James Elkins’ Idea Mapping Method

Note: This post, while long and somewhat rambling, was once longer and even more rambling. I excised a sizable intro, which, I hope, helps with readability. Unfortunately, the intro also added some useful context and was, if I do say so myself, snappily written and packed with insight. Typically, I came up with a half measure. I separated the intro out into a separate document. You can read it here. Read it if you’re interested or if you just plain old have too much time on your hands.

James Elkins of the University of Chicago is a leader in the type of art history I studied in school. He’s written a series of accessible and extraordinarily insightful books on the often overlooked practical influences on art, art history, and art education including What Painting Is, an examination of painters’ physical relationship with paint itself; Why Art Cannot Be Taught, a scathing dissection of college and graduate level art education, with a particular emphasis on the irrationality of critiques; and What Happened To Art Criticism, a look at the vast body of non-academic writing produced about art nowadays and why it is almost totally irrelevant to the creation and appreciation of art.

I just finished another book of his called Stories of Art in which he examines the diversity of different available histories of art from the classic western narrative of the triumph of perspective (like the one most people study in school) through a massive Russian anthology called “Universal History of Art” which includes, in its volume on the 20th century alone, chapters on, amongst others, Indonesian, Icelandic, Burmese, Scandinavian, and Ethiopian art.

Elkins starts, however, with personal histories of art. He proceeds through a series of exercises meant to make himself conscious of his own perspective and he invites the reader to follow along. The first stage is relatively open-ended brainstorming. He draws his own favorite art and artists arranged as a constellation of stars around the central moon (in Elkin’s case, “natural images”):

the history of art imagined as a field of stars
(click here for the full-size version)

The things that cluster around the center are more important to him and those around the edges are the eccentrics and outliers.

The goal here is self-representation:

To most people this constellation would be fairly meaningless or just quirky; but for me, it conjures the pattern of history that preoccupied me at the time [when it was drawn — ed.], and it does so surprisingly strongly: as I look at it, I find myself being pulled back into that mind-set.

In other words, the exercise helps with externalizing your own patterns of thought so you can, in turn, think about them, make connections amongst them, and find the gaps between them. Elkins also says that it could help you “loosen the grip of your education and start looking for the pattern that history has for you.”

I decided to try it. I didn’t go quite so far as to make a pretty little picture with stars and clouds. But I did manage to write down a bunch of the things and people that make up my visual aesthetic, the art I’ve studied or seen that’s made an impact on me:

(click here for the full-size version)

And do you know what? It worked. When I look at this list, I see something in common where maybe no one else would. At least in my head, all of these things match like the furnishings of a well-decorated house. I can see how new art that I come across (like Jochem Hendricks who I wrote about recently) fits into this pattern, which gives me a starting context for thinking about it. Also, I can see gaps in the pattern — areas that I know only by their general outline (like 19th Century commercial illustration and early-Renaissance painting) and should investigate further as well as artists or styles closely-related to those appearing here but with which I am unfamiliar.

The success of this exercise got me thinking about other areas in which I could apply it. In the last few years, my interest in technology has gone from near nothing to beginning to rival my absorption in art. I thought I might get a clearer picture of the shape of this interest, and especially of its gaps, by undertaking Elkins’ exercise again.

Instead of using my Moleskine for this one, I thought OmniOutliner might be more appropriate:

(click here for the full-size version)

Just like in the last case, this picture seems surprisingly coherent to me. Well, it’s a little more anal retentive, obviously. Like any good productivity nerd, I just couldn’t stop myself from dicking around in OmniOutliner for much longer than necessary, organizing the technical areas into a kind of map of my interests and connecting related ones with arrows.

What else can I say about this picture? For one, I can explain some of the connections that might not be obvious. For example, the line connecting “big games” and “municipal wifi” is Pac Manhattan, a class project of NYU ITP that used cell phones to play a giant round of human Pac Man in downtown New York. Which is also why Processing is nearby; it was invented at ITP. “Social networks” are connected to “big games” and “metaverse” through Massively Multiplayer Online Games like Second Life, as well as “frameworks (Ruby on Rails)” partially because of my experience in the social network of Rails developers but also because of how easy Rails makes it to create social networking sites on any subject (take, as a case study, Cuppin’ created by my office mate Peat for RailsDay 2006). Beyond the obvious technical relationships, there are personal experiences and ideas like these connecting all of the rectangles in my diagram.

I wonder a bit about what would go in the lower left corner of this picture where there is now nothing, what whole area I might be missing. And I wonder about the two unconnected rectangles (“lifehacks” and “nanotech (K. Eric Drexler)”). I put them near the areas to which I thought they were related, but I didn’t draw connecting arrows; I didn’t feel the links were strong enough. Interestingly, since I drew this diagram, I found out that K. Eric Drexler invented the term social software, so maybe that box should be at the top of the chart, or maybe the edges of the diagram are connected like those of a real Pac Man game.

Anyway, if you have an area of expertise that you’re looking to improve, if you want to figure out what direction to look for new and original ideas, making an Elkins Map might just point you right in the right direction. And, if it doesn’t do the trick, Elkins has two more exercises waiting for you: The history of art imagined as a map and The history of art imagined as a coastline.

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0 Responses to James Elkins’ Idea Mapping Method

  1. melvin becraft says:

    I read excerpts of Dr. Elkins’ book on images within images. He mentions Picasso’s Three Dancers and his Crucifixion painting but not Guernica.
    My book editions of 1983 and 1985 with later addenda shows Guernica’s hidden images. It’s title is:
    Picasso’s Guernica – Images within Images.
    Google search for: Melvin E. Becraft, Novacaster.
    That will present the entire book and addenda. It’s there free for anyone interested.
    I wish that one day Dr. James Elkins will find time to critically look at and critically comment on my book with addenda. It’s totally about hidden images and their meanings in Guernica.
    Melvin E. Becraft, author, age 77…

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