Meaning in art: depends how you look at it Marina Sulima Biographical Theory Stream VGVB16THE1Andrea Stultiëns, Martijn BovenJanuary 29th 2018Because meanings are not given, but constructed. Abstract: Still images hold their supremacy in the practice of illustration which covers a visually intensive stream of images that are supposed to communicate, stimulate or support a line of thought or a story. Therefore, one who practices illustration and its subdivisions should have a rich understanding on the process of communicating a message visually and how do still images become meaningful. The topic became of practical importance for a personal series of metaphorical illustrations for philosophical justifications of a state. Using the illustrations and studies from social semiotics and visual thinking, this paper aims to propose a model of critical analysis of a visual message without limiting the range of meaning that it may potentially possess. Keywords: image viewing, meaning, semiotics, visual thinkingIntroduction Human beings have always wanted to understand and interpret the world they live in. A desire to know, read the nature, the universe, the human being itself and its culture is pervasive, which is why they need also to think about and analyze their meanings. According to Strauss (1978), meaning in both verbal and visual language is not inherent in objects, persons or phenomena, they are rather constructed by social actors engaged in interaction. Because meanings are thought to be socially constructed, they are subject to change due to political, economic and personal variation. This is also the case for the philosophical theories that try to elucidate this subject. Structuralism, as an intellectual movement, implies that human perception and concepts formed by it are constructed (not natural) and everything has meaning because of the language system we operate. Structuralist scholars took influence from Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea that signs are arbitrary, and they gain meaning from the relations and contrasts among themselves. (reference to Saussure). Poststructuralism was in favor of a multiplicity of rationalities and the interpretation of a sign’s meaning is dependent on one’s personal conception of the self. The self is the one that is a constructed entity. Entering the realm of meaning-making (in imagery) requires a certain acknowledgment of the fact that the whole human experience is a complex structure mediated and sustained by signs and it is essential to understand both the social patterns of semiotics and the psychology of visual thinking to be fully integrated in creating visual messages. Instead of deciphering coded meanings in visual arts, it may be suitable to reinterpret, rethink, investigate the methods through which we process and create meanings in order to digest the understanding of visual forms and the process of creating them. The better we can understand how the brain creates meaning- the better we can communicate, collaborate and create a rich spectrum of visual expressions.Combining social semiotics theories and eye-tracking studies on image viewing, this interdisciplinary paper connects the aims to develop the idea that meaning in visual language is arbitrarily constructed on perceptual and cognitive faculties of the brain.1. Linguistic semiotic approaches Signs are everywhere and semiotics is correspondingly the science of signs which tries to analyze how signs are shaped, communicated and understood. It was first described by its founder, Ferdinand de Saussure in Course in General Linguistics 1916 as “a science that studies the life of signs within a society”. Saussure makes a distinction between langue and parole, the first one being the product of people, a socially constructed system and parole- an individual speech act, context specific and contingent. He proposes a dualistic notion of signs, as parts of the parole, the focus of his investigation being the sign as a double entity, made up of the signifier (the representation of something) to the signified (the mental concept). According to Saussure, the sign is completely arbitrary – there is no necessary connection between the sign and its meaning. Saussure believed that by dismantling the study of signs we can come to a rational understanding of how humans convert physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts. Fig.1: The dual concept of a sign. Fig.2: Signs have no positive or intrinsic value: a sign’s meaning and value derives through its difference from and relationship to other signs– from its relative position in the systemWhat Saussure refers to as the ‘value’ of a sign depends on its relations with other signs within the system – a sign has no ‘absolute’ value independent of this context (Saussure 1983, 80; Saussure 1974, 80). Saussure uses an analogy with the game of chess, noting that the value of each piece depends on its position on the chessboard (Saussure 1983, 88; Saussure 1974, 88). The sign is more than the sum of its parts. Whilst signification – what is signified – clearly depends on the relationship between the two parts of the sign, the value of a sign is determined by the relationships between the sign and other signs within the system as a whole (Saussure 1983, 112-113; Saussure 1974, 114). This could imply that meaning might be a function in the interplay of presence and absence of other relational signs, a position in a network of oppositions. The Saussurian model of the sign can be applied to a critical analysis of several personal illustrations, revealing how rich can they become when interpreted structurally. If relating this function of the interplay of presence and absence to various visual pairings that occur in the fig.1- one can suggest that it becomes a systematic exploration of the conditions of the signs and their representability among all others. A chess pawn’s separation from the board liberates it from their formal preconception, but it’s “signified” is limited by a relationship to another element, which meaning is again inherited in the realm of langue. For Saussure, meaning is the sign’s position in a system. Thus, each element in the illustration can be polysemantic and fully diacritical in relationship to each other in absence of the whole. As a system, however, it presents the playground of visual elements that occur in the artwork and it creates a context-specific meaning. Such a model of interpreting an artwork can be reductive, because as much as the features of the