Semiotics in Art History

Sign (semiotics), Semiotics, Art history

The Oxford English Dictionary defines semiotics as ‘’[the] science of communication studied through interpretation of signs and symbols as they operate in various fields, especially language.” Semiology is characterized as ‘’the science of signs which studies the life of signs within society.’’ Signs include, among others, sounds, images, words, odors, objects; they are concepts that stand for something else in a system of signification. They allow us to communicate a concept or an idea while it is physically absent. In art history, the simplest description of semiology consists of the translation of an image into words. Two prominent founders of the contemporary sign theories are Peirce and Saussure. Although they focus on the same methodology, both philosophers explain the production of meaning through sign in different manners. American philosopher Charles Peirce explains semiotics through a triadic structure, consisted of the sign, the interpretant, and the logic. The interpretant is defined by what the viewer imagines in his mind when he sees the sign. It is a subjective and variant component of Peirce’s theory. Swiss philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure on the other hand explains the methodology through a dyadic stricture, consisted of the signified and the signifier. The signifier consists of the physical existence of the sign, as the signified is the mental concept of perception. Semiotics is a widely debated methodology for art history. Signs aren’t naturally attributed a meaning, and an infinite amount of meanings and interpretations may be attributed to a work of art in the semiotics perspective. It is the viewer’s society and culture that usually form the meaning of these signs, and thus ‘’bias’’ the viewer’s interpretation. Two art historians encouraging semiotics and semiology are Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson. Their article ‘’Semiotics and Art History’’ discusses and critiques different practices of art history that split to positivist views of...
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