Semiotics in Art History

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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 knowledge. Given semiotics applies to various fields of study, both art historians believe that it avoids privileging language over other methods when studying a work. They emphasize how semiotic tools could further one’s analysis, compared to other methodologies in art history. They do so by discussing the three related central issues concerning art historians; the context, the sender, and the receiver. The following paper will discuss these three key issues related to an artwork, and juxtapose them to other methods in art history, in order to demonstrate how they compare to semiotics, and how semiotic challenges what these theories propose. In ‘’Semiotics and Art History,’’ Bal and Bryson discuss context as a first key term in their perspective. In the semiotic perspective, this term encompasses both the context of the work’s production, along with the context of the commentary in the art historical discourse. The former will be mostly discussed throughout this paper. In the semiotics methodology, it is said that a work is placed into context when ‘’a body of material is assembled and juxtaposed with the work in question in the hope that such contextual material will reveal determinants that make the work of art what it is’’(pp. 175-176). The focus is set on the internal structure of the work, rather than on the process involved for interpretation. This is implied when the text states that ‘’the meaning of a work of art is determined by a set of internal oppositions and differences mapped out within the static system’’(p. 176). The objective is to seek a structure within the artwork. To be sure, in the opinion of Bal and Bryson, it is impossible to produce a truthful context, as it is ‘’biased’’ and informed by the time and place of the art historian constructing and interpreting this context of the artwork in question. Thus, context becomes a phenomena that is produced by the viewer, as it is produced by signs, which also need to be interpreted. In response,...
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