signs are distinctive from each other, they are interdependent and therefore their arbitrariness of meaning has a narrow scope.In contrast to the binary concept of Saussure’s theory, Charles Sanders Pierce’s theory of signs focuses on a “triady of meaning” and relativity regarding the three typologies of signs (icon, index and symbol), classifying sign intro three aspects: sign, object and interpretant. According to Saussure, nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign. Saussure was trying to explain that not all things neither in human’s life nor their environments can be considered as signs. In contrast, Peirce considers that people think through signs, which enable them to communicate with each other and give meaning to anything that exist in their environment. This pragmatic overview on semiotics can shed light in the process on illustrating a concept visually. Since expression and thought are one in Pierce’s theory, any concept can be a sign and the virtual meaning of the illustration can be articulated through an infinite range of relevant adaptations that happen in human mind. Therefore, the meaning of any element present in an illustration is not contained in the built-in signs, it arises in the interpretation that occurs in human mind. A general trend of post?structuralist method, often termed deconstruction, avoids the errors that result from suggested critical methodology of interpreting illustrations inspired by Saussure and Pierce. The failure of the structuralists that lies in their mistaken hope that meaning can be fully articulated is avoided by Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, which implies that the sign and its meaning are constantly open to reinterpretation and reconfiguration. Having fig.1 as the basis for a model of interpreting illustrative art, it can inherently show how unstable and shifting is the space between the sign and its meaning. The chess board is deconstructed itself, suggesting an incomplete system of signs, an interplay of absences that enriches the viewer’s search for meaning. Meaning, according to a deconstructionist interpretation, happens in this unstable scope between author (artist) and reader (viewer), thus it never preexists in any in the act of creating a sign, nor when interpreting it. Rather, meaning works, changes and develops long after the process of visual articulation is completed. 2. Visual semiotics The study of social semiotics first began in Australia, where the ideas of Michael Halliday inspired the study of visual semiotics- a rather new branch in the field, originated in the 1990s and defined by Kress and van Leeuwen’s book: Reading Images- The Grammar of Visual design (1996). The Kress and van Leeuwen framework recognizes that an image performs, simultaneously, three kind of meta semiotic tasks to create meaning: representational, interpersonal and compositional. Harrison, C. (2003). According to the same article, The representational meta function refers to the represented participants and it is about what is depicted in the image or what is the image about. The interpersonal meta function is about the action among all the participants involved in the production and viewing of an image (can be the creator, the people depicted and the viewer). The compositional meta function indicates to the syntax of a visual image- the set of rules in terms of informational value, salience, framing and modality etc. that are arranged grammatically so that they make sense to the reader. Figure 2 supports a text statement that defines anarchy in philosophical terms. On the representation metafunction of this image, the use of a faceless individual encourages the viewer to think abstractly about the structures of a state and the one’s position in it. This metafunction operates on narrative and conceptual structures- within these structures, the discussed illustration groups elements together to form a unified concept through several implied vectors of motion. Given the text, the viewer is expected to have little trouble creating a conceptual story that supports the statement above the illustration. This function enables the viewer to recognize the represented participants, the motion vectors and their characteristics evoked by conventional thinking. The interpersonal metafunction of this image solidifies an assumed concept in the viewer’s mind by grasping the perspective, angle, social distance and intimacy in relation to the elements of the image. The visual elements illustrated in figure 2 effectively combines the aspects of interpersonal metafunction to fuel a strong, yet emotionally detached involvement with the image through the faceless, genderless pawn and its vivid relationship with nature, civilization and social status. Finally, the compositional metafunction integrates the first two metafunctions into a whole, since it is similar to the syntax of a language: a set of rules that enable the signs i.e. word or visual elements to be arranged grammatically so they make sense (in terms of an image, a hierarchy of dimensions, widths, locations allow the elements of the image to take on different information roles). This segmentation of meta semiotic tasks still operates on a general distinction between image, society and sign as Saussure’s and Pierce’s works do, where the elements are shaped by the circumstances of those who make meaning in their social setting and the situational and cultural context is seen as playing a crucial role in meaning-making. Kress and van Leeuwen’s little explicity of the process of meaning-making based on signs can be viewed in the following paragraph: “Social semiotics is an attempt to describe and understand how people produce and communicate meaning in specific social settings, be they “micro” settings such as the family or settings in which sign-making is well institutionalized and hemmed in by habits, conventions and rules. But social semiotics, sign-making in society, is so varied an activity that any attempt to capture it in a general theory must look crude by comparison with the richness of the actual semiotic world.” (1996, p. 264). Therefore, it may be sensible to imply that the metafunctions of an image operates on an intuitive level and it still depends on one’s visual virtuosity and her/his socio-cultural lenses when becoming truly involved in the process of meaning-making. A deconstrutivist theory may be well applied to this semiotic approach that focuses on the relativity of the impact of society and personality features in the process of meaning-making. 