Art Thought

There was a very interesting interview a couple weeks ago on Science Friday, with the data visualization pioneer, statistician and sculptor Edward Tufte. As you could guess by that collection of descriptions – from statistician to sculptor, Tufte has thought a lot about crossing boundaries and disciplines. One of the benefits of Arts Education is that it helps students to see connections between disciplines more clearly, a very useful skill in our modern climate of technical specializations, where the idea of “interdisciplinary” studies is on the ascendance.

Tufte specifically speaks to some commonalities between the disciplines of science and art:

“…science and art, at least at a high level, have in common intense seeing, bright-eyed observing and deep curiosity.”

Beyond theory, he mentions a project of his that brings science and art into direct contact, a series of sculptures of physicist Richard Feynman’s diagrams of quantum electrodynamics.

Tufte also talks about a current project of his called “The Thinking Eye,” (a title borrowed from a collection of Paul Klee’s teaching notebooks, with material drawn from his lectures at the Bauhaus). To me, this title speaks to art-making as a cognitive process. One of the reasons art programs get cut in times of lean budgets is that the arts are seen as less “academic” – they are sometimes viewed as breaks from the “real work” of school.

Of course, if art is taught with integrity, it’s not a form of “mental recess,” and not in contrast to “real thinking” – the arts are modes of thinking unto themselves. Tufte talks about trying out a sort of “seeing exercise,” where he deliberately tries to allocate space in his brain to see more clearly. When he’s asked whether seeing better is related to thinking more clearly, he says:

“Well, I sure think so… In some ways, seeing is thinking. The light comes in through the lens and is focused on the retina. And the retina is doing – is pretty much working like brain cells. It’s processing. And then the two optic nerves are sending what we now know are 20 megabits a second of information back to the brain… 


And so the seeing right then is being transformed into information, into thinking, right as that step from the retina to the brain. And the brain is really busy, and it likes to economize. And so it’s quick to be active and jump to conclusions. So if you’re told what to look for, you can’t see anything else. So one thing is to see, in a way, without words.”

As an expert in data visualization, of course it’s Tufte’s job to tell the viewer “what to look for” – but this speaks to his integrity as a designer. You have to be able to see what’s really there in order to abstract it in a meaningful way, to make sure you’re genuinely visualizing reality, and not some figment of your biases.

Our world has become more and more data-driven, from the way sports teams acquire players, to the way complicated financial instruments function (or fail to function, as the case may be), to the way weather data is compiled to create models of climate change, to the way companies harvest the information we leave like breadcrumbs on social networking sites. Visualizing and interpreting that data has become a crucial component of navigating our world – doing it well has both utilitarian and ethical ramifications. Tufte implies that artists have an important part to play in that process. Towards the end, he’s asked “Is there data that can’t be visualized well?” He replies:

“Not if you allow artists into the arena.”

The full interview is well worth listening to – you can stream it by clicking here.

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