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Art & Signs

2011 January 10
tags: ,
by Tedb0t

Following is a paper from 2008 entitled “Art & Signs,” exploring the relationship between semiotics, semiosis and the interpretation of art.


Ted Hayes

As abstractions go, the word and idea “art” could easily weigh in as one of the most widely varied, variously interpreted, hotly debated and bitterly fought-over designations in common use.  It is a pattern that, like many abstractions, can be wielded naturally and intuitively and yet utterly defy explanation or description.

All languages feature these kinds of words—signs that refer to some kind of an idea, as opposed to this or that object, or a particular manifestation of something.  But they are only features toward one end of a continuum of signs, those whose signifieds are themselves vast networks of other signs.  The words that don’t ordinarily inspire much debate—hammer, rock, glass—are still highly interpretable, but have comparatively narrow definitions; networks that are comprised of a smaller number of signifieds.

Understood in terms of patterns, the semantic war zone that is a word like “art” can be elucidated more clearly and scientifically than aesthetic philosophy has traditionally offered.  Indeed, much is made of it by each of us, every day, without us having to even consciously consider the term or its implications, thanks to our uniquely developed neural equipage.

The human brain is an astonishingly efficient pattern-recognition machine.  Even small, simple neural networks easily learn to pick out potentially complex patterns from noisy data, and I believe art to be one of the noisiest datasets that is even remotely definable.  There are almost endless examples to consider and weigh, and despite the equally varied definitions and opinions on the subject, there still seems to be a base level of consensus that allows us nevertheless to communicate about it.

I contend that there is a fundamental “pleasure” feedback to successful pattern recognition and completion that contributes to an artwork’s ability to generate interest and aesthetic responses.  These responses are not evaluative, but rather pave the way for evaluation as a secondary effort; they are an initial “gut reaction” that may be indistinct or inexplicable.

1. Semiotics, Convention & Society

The idea of “abstraction” often confounds linguist and the layperson alike.  When confronted with the task of defining “justice,” for instance, one must prepare for an elaborate and likely difficult philosophical digression, and for good reason: the word signifies a vast array of detailed signifieds, each of which must be understood on their own, entailing a long chain of requisite knowledge.  Consider a common and abstract word such as “beauty.”

Like all linguistic signs, the word “beauty” signifies only by learned convention: as a child develops, he or she will encounter the word now and then in different contexts and from different people.  “You look beautiful,” a mother exclaims, connoting goodness and pleasure.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” asks a friend, referring to an item of clothing perhaps, or an image, and such a rhetorical question actually implies or states that the interrogator believes that the item in question is, in fact, beautiful.  The word is also learned by learning what it is not. A child’s peer could be heard to remark on the ugliness of some other poor child; that the subject in question is “not beautiful.”  Flowers and the actresses on TV are beautiful; toads and story villains are not.

The minute properties and characteristics that each usage of the sign collects build up to what is taken to be the meaning of the sign.  At any given time, the meaning of a particular sign is the network of references and properties accrued by that individual’s entire lifetime of experience.

None of the above examples are endemic to the written or spoken sign “beauty”—it is a process common to all signs.  This framework of a sign’s structure was first advanced by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who proposed that a sign consist of a signifier and a signified, and that the signifier is inherently arbitrary.  The philosopher Charles Peirce developed similar systems; but both offer useful approaches to and models of human language and its sociocultural implications.  The following proposals are my own, but borrow from both semiologists.

“Concrete” sign “Abstract” sign

Concrete or “simple” signs are those whose signifiers refer to a small number of signifieds.  Iconic and indexical signs, to use Charles Peirce’s semiotic taxonomy, are more fundamentally concrete than symbolic signs, which by definition have arbitrary signifiers.

An icon is a sign in which “the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified.” (Chandler, 2002)  Icons include portraits, cartoons, scale-models, et cetera.  An index, in contrast, is “directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified” and is not arbitrary.  The index is a link that can be inferred, such as smoke that implies fire, tastes that imply certain foods, signals and pointers, et cetera.

The most common linguistic sign is symbolic in nature—its signifier is completely arbitrary and bears no causal link to its signified.  This most fundamental aspect of the symbol’s nature directly results in a profoundly important characteristic of linguistic signs: that their meanings are understood only by convention, an emergent process in which the language use of a number of individuals coalesce into a broader pattern that allows that language to effectively communicate ideas.  We will return to the importance and implications of convention later.

