Category Archives: Week 6

Visual Semiotics Research Questions: Week 6

1.) In many various examples of artwork, there are often present and hidden signs and examples of semiotics within the work. Sometimes these signs can be noted right away, and others must be gained from understanding the underlying story that artwork tells, the historical time, the feelings of the artist, and the list goes on. If semiotics is a “science which studies the role of signs as a part of social life,” what are better ways to figuring out what particular roles of signs are, if the signs are not necessarily outwardly present? In other words, if there is a hidden sign we aren’t aware is there but that we should be pursuing, how do we decode this sign?

2.) In the Chandler reading, I found it interesting how the writer explained how language was important, if not the most crucial part into understanding semiotics. He then goes into the explanation of double articulation and uses the example of the English language to explain that the “language only has 4-50 elements of double articulation, yet can generate hundreds of thousands of words. It is by combining words in multiple ways that we can seek to render the particularity of experience. It is argued that works like film, photography, and painting, all semiotic systems, have this double articulation. My question is in understanding this idea of double articulation, how can it be argued that it doesn’t exist in art or film. If there are multiple ways we can seek to render an experience, then works of art should illicit multiple different feelings and experiences towards a particular piece, correct? Or is there one experience that the artist is looking to get from the audience, and any other experience or feeling is proved to be not truly understanding the work; yes or no?

3.) What is a sign to one person versus another? Who decides who can understanding the underlying semiotics and signs of a work? The artist? The native language of the person? The culture background? The museum? The placement of the work? What influences a person to understanding the signs?

4.) Who decides what is considered art or a symbol? There are hundreds if not thousands of museums throughout the world, each with pieces carefully curated and placed with a particular reason in mind. However, who or what decides what is a symbol of something? Who tells us that something is art? Is it the culture we are born in? The underlying symbols? The feelings it illicit or the lack of feelings? Something that stands out is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” It was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists for not being “art” because it was not created by Duchamp’s own hands. But who decides what makes the cut and what doesn’t? Why do some pieces make it into the glossy museums, and others like my own kindergarten abstract mobiles are fated for a life stuffed in a box in my parents basement?



Questions to answer when pursuing the meaning of a visual Artwork.

When we analyzing a visual Artwork, we are trying to understand to meaning of it, instead of just looking at an image, sculpture or installation. Parts in it and the Artwork as a whole, always represent something other than itself. And that is where Semiotic could help. Here are some questions I would like to figure out, in order to better understanding better understanding an Artwork practically.

  1. What do we expect from a “genre code”?

From my perspective, the genre code is some features share by all the works under a certain category. It is the common interpretant we could apply when analyzing works in this genre. It can help the audience to ignore the common default setting of a work, and make us to focus on the trait of itself. The genre code provides a context, not social one of the creation background or the artists’ lives, but the professional one which need to be understood first if you want to get the meaning of the painting. For example, if you want to comprehending an impressionism work, the prerequisite is that knowing the vague dots are painted intentional to represent the change of lights and color.

The reading this week talked about how individual works or a single representative artist may become a cluster of concepts. When we mentioned them, their name represents not only themselves, but also a style, a period, or a category. Are they exemplary parts of a genre, or are they become something parallel to the genre, and contains even richer representamen? What are their roles in the semiotic system of Artworks?

2. What is the “word” and “syntax” for a visual art?

Comparing to language or sound works, visual art doesn’t have certain time consequence. It generated difficulty when the audience is decoding the code. Lacking requirement of being lineal, visual artwork always make sense without a specific structure. As for artists, it means more liberty and space in working, the audience can’t understand the work by the aid of “syntax”. What is the “word” of visual art is also a significant question to answer. What is the minimal meaningful component? What is the boundary of our thought, in case that we over-interpreted an Artwork, and mistake a casual detail as a intentional one?

  1. To what extend is a token makes meanings different form the original work?

Of course, we feel different when we see work in person from watching it online. Our field has proved that. But we need to clarify two things: Frist, where are the differences come from? Is it generated from the delicate texture of brush tool, the size of the painting, “aura” of our distance to it? On the otherwise, could it come from the environment which is not part of the work itself? (For instance, the lightening and wall of the museum, the position a work is put, or the dialogue between a painting and other works nearby.) Second, does the gaps influent the meaning generated or not? This is related to the last question. When viewing an original work rather than a token, we could notice many details. However, are those details all generate meaning?

  1. Will the meaning just be accumulating or will change through the history?

In order to get the meaning of an artwork, we need to understand the social context for the creation of the artwork. For example, the case study of Morse includes his personal life, religious and political preference, as well as his academic background. Those historical events help us to understand his work, especially the House of Representatives. But through the history development, will those meanings change, or new meanings just accumulate on it?



  1. Since semiotics involves no foundational theoretical assumptions, why do museums typically interpret an artwork in one way? Shouldn’t there be multiple? Is there a way to interpret an artwork many ways without personal preferences clouding the system of meaning? As I mentioned in a previous post, curators have unintentional biases. Isn’t that a personal preference, even if unintended?
  2. How does language/word choice influence a person’s interpretation of an artwork? What about a translation? Does font choice have influence? Does comic sans transform the information from one of reliability to one of discredit?
  3. What interpretations from the past influence an interpretation today? What new information influences the system of meaning? (Chuck Close and presidential portrait)
  4. Can sign and symbol be used interchangeably? Can “semiotics” and “system of of meaning” be used interchangeably?
  5. Its interesting how a artist’s name can evoke a system of meaning, like “van Gogh” being characterized as an index or an icon. I never considered this association.

