the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for the ‘semiotics’ Category

Intro to Saussure’s Semiotics

Posted by gninja on September 6, 2007


In the spring, I worked on a project to design a presentation demonstrating the basic concept of the sign, as defined by Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics. I collaborated on this with James Conlon, the wonderful director of the Visual Media Center at Columbia University, who is responsible for putting the content I provided into a great flash presentation. Enjoy.

Saussure: An Introduction

Posted in art history, semiotics | 2 Comments »

The Intel Ad That Was Recently Pulled: From an Art Historian’s Perspective

Posted by gninja on August 11, 2007

In the words of art historian Albert Boime: art “helps shape ideas, define social attitudes, and fix stereotypes”; “images…serve as instruments of persuasion and control.”

It’s with these words in mind that I approach the Intel advertisement that was recently pulled:


The superficial idea the ad-men were attempting to communicate through this image is that the khaki-clad man is the employee or manager, and the sprinting men (actually, a single man replicated) represents the speed of the new intel core 2 duo processor. Smug, knowing employee, proud of his new computer. And a “processor” crouched and ready to zip away at the speed of lightning.

The ad was promptly pulled “after racial backlash“.

(As an aside, what the hell is a “racial backlash” anyway? Very strange choice of words.)

Trawling through some online chatter about the removal, I was disappointed to find the same kind of response over and over and over again.


The first response above was the most common kind I saw– accusing people of oversensitivity and rampant political correctness (a phrase which makes me want to gouge out my own eyes– since the 1990s, it’s been a key rhetorical tool of the Conservative Right, who fling the term at someone in order to halt any kind of reasonable debate. It sucker-punches a conversation about one issue into an immature squabble over semantics.)

The second response, though, was alo quite common in the forums. Contrary to what “VolleyJeff” intended with this remark, though, it brilliantly proves how accustomed Americans now are to image of superior whites and the subordinate Other. It has become utterly naturalized. And when I use the term “naturalized” I’m pointedly referring to its meaning in semiotics, or, as Daniel Chandler paraphrases from Roland Barthe’s essays in Image Music Text:

From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’.

Getting back to VolleyJeff’s response, then. Yes, absolutely, seeing such an image with the races of its characters reversed would raise questions and perhaps eyebrows. But not because the image as it is represents the natural order of things, but rather because we have become increasingly conditioned over the years to seeing whites in a position of superiority and blacks in a position of subordination. Images have played an important role in reinforcing this notion of racial disparity.


( Thomas Nast, “Slaves Being Emancipated”, 1863).

Note the white man in the center and the former slaves surrounding him. The white man in the foreground is the hero of the image, with the former slaves bowing their thanks to him.


Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, 1861.


A Confederate $10 note, 1861.

(I could go on with the images, but I think these suffice.)

No, the Intel ad is not inherently racist. But it absolutely becomes racist after centuries of images insisting upon the black man’s rightful place at the feet of the white man until it’s become so naturalized that we think those images represent a natural condition.

Posted in advertising, art, barthes, semiotics | 2 Comments »

Not Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Victoria: Autograph, Allograph, Again

Posted by gninja on August 3, 2007


(No longer part of the Van Gogh oeuvre. Head of a Man at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Australia.)

The NGV announced today that they would accept the findings of the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands and no longer ascribe Head of a Man to Vincent Van Gogh.

I do find it amusing that the newspaper went with the headline, “NGV’s ‘Van Gogh’ a Fake”, as if the artist, a contemporary of Van Gogh, had been a forger intent on deceiving audiences and buyers. Of course, we have no idea whether such was the case. We certainly have no confession from a 19th century Robert Thwaites, so it isn’t exactly fair play to call Head of a Man a ‘fake.’

Regardless, the article brought me back to thinking about Nelson Goodman (as I had been doing in my previous post) and, in general, art history’s relationship to attribution and forgeries. Possibly needless to say, art historians have always been fixated on attribution, whether such-and-such an artist created such-and-such a work. If nothing else, it lent (lends?) the discipline the scientific appearance it strove to attain from its institutionalized beginning in 1870s Germany. As, most notably, with Morelli and others, art historians collected data and ‘evidence’, compiling lists of traits and styles so as to categorize the history of the world’s art into neat and tidy schools and periods.

So, of course, in this Linnaean system getting it ‘right’ and being able to pin works to individuals and specific dates was vital to the establishment of an accepted and credible discipline.

By the 1970s and 1980s, when art history was going through a lot of changes (very energizing to the field), this kind of connoisseurship and even antiquarianism came into question. Or, at the very least, art historians no longer took for granted the importance of a work’s originality and endeavored to locate the reasons for, in a word, caring.

Nelson Goodman’s book Languages of Art tackled the question of the allograph and the autograph, which led to a series of debates on the differing values (monetary and otherwise) of an original and a forgery which cannot be told apart by the naked eye. Goodman argues that, even if we cannot tell the difference between the two, the knowledge that one is a forgery and one is an original produces an aesthetic difference which then alters our perception of the works.

I love the response of Thomas Kulka to this argument, in his article, “The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries” (Leonardo, 1982). He calls Goodman a snob. Heh. However, beyond that, Kulka makes the insightful point that works may be judged on the basis of art-historical value and aesthetic value. While the former judges a piece of art based on its production during a precise moment in time and its effect on later history (and relationship to prior history) the latter bases its judgment purely on the aesthetic quality of the work. So, while the original and forgery may have equal aesthetic values, their art-historical values are vastly different. This argument is clear enough and by no means hard to arrive at. For my part, I think it’s a pretty good case: some works are good because of their artistic value, and other works are good because they extended beyond their frames and contemporary contexts to affect people and history.

