Part Four – Exercise 4.1: Barr’s Information System

Look again at Alfred Barr’s chart for Cubism and Abstract Art and say briefly how it might be understood as information in a system. Briefly compare it to Minard’s map (previous).

Barr’s chart is an infographic of Abstract Art built on symbolic words for avant-garde art movements that are compared and contrasted by similarities and distinctions. The system is language and the words the signifiers of meaning.

Chart of modernist art history by Alfred H. Barr

Fig. 1: Chart of modernist art history by Alfred H. Barr

The common denominators are: avant garde art, painting, abstract art. The hierarchy resembles Bateson’s notion that difference denotes classification as hierarchy (Bateson, 1971, p. 457).  The information provided is differentiated by classes of difference: time, origin, and difference in degree (visual and formal aspects).

The context is articulated by past artists and movements. The conception of this chart by its appearance as a ‘map’ of a real ‘territory’ i.e. the real art world, makes it persuavise and objectively convincing.

One could even see visual pathways of transformation as pathways of transformation of difference, as Bateson explained his conception of mind and difference (ibid, p.461).

Overall, this chart is a visualization of abstract information, arbitrary and symbolic terms that denote distinction between groups of artworks. It is a theory built on language and visual i.e. formal aspects of paintings. What is most real in this chart are the names of real person and places in Europe. Other terms e.g. ‘negro art’ are mere terms for differentation and separation, for the other that the one is not. Meaning derives from the relational connection between signifiers, differentiated by contrast.

Charles Joseph Minard (1781 – 1870) a French civil engineer and known for his infographics. I looked up infographics during my research in part 2 on Barr’s Chart, not knowing that this would come back in this part.

Minard’s Cartes Figurative des Pertes successives en Hommes de l’Armée Francaise dans la campange de Russie 1812-13 of Napoleon Russia invasion in 1812-13 shows visually the spatial and temporal death rate of soldiers. Napoleon departed with 422.000 men and only 10.000 returned. The two-dimensional representation visualizes six different kind of data: size of the army, mapped geographical location (latitude, longitude) of the army, direction of movement (advance and retreat), the location relative to specific dates, and the temperature along the moving path.

Comparision Barr – Minard:

Minard’s chart is similar to Barr’s chart as both are infographics, using visual mapping of temporal information. Both are transforming difference into a two dimensional map. The persuasiveness of Minard’s chart is built similar to Barr’s chart on juxtaposition of differences to convey a sense of similiarity i.e. the evolution of information along the timescale is constructed in such a way as to convey an intended message. In the case of Barr that art will move towards geometrical and non-geometrical abstract art, and in case of Minard that low temperatures resulted in high death rate.

Minard’s chart is different to Barr’s chart as it incorporates not only temporal information, but also spatial. Is Barr’s chart rather guided by symbolic meaning of terms as common denominators for differentiated avant-garde movements, then is Minard’s chart guided by facts (number of people, location, temperature) to convey the message through visualization. Minard’s chart is built on difference in kind (location, temperature) and resembles more a map of a territory.


Minard, C. J. (1869) Cartes Figurative des Pertes successives en Hommes de l’Armée Francaise dans la campange de Russie 1812-13

Fig.2: Minard, C. J. (1869) Cartes Figurative des Pertes successives en Hommes de l’Armée Francaise dans la campange de Russie 1812-13


  • Infographics are maps of a virtual or real territory built on difference. The difference is often, as in these two cases, converging towards a simple intended message.
  • Information in those maps are visualized differences that makes a difference in understanding and perceived meaning for the reader. As Bateson stated, difference denotes classification and information is grouped in hierarchical order.
  • Through symbolic signs (e.g. art movement) and/or through indexical signs (e.g. temperature, location) meaning is conveyed and deferred.





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