How Do We Understand A Painting

The first time I saw the Rothko’s painting, I thought it is a flat canvas of The accumulation of red lumps and you can do it on your own Google. And I asked what is the point of such pictures? There’s nothing to see.

Later, I have learned this kind of painting reflects the emotion in the depth of our heart. It displays pure and strong emotion. From this perspective, I think my learning of the background of this painting is worked as “prior interpretants” (Irvine, Introduction to a Peircean Visual Semiotics, 20). I have learned the meaning of this painting which was interpreted by the previous people and I was framed into this framework.

And my second experience of appreciating Rothko’s painting is similar with the experience describing how people view The Starry Night.  In the Introduction to a Peircean Visual Semiotics: De-Blackboxing Meaning-Making in Art and Visual Media, it was said that the first idea come up to our mind is not the “actual scene“ of a night sky, but is this painting resembles Van Gogh’ s painting. When my second time to saw the Rothko’s painting, I first realized that it was distinct Rothko’s style. And Professor Irvine in this article then maintained that we usually “correlate the features and identity of the artwork with symbolic correspondences in the larger cultural encyclopedia.” (Irvine, Introduction to a Peircean Visual Semiotics, 21). It is true that I then applied what I have learned before to my view of the painting. I started to feel the emotion that it wants to convey. I felt the power of the bright red, sucking everyone in. I just walked slowly towards the painting, my heart beating fast; I couldn’t take my eyes off the picture. I stood staring at the picture for five minutes. There is no way to get that immersion from a book. In this room, all the beautiful paintings containing strong emotions were around us and I realized the significance and beauty of this kind of painting.

This experience made me think of how we appreciate a piece of art. When appreciating a work of art, we should not treat it as a picture in isolation. We should pay attention not only to the work itself, but also to the time and environment in which it is created, and even to the position of the artist who created it. Art appreciation is not just a matter of looking good with our eyes. It is dialogic and the dialogical responses should be took  in the society (Irvine, Introduction to a Peircean Visual Semiotics, 14). This appreciation includes our comprehensive understanding of the artwork itself, the art market, time for this artwork, etc. By putting them altogether, we can get a more complete and profound understanding and experience.

According to Danto, art works exist in the “artworld”. To achieve any kind of status, a work of art must be in an “atmosphere of theory”.

The success of a painting depends the society and culture it belongs to. In the certain context, we can appreciate certain artworks. In the past, people admired La Source by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. This painting is an famous instance of Neoclassicism, using soft and varied colors and soft curves to show the classical beauty of female body. And now Fountain by Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp is accepted.  Because Dadaism is a reflection of the times and of the disruptive power of the first world war on many people’s old values. Since it is difficult to find practical meaning in the disordered world, we simply take this kind of disorder as the nature of the world, and use it to subvert the old aesthetic system that maintains the old order. Although these two paintings have the similar name, they symbolized different culture and thought. They are in their own atmosphere.


To this extent, we can also say that the painting works as “an interface to the cumulative deep Remix that makes it possible” ( Irvine, Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality, 20). It’s a meaning system defined by society that defines people’s aesthetics. At the same time, we can learn the culture and history of the society from the painting.





  • Whether the art need to be understood by the public?
  • If an artwork cannot be appreciated by majority (even well-educated ones), then where does its value or even aesthetic value come from? Can we say that these things are just entertainment for a very, very small number of people?
  • How can we understand the relationship between Beauty and Art? Whether a piece of “art” need to be beautiful?
  • What is the boundary of the art? What factors influence the boundary?