Thursday, September 9, 2010

Semiotics and Art History

The Bal and Bryson reading starts off by defining semiotics as the theory of sign and sign use. The Oxford English Dictionary defines semiotics as the science of communication studied through the interpretation of signs and symbols as they operate in various fields, esp. language. The audience of this piece is a very narrow audience. It is important to note that this piece came from Journal called The Art Bulletin. The audience is assumed to be very scholarly and well versed in famous artists and art works, as many examples of famous art and artists are presented throughout the article.
It is also important to notice the organization of the article. The authors, Bal and Bryson did a very nice job organizing the article into 8 subsections. Each subsection is titled which gives the reader a hint at what is soon to come. They also occasionally “sign-post,” which is helpful because it reminds the reader what has already been discussed and often times explains what will be discussed in the rest of the article.
Section 1 is all about context. One particularly interesting quote about context came from the introduction: “Context…is a text itself, and it thus consists of signs that require interpretation. What we take to be positive knowledge is the product of interpretative choices.” This related back to what Berger said in the “Ways of Seeing” article. In section 1, it is important to note that context can always be extended. Looking at art is a process because context is endless. Context from one moment in time and place is completely different than context in any other moment or place. Section 2 is titled “Senders”. In relation to semiotics, this section emphasizes that signs are sent out. It is interesting to consider what other things can be considered “senders”; maybe writers could be considered senders. This section also says “the ‘author’ is essentially transparent, like a window through which we look to see the causal factors that helped to produce the work.” The problem of the author is not so different from the problem of context – potentially infinite regressions and expansions. Section 3 is titled Receivers, and it is important to note that signs are received. Receivers could be readers that read writings. The audience is part of the communicative chain. Everyone has his or her own personal background that affects how he or she approaches a ‘text’. Each individual’s approach is their own ‘code’. “Different groups possess different codes for viewing even the same work”. Section 4 and 5 cover two traditions of semiotics that stem from the famous works of Charles Sanders Pierce (4) and Ferdinand de Saussure (5). Pierce was an American philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was educated as a chemist and employed as a scientist for 30 years. It is largely his contributions to logic, mathematics, philosophy, and semiotics that are appreciated today. He saw logic as the formal branch of semiotics (of which he is a founder). In section 4, it is important to note “the symbolic sign in Pierce’s theory must not be confused with the many different and often vague colloquial meanings of the word ‘symbol’”. The most important passage from section 4 is: “Pierce’s semiotic theory is relevant for the study of art because it helps us think about the aspects of the process of art in society, in history, in a way that is not bound up with the artist’s intention.” This quote directly states Bal and Bryson’s argument. (Section 5) Saussure was a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in linguistics in the 20th century. Saussure is widely considered to be one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics and of semiotics, and his ideas have had a monumental impact throughout the humanities and social sciences. An interesting quote from section 5, “the vocabulary of our languages is able to scan for only a fraction of the hues that a painting presents us” make a point of how complex a painting is. We don’t even have words in our vocabulary to describe some of the hues in a painting. Also, I thought this quote was fantastic: “to think of semiosis as process and as movement is to conceive the sign not as a thing but as an event, the issue being not to delimit and isolate the one sign from other signs but to trace the possible emergence of the sign in a concrete situation, as an event in the world. Section 6 discusses Psychoanalysis as a Semiotic Theory. Psychoanalysis is defined here as “a mode of reading the unconscious and its relationship to expression, and as such it is a semiotic theory. Also, an interesting metaphor is presented; “If psychoanalysis, tends to take on the status of a master code that can be “applied” to art, one can also argue that the critic is the patient who does the talking, while the work of art is the analyst who orients the analytic work.” There is a lot of discussion about comparisons to the analogical model throughout Section 6. Some key words to notice throughout this passage include specification, overt theme, perspective, allegorical, hermeneutic model, condensation, displacement, gaze, symbolic, imaginary, anamorphous  The most important thing to note about Section 7, “Narratology”, is that “narrative semiotics provides insight into visual narrative, as distinct from analysis of visual allusions to verbal narratives.” To conclude, Section 8 does a great job of reminding us what we have discussed thus far and summarizes it us for us. “A sign, then, is not a thing but, as we have said, an event that takes place in a historically and socially specific situation. Sign events occur in specific circumstances and according to a finite number of culturally valid, conventional, yet not unalterable rules, which semiotics calls codes. The selection of those rules and their contribution leads to specific interpretative behavior. That behavior is socially frames, and any semiotic view that is to be socially relevant will have to deal with this framing, precisely on the basis of the fundamental polysemy of signs and the subsequent possibility of dissemination. In then end, there is no way around considerations of power, inside and outside the academy.”

No comments:

Post a Comment