Research questions about Art and Semiotics

  1. Nearly every piece of work in the museum has an attached label placed for visitors to understand its name, author, socio-cultural background, and sometimes even meanings. This makes me wonder: How far should this explanation go? Should it just contain a certain amount of necessary information? Or should it be as comprehensive as possible?
  2. Will the existence of labels and explanations in museums (especially in modern art galleries) restrict peoples’ interpretation of artworks? Will they hinter people’s imaginations?
  3. Famous art pieces are always a great reference and base for remixing and re-creating something new (like the Starry Georgetown Night in Lauinger Library, and the video linked below.) Do these new re-creations alters the original meaning of these famous works? Or we should typically view them independently? Link: the elegant gentleman’s guide to knife fighting – animations –
  4. Does the interpretation of artwork require spacial and environmental specification? Since Visual representation is all about visual (or sight) descriptions of meaning, does artworks need a specific environment (or setting) built for them for a greater degree of interpretations?

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.

Intertextuality/intermediality in specific cases

Q: When we interpret an artwork or literature and deconstruct its meta-levels of meanings from the unlimited semiosis perspective, how could we make sure that we don’t overinterpret it given the limited preferred message embedded by the painter or the author?

Q: Combining Hall’s Encoding and Decoding theory, does the semiosis contribute shift of power from media to audiences since audiences are able to interpret the message sent by media in unlimited ways and the generate more meanings based on the single message?

It is very fascinating to see that people from different areas use similar ways to endow various meaning to different things. In the literature area, different layers of meanings and interpretations also exist. I was requested to read a German novel Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren written by Wolf Haas when I was an undergraduate student. The professor also talked about a similar concept: die Intertextualität. This is a novel that has different levels of plots and is famous for its complexity of narrative technique. The whole book is a dialog between “der Erzähler Wolf Hass” and “die Literaturkritikerin” about his new, actually fictive fiction with the title Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren. Thus, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren is the title of this real novel, also the title of the fictive novel mentioned in this real novel. It also denotes the weather of the day when the story exactly happens 15 years ago in the fictive novel. The author also embeds intertextual references to other works by himself in the interview, which in turn make a connection between fictional and real author and blur the boundary between the novel and the reality. Such recursive progress of encoding meaning is creative, leaving readers to discover the unlimited interpretation embedded in one phrase.



In the realm of art, metapainting stands for the outcome of such generativity and recursion. What is depicted in a piece of metapainting is greatly based on the abundance of greatest paintings in history. The genre of metapainting directly supports that previous artworks can, in some way, generate more paintings and add value to the following paintings. In the course of metapainting production, artists add their personal preference and thought into the painting, while the social context also embeds social norms in the painting. One artwork could, on the one hand, generates unlimited more meanings embedded in other artworks, and, on the other hand, be interpreted into infinite meanings because of the existence of previous artworks.

See adjacent text.


Image result for gallery of louvre

 Mona Lisa in Morse’s Painting  (source:

Instead of taking an artwork as a whole, to look at it from a more fragmented perspective, people must be again surprised at its meta-levels of meanings. Each object depicted in a painting could be simultaneously regarded as an icon, index or symbol. Morse may be only aware of the symbolic function of the Mona Lisa when he chose to paint it in his painting, but many more levels of meanings and representations could be deconstructed. For example, the Mona Lisa depicted on the wall of Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre could be first seen as an icon, because people will recognize the likeness between the authentic artwork and the imitating one at the first glance. Meanwhile, it is semiotically also an index: The Mona Lisa is a portrait of the actual lady Mona Lisa, while the Mona Lisa on the wall of Gallery of the Louvre imitated by Morse is also a painting of the authentic artwork Mona Lisa. In a higher level, the Mona Lisa is also a symbol, representing a masterpiece in art history, the flourishment of art in Renaissance, one of the Italian schools, etc. All of the psychological process of endowing meanings to one thing just happen in a second without people’s awareness. They are not traceable unless we reverse the whole process and to deconstruct it from the interpretation perspective. However, whether creating meanings and interpreting have symmetrical processes stay questionable.



Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics (with a case study).

Martin Irvine, “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”

In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.

Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren,

Stuart Hall, Encoding/decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, & P. Willis (Eds.), Culture, media, language (pp.5-39). London: Hutchinson.

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?

Questions Related to Art & Semiotics

Research Questions

  1. For professionals who work on identify whether an art piece is fake or not, how do they use the concept of semiotics to make the justification? For example, each artist may own a particular prototype to represent their works. However, since sign and symbol are repeatable, how can an art appraiser identify the authenticity of an art piece?
  2. Each art piece may have a certain classification. For the art pieces with the same classification, they might share a particular meaningful pattern. What is the pattern of expressionism?
  3. The art pieces sharing the same classification must have some similarity. The similarity can be seen as a type of symbols containing in the art pieces. What factors can be counted as token symbols?
  4. An art piece can be a cultural encyclopedia. For example, The Last Supper tells a Bible story. It can be a cultural encyclopedia because it is realistic and directly reflects the content of the story. Can abstract art be a cultural encyclopedia, in this case?
  5. If Girl with a Pearl Earring is a signifier, what then is signified by this painting?

Interpretation Questions

  1. Is the digital reproduction of a painting a token of the original piece?
  2. Is there any specific difference between sign and symbol?
  3. If a whole piece of artwork is a dialogue, what factors are the letters composing it?