildings spring out of nothingness, and tiny toy cars begin to dot the landscape. At the last, enter Street View, and take a moment to realize that in mere seconds you went from a view of 7 billion humans to the view from one human’s naked eye. So much achievement, education, ingenuity, and simple hard work – all so, for a few seconds, you could zoom through the sky, watching colours become cities and mountains and flitting over the all human existence. If art is that which makes you wonder, that which leaves you in awe and inspired to ask ever more about the world we live in – well then, a map is the greatest art of all.


Follow me on Twitter: @LiamTheSaint



2 thoughts on “The Art of Cartography

  1. In just a few paragraph, the writer has captured the importance, power, and beauty of maps. The author puts into words what every map lover knows to be true, but may not be able to articulate so poetically. This article deserves a wider audience. National Geographic might be a good venue. I myself would like to quote this author, but not as LIAMTHESAINT (help, please). If the author would like to contact me, my email is below. I am also on Google Plus (+Vicky Gallardo) where I have shared the link to this article and select quotation.

    Posted by Vicky Gallardo | January 16, 2013, 4:04 pm
  2. Terrific post, truly, Liam. You do an eloquent and inspiring job of presenting maps and their ability to create visions of our worlds and ourselves that are a form of art that has doubtless inspired much of humankind’s self-concept since time immemorial. I love your concluding paragraph, as well, and the invitation to play with Google Earth and your characterization of that sense of “…wonder which leaves you in awe and inspired to ask ever more about the world we live in,” that feeling that people have always known in encountering the best maps. Nice work!

    Posted by bryanjack | January 17, 2013, 4:21 am

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