Cartography as an Art and a Science?

Published in Cartographic Journal 32:6. pp. 3-10.

A longer version of this paper is available...

ABSTRACT: Regardless of changing official definitions, many cartographers continue to think of cartography in terms of art and science. This paper critiques the use of the art/science dualism as a means of understanding cartography, particularly by those interested in reexamining the role of aesthetics, design, and visual expression in cartography. Two basic approaches to "art" and "science" in the context of cartography and information graphics are described along with their limitations. I argue that the manner in which the art/science dualism has been used in cartography does not stand up under close scrutiny and that attempts to strictly differentiate art and science have ended in confusion while simultaneously demeaning both art and science. I suggest that various and seemingly divergent trends including postmodern deconstruction, hypermedia, cognitive psychology, semiotics, geographical information systems, and visualization all point to a process oriented means of understanding cartography. Within this process, "art" and "science" serve a functionally similar role, informing the different ways in which we come to know and re-know our human and physical worlds.

KEYWORDS: Art, Science, Cartography, Cartographic Design


Cartography is considered as the science of preparing all types of maps and charts and includes every operation from original survey to final printing of maps (United Nations 1949, cited in Freitag 1993).

Cartography is the art, science and technology of making maps, together with their study as scientific documents and works of art (I.C.A in Meynen 1973).

Cartography is the discipline dealing with the conception, production, dissemination and study of maps (I.C.A. in Anonymous 1992).

The four and a half decades between the first international definition of cartography adopted by the United Nations and the recent definition devised by the International Cartographic Association (I.C.A.) have witnessed a varying role for the often vaguely defined yet important ideas of "art" and "science" in cartography. Cartography, by definition, was a "science" in 1949, an "art, science, and technology" in 1973, and is now neither an art nor a science. Yet changing definitions do not necessarily change the way cartographers think about cartography. Recent discussions about the nature of cartography have yet to forsake the notion of cartography as an art or a science or some combination of the two. Keates (1993 p. 201) suggests a path for future inquiry by arguing that "the important relationship between cartographic design and art has never received the same degree of attention [as that between cartographic design and science]." This interest in aesthetics, design, and visual expression in cartography - commonly categorized as its "artistic side" - is more broadly reflected in the popularity of Tufte s books on information design (1983, 1992). In both of these cases cartography (and information graphics in general) are understood to have an important "artistic" component which has been undervalued. There is, then, an important future role for the complex idea of "art" - however vaguely defined - in cartography, regardless of its omission from the most current I.C.A. definition.

In this paper I suggest that despite the vacillating role of "art" and "science" in official definitions of cartography, many cartographers not only still think in terms of this dualism, but also explicitly desire a rekindled focus on the array of aesthetic and design issues which are often categorized as "the art of cartography." I seek to examine the history of the art/science dualism in cartography and information graphics in general. Such an examination reveals distinct and important differences in how the art/science dualism is used, differences which still inform and shape thinking about cartography. My goal is to provide a basis from which to critically evaluate the way cartographers have used the idea of art and science to think about maps and cartography, and to elucidate some of the limitations and problems of the art/science dualism. Before we can heed the call of Keates and others to reconsider the role of what has been defined as art in cartography, we need to articulate how the idea of art and science have come to shape - and in some cases limit - our understanding of cartography.


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