Data or Art?

A brief update: I wanted to note the passing of Ellsworth Kelly, whose 7 decade career produced some of the most interesting and subtle works of contemporary American art. Several of his pieces inspired this blog post, and I have updated it 2 years later with one additional example.

I recently gave a talk at NerdNite Seattle on the beauty of data (deck will be posted to slideshare soon). A main point of my talk was that good/effective data analysis (not simply limited to data visualization) draws from both art and science. From science comes a sense of objectivity, rationality, and gritty truth. From art we take wonder, introspection, and aesthetic. This interplay between science and art is what sparks my interest in the "quantified self", and I believe the growing popularity of data science in everyday life.
Good data analysis, like good art, should cause you to quietly reflect on what the subject means to you, how it includes your life.
In data visualization we also have an obvious parallel with art, and many of the best visualizations are constructed using principles (and often by practitioners of) graphic design. Many examples can be found on Reddit's awesome /r/DataIsBeautiful. However, often it seems that people are more worried about how a graphic looks, and less about what question it addresses. A celebration of data visualization as a sort of pop art has sprung up. This isn't a bad thing, but I find it interesting.

In my NerdNite talk I decided to play a game, which I will reproduce here for fun: Art or Data? I have chosen a few select examples of data and art that look similar (I've also cropped/scaled them to be extra misleading). Your job is to guess which panel is which. Answers follow below the fold...





Now the answers!


A = Art: "14 Billions" (2010) by Tom├ís Saraceno. Here's a nice writeup about it.

B = Data: 4 hours of mouse tracks captured by "IOGraphica" while using Eclipse.


A = Data: Alice in Wonderland from Jaz Parkinson's 2012 colour signature project.

B = Art: "White Black Red" (2004) by Ellsworth Kelly. More on this famous American artist.

Here's the full version of Alice in Wonderland:


A = Data: Best Seller Book Covers by James Davenport (me!) See the full resolution version

B = Art: "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance III" (1952) by Ellsworth Kelly

The full version of Spectrum Colors:


A = Art: "Seine" (1951) by Ellsworth Kelly

B = Data: Search for exoplanet transit timing variations, by Ethan Kruse, from the NASA Kepler Science Conference II (2013)

Full screenshot of the data visualization here:


I'm the first to point out these are all highly biased examples, both of art and data visualization. To wit, nobody would confuse the Mona Lisa with a histogram. Also I cheated a little... BUT, these examples emphasize how blurred the lines between art and visualization really can be. If you can think of any other good examples of art and data being indistinguishable, please drop me a line!

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