Yet Kulka met with criticism. Goodman didn’t respond too well (Leonardo, 1982), nor did Jacques Mandelbrojt (Leonardo, 1983). Their responses insisted on the importance of authenticity, which must be discerned in the aesthetic quality of the piece.

It’s an old guard view because at risk in this argument is the reputation of the field and its foundation in the sciences. Art historians, by and large, cannot stand being told that there is no way to ‘prove’ their arguments. So they have to revert to science and scientific method. It’s all silly and has a rather immature attachment to historical positivism.


Returning to the NGV and their not-Van-Gogh. I’m happy that they’re still going to display the painting– it’s a confident move that declares the directors are not exclusively concerned with headlining names but also with the works themselves. But, as with my final statement in my post about Robert Thwaites, the work itself now gains currency and importance just from the debates its sparked regarding forgeries, originals, and attribution. All of which should be included somehow in the presentation of the piece. Let the audience know what they’re viewing, the recent debates about it, and push them to form their own opinions about the significance of authenticity. That’d make for a great exhibition.

Posted in art, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums, portrait, semiotics | 1 Comment »

The Autograph and the Allograph: Forgeries and Re-enactments

Posted by gninja on July 30, 2007


(Going to the Masked Ball, John Anster Fitzgerald [or a forgery by Robert Thwaites].)


(Max Bunzel reenacting Paul Potter’s 1965 antiwar speech in Washington.)

Two unrelated items in the news today caught my eye.

The NY Time’s Art Section reports on the Port Huron Project as Giving New Life to Protests of Yore:

Mark Tribe, an artist and assistant professor of modern culture and media studies at Brown University, has organized a series of such re-enactments at sites where important speeches of the New Left originally took place, and he says his intention was precisely to create such a strange cultural and political straddle. The goal was to use the speeches not just as historical ready-mades or conceptual-art explorations of context, he said, but also maybe as a genuine form of protest, to point out with the help of art how much has changed, yet how much remains the same.

(As an aside, I’m pretty regretful that, as an undergrad, I stayed at least 10 feet away at all times from the MCM department. What a fool I was not to take advantage of that opportunity.)

From the Guardian, we read today that the notorious art forger, Robert Thwaites, is back to work, but on legitimate pieces this time:

After exposure and conviction, Thwaites, 55, went down in disgrace although even the judge hailed his “remarkably talented” work. Released on licence but under strict supervision, he is painting once more in the style of Fitzgerald. But, older, thinner and greyer, he said he now hoped to use his skills and the additional notoriety to create a legitimate career.

While the first instance is allowed the title of a work of art because it proclaims its source (which is where its status as a work of art derives– in its very repetition and recontextualization); the second incident is a crime. And rightly so, considering Thwaites willingly deceived others by passing off his own work as that of another (dead) artist. Obvious enough.

But the two unrelated items intersect at Nelson Goodman‘s distinction between the allograph and the autograph (online sources on this seem to be scare, but if you follow this link and scroll down to the highlighted bits, you’ll find a brief discussion of the allograph and the autograph). While one “piece” is allographic– that is, the piece itself can be replicated and doesn’t lose any aspect of its ‘identity’ through repetition. Goodman’s example is a piece of sheet music– Beethoven’s 9th does not require its author to play it for it to still be Beethoven’s 9th. On the other hand, painted works are autographic, valued for their uniqueness and for being the production of a particular individual (or individuals) from a distinct moment in time. Repetition (or forgeries in the case of Thwaites) negates the value of the work, no matter how utterly indistinguishable it is from the original.

Juxtaposing these two “pieces” is a neat demonstration is this distinction, but more than that I think it demonstrates how little we actually mind repetition. In fact, and I’m sure we learned this long ago from Warhol, pointed (and frank) repetition actually imbues the original with value– heaping meaning onto the piece both to serve the interests of the present as well as retroactively.

It just makes me think how much money Thwaits can make now creating”forgeries” that proclaim themselves as such.

Posted in art, semiotics | 1 Comment »

Sarkozy and Le Jogging: What Would Barthes Do?

Posted by gninja on July 6, 2007


I love, love, love this story. It’s been around in the French media for a while now, but the IHT brought it to my attention. Apparently, in France, “le jogging” is associated with right wing politics, a sense of egomaniacal self-interest and individualism, characteristics associated with Americanism. (Hey, don’t blame the French– just ask Adam Smith.) Sarkozy has made a show of his ritual jogs, inviting the media to analogize his exercise regimen with his prescription for French reform.

What I love, love, love about the treatment of le jogging du Sarkozy is that it throws into high relief the very French treatment of images. France is, after all, the country of Roland Barthes. Barthes is among my favorite semioticians because he — in an extraordinarily (and I do mean that) accessible way– took the quotidian, things we take for granted, and attempted to explain the messages they plugged into our heads. The images we see, for example, in ads are not hidden symbols that are difficult to decipher, but rather components of our culturally informed experience that retain numerous associations we’d have a hard time ignoring. One of Barthes’ most famous essays, “Wine and Milk” gets at that. Cultural semiotics is different from standard visual analysis with with a socio-cultural bent because it understands that certain things (e.g. milk) have associations that, while certainly not a priori, get carried along with it into no-matter-which context.


The image of the jogging politician has received much comment among French journalists and cultural commentators. Pretty incisive comment getting at all the messages this one, seemingly (at least to an American audience) innocuous and unremarkable act conveys. It’s not just a president running for his health, or even to promote good health– it has a host of associations.

Which, of course, can be weighted one way or another, depending upon which image gets used.


It’s not too far off from what our own president does, no? There’s been no shortage of news items on our ersatz cowboy at work. I’m not so sure the commentary on this side’s been all that insightful, though. Mostly just mentioning it as something he does while on his record long vacations.

Posted in barthes, politics, semiotics | 1 Comment »