2. Psychology of visual thinking Speech as a means of communication cannot be separated from the whole of human communicative activity, which also includes the visual. The word “imagination” suggests that we also think in images. Visual language is defined as a system of communication using visual elements. Speech and visual communication are parallel and often interdependent means by which humans exchange information. As verbal communication can be either externalized or internalized, same principle applies to visual communication and interpretation. When trying to understand the human perception behind the active vision, one should consider visual language as a cognitive tool, that extends our brain. Visual instructions help us solve issues through the process of visual thinking because it has the allocation of attention at its very essence. The term visual language in relation to vision describes the perception, comprehension, and production of visible signs. Just as people can verbalize their thinking, they can visualize it. “Meaning is what the brain performs in a dance with the external environment” (p.165) Colin Ware argues in “Visual thinking for design”. One of the main purposes of his book explores the way in which the theory of perception applies to understanding visual language. He makes several observations on the processes involved in visual thinking, two of them being significantly relevant for the aim of this essay: Our brains construct visual queries to pick up what’s important to support what we are doing cognitively. Queries trigger eye movements to enable us to pick up information. Various kinds of information are combined in a temporary nexus of meaning. This information can include visual pattern information or language-based concepts. This nexus is short lived and makes up the contents of the working memories.Understanding mental images is critical for a further investigation of the perception signs in visual language. According to a research by G. Ganis (Cognitive brain research. Ganis Thompson and Kosslyn 2004 226-241) theories from fMRI reveal which areas are active during mental imaging. Visual imagery seems to occur entirely in the higher levels of visual processing, using also the active processes normally involved in the planning and execution of eye movements. (151 Visual thinking for design Colin Ware). Mental imagery can therefore be thought of as an internalized active process, similar as our inner dialogue is internalized speech.A picture by Ilya Repin titled “They did not expect him” has been put into study in the 1967 book of Alfren Yarbus. The Russian psychologist studies eye movement traces from one person asked to perform different analytic tasks. (Alfred Yarbus’s study Eye movements and Vision chapter 7, p196) Character of eye movements is independent or slightly dependent on the material of the picture, but on the problem the viewer is confronted to; Eye momevents follow the objects that have important informational value or, in viewers opinion, might do so; While dealing with perception of an image, the viewer repeatedly returns to the same elements of the picture, the additional time spent being used to reexamine the most important elements; Eye movements reflect the human thought process.Similar observations were made within the Multimodal score sheet by Holsanova (2008) – an investigation into the process of image viewing and examining the relationship between what is looked and what it is described. The starting point of the investigation was an illustration from one of Sven Dorqvist’s childrens book and several verbal discriptions. Combining the analysis of two sources, eye movement data and simultaneous verbal description, the investigation reported that “viewers don’t only report what they see but also how the image appears to them.” (Tracking visual segmentation: connecting semiotic and cognitive perspectives, M.Boeriis and J. Holsanova). In other words, they are involved in perceptual, categorizing and interpreting activities. The combination of studies regarding mental imaging and visual thinking shows that viewers tend to create mental conceptualizations independently of the image elements as a whole, but rather picking up information from different locations to support concepts that were similar to the assumed ones. “Afterwards, during visual rescanning, the observer is searching again for concrete objects and their parts as crucial indicators for his abstract statement. By refocusing these elements, the observer is in a way collecting evidence for his statement. In other words, he is checking whether the object characteristics in the concrete scene match with the symptoms for the described scenario. Concrete objects can be viewed differently on different occasions as a result of our mental zooming in and out. We have the ability to look at a single concrete object and simultaneously zoom out and speak about an abstract concept or about the picture as a whole. When talking about creativity and freedom, this type of mental groupings shows a high degree of creativity.” Conclusion:The relationship between the signified and signifier is arbitrary and the meaning can be only understood once one understands its use in the social practice.A perceptual symbolis in this sense not a mental image, but a record of the neural activation that arisesduring perception. Imagery is then the re-enactment or simulation of the neuralactivity.The›perceptual activity theory‹ suggests that instead of storing images, we store acontinually updated and refined set of procedures or schemas that specify how todirect our attention in different situations References: Yakin, H. S. M., & Totu, A. (2014). The Semiotic Perspectives of Peirce and Saussure: A Brief Comparative Study. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 155(October), 4-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.10.247 Harrison, C. (2003). Visual Social Semiotics: Understanding How Still Images Make Meaning. Technical Communication, 50(1), 46-60(15). Peirce, Charles Sanders (1931-58): Collected Writings (8 Vols.). (Ed. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss & Arthur W Burks). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press1 Yakin, Halina Sendera Mohd., and Andreas Totu. 2014. “The Semiotic Perspectives of Peirce and Saussure: A Brief Comparative Study.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 155 (October). 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