Ferdinand De Saussure, an old philosopher once stated, there are two requisite parts to understanding how we communicate our ideas to people.
First, there is a signifier such as a picture of, or the word TREE, and then the signified which is the concept that word represents. Both are required. If one looks at a different language, and they cannot parse the signified meaning of a symbol then that symbol fails to signify the meaning it intends to.
This is called Semiotics in modern communication theory which is the study of signs and codes.
What is interesting though is that there are many impressions (that I have found at least) especially in the art world, that pictures work around this duality of symbolic speech because art or visual representations are a globally present phenomenon – a cultural universal.
Humans have depicted buffalo hunts, people, and events from the Caves at Lascoux to the Hammurabi Stele, to Egyptian Hyroglyphs, and all the way to modern times. The modern world now connects visually. I can now share images of cats with the word “me” tacked on to it and people will understand exactly what I intend online.
However, for the sake of understanding “modern art” and more specifically critiques of art and culture, I am going to argue (as plenty before me have) that the signifier and the signified are still a necessary part of a whole in visual rhetoric. to understand art it takes the context and the perception of signified meaning to make a connection to it.
To do this, Let’s use one of the most famous photographers in the world, Cindy Sherman, whose gallery I had a wonderful opportunity to attend in Wellington this past Thursday. And let’s reference the frustrated comments of those who claim not to understand art in general and who tend to take it (ironically) at face value. Then we’ll apply this for a quick lesson on how to properly understand “artistic statements” in art.
We have a big agenda and you likely don’t have much attention span so let’s get started:
The Cindy Sherman Art Gallery:
First, take this photograph in. What is it saying to you? How do the colors in the background inform your opinion of the clown? And of the obvious prosthetic? What do you notice about the eyes? The mouth? What do you think the artist is saying? Do you think it’s just Bullshit? Is the emotion of the clown contrived or natural? Why is/isn’t this art? (I’m super curious so you should tell me these answers in the comments!)
This is what a friend of mine said in reference to the piece:
Did you make the connection to “It?” Did you think it was as simple as a creepy clown? More to the point, is there an argument of merit here about anything in the untitled but (numbered in the 100’s) piece alone? If you had to guess what would it be? (seriously though, put it in the comments)
Well, I saw this piece in person, and I had a journal on hand so now we can share my experience:
“No one piece in the clown series had as much of an impact on me as the untitled clown piece 424 (pictured above). The energetic lines in the background compliment the emotions I see clashing in the character. There is a holding back of a raw emotion on a “real” face under the paint while the paint has forced them to look calm and happy posing for the image. The combination of red overwhelmed by yellow and the clashing expressions of the face and paint show an obvious rejection of that real emotion. The silent fury on the face of someone wanting to take the high ground.”
Context is Queen. Visual Rhetoric requires the Signified:
Did you get what I got? Likely not. And the reason is because you have, a photograph. You do not have the written description of the clown series or the biography of Cindy Sherman on the gallery walls. You are not walking those halls. And you likely don’t have an art degree. Even if you did however, clowns are clowns until you have the context and you’re really just speaking an unknown foreign language. So, here it is – context on the artist.
The clown series of which Unknown 424 (above) is from was done between 2001 and 2004, presented in the years 2003-4. Cindy, tends to embody her characters as a photographer and tends to be VERY ironic about it (because what else is a modern/post-modern artist to do). She said in her description of the pieces that the waking tragedy of the 9/11 attacks inspired these clowns because clowns are the outsiders that can show emotion in such a raw and intense manner as to illustrate everyone’s reactions to 9/11 without repercussions (Caldwell, 2017).
So bearing that in mind, take this next piece of hers in:
This piece represents a childlike emotion, one of being smaller than your own skin. Being unable to impact the world. A simple background and a nude suit too large for a child and bright but tainted colors . The face is clearly adult and unsure, but the painted face puts on a smile either way.
So How Do I Read Art in Context?:
In an ironic twist of fate, Modern Art as Cindy Sherman is considered seeks to push the boundaries of what is and is not Art. It’s a critique on the times. Unfortunately however, without a solid understanding of the institution of modern art – the discourse, written rhetoric, and composite understanding of how to “read” a visual piece – the public is left out of the conversation. So the question, “how do I understand Art” is less about looking at art and far more about getting your head around discourse. This comes in a few tips I will conclude this article with:
- Understand the Principles and Elements of Design
When I spoke about “untitled 424” above I made a reference to the diagonal background creating energy and I referred to the red and the yellow representing emotional states. These important critiques seem very simple, but out of the blue without a solid understanding of HOW visual stimuli affect our brains. Without a solid understanding of the Principles (how composition, color, emphasis, etc.) and Elements (shape, line, value, etc.) of design work, you are trying to understand art without knowing your alphabet and you cannot construct an idea of “how” it is written. Without an understanding of Color Theory (how color affects your body), or the tendency to prefer things in odd groupings rather than even, you can’t actually read the piece well enough to comprehend.
- Know What Kind of Art are you Looking at:
Every gallery you walk into will tell you a specific art show is, Baroque, or Traditional, or Cubist, or Modern, or Post-Modern. It’s a very good idea to make use of that $700 pocket guide to all of history to know what you’re walking in to. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia page for Impressionist art work will tell you that the artists had a specific mindset during this era, and a specific mindset was being changed as a result. This can help you get into the general head space of any artist to plug in to that conversation.
- Visual Rhetoric Takes Time, and a Little Help:
For every painting you look at for 3 minutes, an artist spent a minimum of 80 hours researching it, conceptualizing it, planning it, referencing similar pieces like it, taking photographs for it, painting it, revising it, sometimes remaking it, and finalizing it down to the very last detail.Even pieces that really did take a matter of minutes such as logos and designs involved market research, thinking about the values it would represent to a group of people, how best to represent a company behind it, and more.
So repeat after me, “There is no way to know everything the artist wants you to!”
And that is what artist statements, gallery introductions, pamphlets and brochures, and art curators are for. And you should not ever feel pressured not to look at art if you don’t get it. Art teacher Isaac Kaplin suggests staring at one piece for 20 minutes at least once to get a sense of what it means to understand art from an artist’s point of view.
I may also suggest here attending an opening. The opening at an art gallery tends to be equipped with plenty of people with their own opinions and the artist themselves. So plug into those resources. There is far more there to get the idea across than the picture itself.
- Your Experience is What Matters:
At the end of it all, just as I was struck by Untitled #424, it is important to know that for an artist’s work to be truly worthwhile, you have to make peace, with your own interpretation of the significance after doing your honest best, to plug into the context.
I hope that this was a helpful primer on what art means, and I hope you enjoy art for what it says to you.
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