November 9, 2006

Signs Within Signs

I have written elsewhere about the more controversial issues of appropriation, i.e., authenticity and authorship, so it may prove helpful to approach our topic from the viewpoint of semiotics, to grasp the appropriative technique as a play of images. The use of images dominates advertising and the first wave of photo-appropriationists (Kruger, Burgin, et al) re-formed the quoted sign (coupled with text) as new referents to foster markedly different readings about ideological structures of wealth, power, sex and politics.(1)

Art history is rife with manipulations of borrowed imagery (from Braque and Duchamp, to Prince and Hirst) and I would like to differentiate earlier appropriative practices before proceeding. Modernist painters like Braque, Picasso and Schwitters used a formal ordering of borrowed imagery within their compositions. Indubitably, later theorists would proffer Marxist and/or socio-cultural views of these works, yet these painters treated newspaper clippings, cigarette wrappers and other bits of capitalist detritus as formal devices, particularly in Cubism.

But it is those artists who invest their borrowed imagery with different signifieds that I wish to discuss. By using borrowed signs to refer to new meanings, often directly contradicting their original signification, these artists truly engage visual art’s role as a vehicle for cultural meaning.

First, let us consider, in brief, the system of representation that is language, and let it stand in for another representing system - art. Using the structuralist views of Saussure, we can see that each sign (word) in a language gets its meaning because of its difference from every other sign, i.e., meaning arises from functional differences between the elements within the system of representation.(2) (Red means red because it’s not blue.) Thus, if we substitute this structuralist view for painting, we could also agree that certain configurations of color or brushwork will have meanings based on their recognized differences from other color themes, etc.

In this way, structuralism set in motion a process of inquiry that eventually undermined empiricism (what’s real is experienced) by questioning the acceptance of any structure based wholly on convention (not observation). Meaning, in essence, is not conveyed by the intention of the speaker (painter) but is determined by the language system.

A bit later, the poststructuralist position emerges, wherein the means are revealed as insufficient proof of the ends, i.e., meaning is never fully present in any signified (concept) but is infinitely deferred. And more importantly, the poststructuralists saw meaning as contextual, affected by related words.

Roland Barthes had written:
"We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean something."(3)

This is what the best appropriationists will contend with, a way in which to subvert representation as an equivocal, rote system of images, and cast it in new subliminal, deconstructive ways. To intervene within the spectacle and invest it with a near unconscious misrecognition of meaning. As Hal Foster notes:

"[Barbara] Kruger has suggested that image appropriation, rather than question ‘the original use and exchange value’ of representations, contradict ‘the surety of our initial readings’ and strain ‘the appearance of naturalism,’ may in fact confirm them. Her later work evades this closure, for in its oscillation ‘from implicit to explicit, from inference to declaration’ neither photograph nor text, neither connotation nor denotation is privileged as a stable site or mode of truth; in fact the usual coordination of the two (as employed in the media to fix unstable meanings) is undone."(4)

Readings for 15 November: Chapter 8: Hermann Nitsch’s The O.M. Theatre; Laura Mulvey’s "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Art After Modernism (on reserve) or here.


1. John Welchman, Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s, Amsterdam, 2001.

2. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, London, 1959, 15-17, 65-70.

3. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, New York, 1972, 113.

4. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle, 1985, 221.


Rebecca Jones said...

Mark--Hal Fosters comments were sort of hard to follow for me. Is he saying that Kruger's use of image appropriation makes her work oscillate between the original meaning of the images and the connotations that her textual interferences create so that there is no stable truth, just the oscillation between?

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Exactly. Poststructuralists deny the transcendental signified, i.e., a concept that transcends "definitions," which brings us to logocentricism . . . but that's another post.

Anonymous said...

I like how this artist forces the veiwer to think. She presents a word that to society means something different than what it means in the context of the piece. That forces the viewer to take the next step to think "well.... what does the whole piece mean then?" and makes them figure it out because the meaning doesn't come easyily. Its visually pleasing so they are drawn to the piece. Art is meant to challenge the conventions of society. I think Kruger does this.

mm said...

after Saussure, and his writtings on semiotics (and those after) there is no one to deny the fact that this is the means that artwork is read. this does not trap the artist in some sort of cultural interpertation, but it can ce used to the artist's advantage. being aware of semiotics can help you choose the signs that will best convey your intentions. understanding of semiotics=better judgement of success and failure in your own work.

patrickjdonovan said...

I guess I would question the structuralist view, if I understand this correctly, that the artist’s intentions do not determine the meaning of a work, but rather it is the underlying language system that determines meaning. While it may be true that the language the artist is working with establishes various meanings for the signifiers, and that the underlying system of those signifiers can affect meaning, it would seem that the ability of the artist to convey his intended meaning would depend on his or her knowledge and understanding of the underlying system and his or her skill in manipulating and using the system. Thus, the system that the structuralist might view as determining meaning, does not necessarily frustrate the artists intent but rather provides a means of establishing that meaning in the art work. Does this make sense?

Anonymous said...

this is Jackie.
I think it is really interesting when, as Hal Foster uses the term, "oscillation" occurs between original meaning and artist-inferred meaning. But since the viewer "makes the meaning," what happens when your attention is focused on the space between the two meanings, and it isn't just questioning or criticizing an ideology, but rather bringing something to the surface to allow others to make the point. I guess I am referring to the intangible sense of the space between whose meaning can't even be really expressed in words or signifiers, just sensed. I have noticed in a lot of contemporary art these days that artists are grabbing a few signs and shooting them off in a different direction for someone else to come along and make sense out of or rearrange themselves.

Anonymous said...

As to PatrickJDonovan's comment, I don't think an artist can catch the meaning of a symbol because the meanings of symbols change (the blog mentions "using borrowed signs to refer to new meanings"). Furthermore, because the symbol does not exist outside of our observation, a symbol is defined by the system as well as the imaginative consciousness of each observer.

Even assuming that symbols have meanings that can be established, how many artists could believe that a symbol is establishable? According to Sartre, "the aesthetic object is constituted and apprehended by an imaginative consciousness which posits it as unreal."

this comment made me consider that we can see symbols as possessing the same reality as objects we define through the senses.