Can Maps Be Art?

Maps, particularly old maps, are ‘in’. As the high street clambers for everything that is vintage, maps have become a part of that movement. From map design dresses in House of Fraser to cartographic bed sheets in Debenhams, maps are part of our everyday graphic language.

If we watch any news report, one cannot but notice how important maps are in our understanding of reality and subsequently important in the transmission of perceived realities. And besides, who doesn’t have memories of navigating through miles of uninhabited land on geography school trips with nothing but a compass and a tablecloth sized Ordinance Survey map? Even as I write at my desk, I look up to a 1930’s Allday’s Standard Map of the City of Birmingham tacked on my wall.

The desire to map is as old as the desire to create art. Some of the earliest wall carvings appear to be graphic representations of the surrounding physical environment (for example, the Bedolina Petroglyph in Italy is dated at C.1500 BC). Google, in their plan for global info-graphic domination recently claimed to have compiled a perfect map of the world (Google Earth and Google Maps). Not so, says map historian Jerry Brotton in his May 2013 article in the Guardian emphatically titled Google, there is no such thing as ‘the perfect map’.

Brotton continues,

“Throughout history, mapmakers have promised “perfect” world maps that give us what we want, when and where we want it… World maps are always made with the subjective and ideological beliefs and prejudices of their makers.”

Every map carries its own set of values and prior understanding of the world that then becomes a frame in which the physical world is flattened to fit into. This vectorization is then presented as the objective picture of the world, only perpetuating and legitimizing its own worldview. A map is both literally and figuratively a graphic worldview. It should also be noted that a two dimensional representation of a spherical object will always contain some kind of distortion (again, literally and figuratively).

But surely this is what we at Sputnik have been saying all along about art? That the created always carries the ideological signature of the creator even when unintended. Yes, in creating quality art, music, or even maps that embody a particular worldview, we disseminate our Christocentric perspective into the world of ideas.

Naturally this begs the question whether a map can or should be considered ‘art’. Not all maps are ‘art’ in the proper sense, some are just infographs designed to make complex data accessible and others are helpful guides through uninhabited lands. But the similarities between maps and art are certainly there.

Without a doubt, a map can qualify as a work of art, but I think the truer reality is the reverse: as much as maps can be considered art, art can be considered as mapping.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia’s short definition of the noun is more enlightening than the corresponding definition found in the Oxford Dictionary,

A map is a symbolic depiction highlighting relationships between elements of some space, such as objects, regions, and themes.

As a verb, to map is to display and highlight these symbolic relationships on a pictorial plan: that can take the form of little crosses for churches and tents for campsites, or in the subversion of Walter Crane’s Imperial Federation -Map of the World showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886, designed with the socialistic agenda of highlighting the plight of the dark-skinned colonized under the rule of white Britannia (recently displayed at the Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire exhibition and shown below).


In creating art, practitioners often map internal or external realities, the relationships of these places, objects, or themes, and then present to the world the ‘perfect map’. This can be as overt as Stephen Walter’s Nova Utopia (2013), a contemporary revision of Thomas Moore’s Utopia initially illustrated by Ambrosius Holbein in 1518 (below). In Walter’s map, the paradisiacal island has been capitalized and turned into a tourist destination. Witty and fastidiously drawn, the print serves as a critical commentary on modern British life and traces the journey of veins of thought through the centuries of western life.


How are we as Christians and artists to map the world, both the physical and the symbolic around us? Are we to join with the prophet in chapter four of the book of Ezekiel and create a small-scale model ‘map’ of Jerusalem’s impending siege, coupling our creation with symbolic acts in the public realm? Or are we to join with the Apostle John with his visions of the utopian map of the Regeneration?

As we create our pictures, our songs, our poems, and our crafts, I believe that understanding our art-making through the lens of map-making and highlighting symbolic relationships through our practice, we can begin to truly participate with Christ in his re-creative work of the new mappa mundi. 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.” –Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

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