26 February 2007

Semiotic Communication

From Icon to Dialogue

In response to my students at Columbia being confused by the multiple directions that art was taking in the 1970’s, I attempted to make sense out of this confusion using semiotics, the study of how signs communicate significance. As a starting point, I turned to the pioneering work on semiotics of American logician and mathematician Charles Pierce. He identified three classes of signs: icon, symbol, and index. These categories can describe how significance is created in representational art of premodernism and modernism. They were insufficient, however, to describe postmodern presentational forms of art that my students were encountering.

Representational art forms show after-the-fact signs of what was. Presentational art locates art in the present and future in contrast to representational art that locates art in the past. Presentational art forms invited me to propose an expanded semiotic taxonomy. I identified three classes of presentation: identic, prioric, and dialogic. Identic art gains meaning by presenting what is. Prioric art presents what can be. And dialogic art gains meaning through dialogue, collaboration, and interaction in dynamic responsive processes.

My semiotic taxonomy provides a theoretical framework and pedagogical tool for educating artists in understanding how contemporary artforms and those that will evolve in the future create significance. I expanded the paper I had written when I was teaching at Columbia three decades ago by applying my semiotic taxonomy to new media art in my chapter, “Semiotic Redefinition of Art in a Digital Age,” in the book Semiotics and Visual Culture: Sights, Signs, and Significance.

Iconic art, the first category of representational, represents the surface appearance of things. It gains meaning by looking like something that we see in the real world. Computer users know the word “icon” as the blank sheet of paper with its corner folded down, the floppy disc, the file folder, the printer, and the scissors icons on the toolbar of computer screens. These computer icons, Redon’s painting of a vase of flowers, Michelangelo’s Adam reaching out to touch the hand of God, Picasso’s Three Musicians, and a road map are all icons with different levels of iconicity.

Symbolic art represents things or ideas through signs that are assigned meaning maintained by convention, by the agreement of community. Unlike an icon that bears a likeness to what it signifies, a symbol bears no direct or necessary connection to what it signifies. A red traffic light, for example, signifies a command to stop, while a green light signifies go. These are assigned meanings agreed upon by community consensus. Had the opposite assignment been made, green would signify stop. I have shown a slide of Larry River’s painting, Last Civil War Veteran, when I lectured in Israel, Holland, and Japan. No one could identify the subject of the painting that shows the Confederate and Union flags behind a person in a bed. They all recognized the Union flag as the flag of USA, but none could recognize the flag of the Confederate states. On the other hand, when I showed this same slide in the USA, everyone could identify the subject of the painting.

The third class of representational art is indexic. If a painting that looks like a man walking on the beach is iconic art, and words MAN WALKING ON BEACH painted on a canvas are symbolic art, then the actual footprints in the sand indicating that a man had walked on the beach can be perceived as indexic art. Indexic art represents occurrences by presenting direct physical evidence that they occurred. The word “index” is used as in its original derivation from Latin indicare, meaning to indicate, to point out as an index finger does. Although indexical signs are felt strongly in Van Gogh’s paintings as his impasto brushstrokes, he continued to maintain iconicity in them. The full abandonment of the icon in painting and its replacement with pure index occurred most powerfully in action painting. A Jackson Pollack painting is indexic art that displays symptoms of the artist’s having dripped paint, as well as a documentary map and after-the-act choreographic score of the movement of his body over a canvas floor. There is a direct physical connection between the artist dripping paint and the dripped paint on the canvas. Indexic art represents by correspondence, directly connecting what was to what is.

During the years I taught at Columbia, I created a series of encaustic paintings on shaped panels of leaf cross-sections enlarged 600 times. At the laboratory at the New York Botanical Gardens, I made microscope slides of leaf cross-sections, photographed them, mounted them on panels, and painted the revealed cellular structures with vibrant paints that I made by suspending pigments in molten beeswax. Staying faithful to the photomicrographs while painting, my artworks are indexic – documentation of cellular structure and organization in leaves. Photographs, at first impression, would seem to be the epitome of iconic art, the zenith of iconicity, since they represent the most accurate visual likeness of an object or event. On closer scrutiny, however, it becomes clear that the very high iconicity results from the photographic image being produced by point-to-point correspondence between light rays coming from what is being represented and a chemically or electronically sensitized plane. From this point of view, photographs are indexic art forms, documentary records produced by direct physical connection between what was and what is. Indexic pictures that render the invisible visible play a vital role in contemporary science. The work of many scientists involves reading symptoms of natural occurrences from X-rays, MRIs, electrocardiograms, spectrograms, scintigrams, seismograms, voiceprints, and numerous other technologically generated indexic pictures.

Categories of representational art signify what was by illustration, symbolization, and documentation. Presentational art forms signify what is, what can be, and what is becoming. The first category of presentational art, identic art does not look like something else, nor does it symbolize or indicate something other than itself. It is form and color presented as form and color; it is a real thing presented as itself, it is a real time electronic transmission of an event, and it can be an everyday event that is presented as life being lived.

Prioric art is the presentation of a proposal or plan for a potential event, an a priori statement of what can be. It often employs iconic and symbolic modes of signification for presenting itself. The prioric form is more common in art forms other than the visual arts. It can take the form of scores in music and dance, scripts in theater and film, or architectural plans. Like these forms, visual artists can propose artworks that they do not make themselves. Musicians perform music created by composers, dancers move to choreographers’ notations, actors enact a script written by playwrights, and building contractors convert architectural drawings into buildings. Visual artists act more like composers, choreographers, playwrights, and architects in creating prioric art. New media artists in a networked world have the unprecedented power to create prioric artworks to disseminate their proposals globally. My Internet artwork www.futureholocaustmemorials.org is a prioric artwork that makes outlandish proposals as a call to action to confront bigotry, hatred, terrorism, genocide, and cults of death and destruction with moral outrage.

Dialogic art comes into being through dialogue. It exists as the interrelationship between people. The difference between identic and dialogic forms of art can be described by philosopher Martin Buber’s two primary words: I-It and I-Thou. I-It is the experience of something; it describes identic art. I-Thou, however, is not the experience of something, but rather an interrelationship that has its own existence. I-Thou comes into being through dialogue, the interactive shared sphere between people, a sphere of spiritual intensity. “The participation of both partners is in principle indispensable to this sphere…. The unfolding of this sphere Buber calls ‘the dialogical.’ The meaning of this dialogue is found in neither one nor the other of the partners, nor in both taken together, but in their interchange.”

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