How to understand an artwork or art from the aspect of semiotics?

When I see the introduction of this course, what interested me is studying the artworks from the aspects of semiotics. The readings introduce two models of the sign, and by explaining and combining the two models, I have a basic sense of what semiotics is, and the case study of Van Gogh assist in understanding how to understand an artwork in a semiotics way. I have three questions about art and semiotics.

  1. How artworks embody the previous interpretations and interpretants and how the past interpretation influences it’s meaning today.

For Peirce, interpretant is not interpretation but the sense of the sign, and it has three levels: immediate interpretant, dynamical interpretant, and final or normal interpretant. In the first level, people understand or interpret the artworks by the appearance- the painting strokes, the frame, the material, the genre. However, the artworks are not only the artwork themselves, but like the vehicles for meaning, and therefore, people interpret artifacts as signs by understanding culture background, previous interpretations, and the contexts artworks exist. But why and how the artworks have meanings? How artifacts, such as Mona Lisa,Napoleon Crossing the Alps,The Fifer,Sunflowers, could become “masterpiece” or the treasure of a nation or even worldwide? How to understand the principle and meaning of how the museums select, collect and preserve the artifacts?

  1. How an artwork become meaningful with the elements or symbols on it?

Words or letters do not have value or meanings, and it is the value of words. Elements of artworks, in my perspective, do not have the value, but the combination of different elements make the value, dialogues, and meanings. There are lots of symbols or elements in artworks, such as ravens, cats, mirrors, snakes… what are those elements stand for? How could the combination of those elements make the painting meaningful? How people understand or have a sense of the meaning of the paintings when they see those symbols?








  1. How an artwork or artworks combine the three types of signs? How interpreters interpret artworks for the museums’ visitors?

There are three types or modes of the sign: symbol, icon, and index. The icon is the most motivated sign because it is not so conventional, not that determined by restricted symbolic, and do not need a common agreement of the meanings. However, even though artworks are iconic signs and do not require “learning of an agreed convention”,  they have specific meanings in the context of culture, history, and society, and require words to interpret them. Therefore, how to use language, a symbolic sign, to interpret artwork, and how to use symbols and languages to assist people to understand the artworks or limit visitors’ meaningless imagination? I saw lots of labels, books, introductions for the artworks in museums, are they useful or helpful for the visitors to understand the meaning of the artworks?


  1. Goya. (1787–1788). Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga[Oil on canvas].The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  2. Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics.
  3. Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.