Any sign consists of a signifier that in some way, whether learned or observed causally, indicates a signifier, which can be another sign.  A representationally accurate signifier such as a drawing or photograph indicates fewer and more specific signs than a “vague” signifier, and thus the more concrete we perceive it to be.  A depiction of a chair signifies a commonly understood and observed object, whereas visual patterns within clouds are highly interpretable (abstract).  A photograph of a chair signifies even more directly, as it is both a representation of a chair and an indexical trace of an actual, real chair that existed at one time in a particular configuation.  Symbolic signifieds referred to by a given sign’s semantic network, however, are learned and therefore not intrinsic to the sign.  Strictly speaking, even the processes of recognition called on with iconic and indexical signs must be learned at one time by the basic neural systems of the developing brain.

Though an image of a pipe, for instance, can be seen as “representing” smoke or smoking, or Magritte’s un-pipe as representing Magritte, art, or sarcasm, all of these are learned relationships that cannot be counted on to have a guaranteed consensus among their viewers/readers.

Abstraction is the result of a large semantic topology, where any individual sign in the network is itself a network that refers to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands more signs.  Each sign in the network can be seen as a property of the signifier it is recalled by.  All symbolism and metaphor is essentially the comparison of properties between a signifier and a signified: “lamb” as symbol may come to be understood as representing gentleness, innocence and purity because the animal is incapable of conscious violence in the human sense.  An image of a green, leafy tree might be used to symbolize growth, abundance and prosperity, and yet a desert culture would not even recognize the signifier much less interpret it in that way.

The inherent challenge in the analysis of an abstract sign is that the more potential signifiers in the network, the less consensus there is likely to be about the sign as a whole, but it is this very indefinition that gives rise to the vast multiplicity of readings that artwork is consciously or subconsciously valued for.  The more potential signification it offers, the more a reader has to contemplate, and the more patterns that can be completed, the greater the reward.

To further elucidate this thesis, I propose some useful terminology of my own.

2. Data, Metadata & Value

In the interest of understanding the contemplation of an artwork and the reactions it may or may not give rise to, we must first consider what is knowable about the artwork: an “aesthetic epistemology.”

An artwork’s data or dataset consists of the perceivable artwork as presented.  The dataset is the totality of its delimited presentation: all distinguishable signs within a contextually or consensually determined boundary of the artwork.

An artwork’s metadata consists of all other knowledge immediately related to the artwork, i.e., artist statements and biographical information, all of which are subject to questioning or interpretation themselves.

The value of an artwork is constructed by a given viewer or reader as she perceives and contemplates (reads) the data that the artwork presents, merges it with any metadata the reader may be aware of, and forms an internal representation of the work.  This phenomenological assembly is a two-fold process of pattern-recognition and pattern-formation.  Signs within and without the artwork activate the neural traversal of the networks they signify, and the consolidation of new pattern observations modify existing networks to form new ones.

Like many activities, the physiological gratification of pattern-recognition, pattern-matching and pattern-completion is what lends the contemplation of the artwork its pleasure.  Artworks with a rich dataset and dense network of interrelationships with other signs—whether internal or external to the work itself—will therefore give the reader “more to go on,” and produce a greater potential for pleasure.

It is not at all uncommon for a reader to describe a “resonance” or “identification” with an artwork or its features.  This is one of the clearest examples of pattern-recognition at work, and one of the best cases to support the pattern-pleasure hypothesis.  In this process, observed patterns within the artwork combine with and complete existing patterns known to the reader, forming a denser network than an “inaccessible” or “difficult” artwork.

The latter provides so little knowable, perceivable data that neural provocation never occurs, or doesn’t progress far enough to mesh with any other networks.  This poverty of information can be a primary factor in an artwork’s evaluation, and is likely to produce an ambiguous or lukewarm reaction such as “I neither liked it nor disliked it; it just didn’t do anything for me.”

Evaluation is a secondary process that draws on the interaction of the reader’s experience (their lifetime of neural patterns) with the artwork’s composition of data, metadata and any symbolic resonance therein.  The judgement of a work of art—whether it is good or bad—presupposes the existence of an external (“objective”) standard of judgement that is actually determined by convention and consensus.
3. Composition, Coherence & Complexity

The composition of an artwork is the structure of its data and the relationships of its features, whether visual-spatial, temporal, or otherwise.  The organization of features of a painting or placement of objects in an installation constitutes its composition.  Like systems of symbols, the compositional relationships of a piece form their own internal sign-networks.

What I have described is a framework for further study.  I believe we are at a point where empirical, scientific inquiry and new methods of neural study and observation can begin to answer questions that were heretofore solely within the domain of philosophy.

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One Response
  1. January 27, 2012

    You should read up on Wittgenstein’s family resemblances and paradigmatic examples – lots of relevant stuff as regards networks of meaning.

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