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ARTH 2220 Study Guide - Final Guide: Roland Barthes, Semiotics, Shared Experience

Art History
Course Code
ARTH 2220
Susan Douglas
Study Guide

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I. Content Summary
“Looking is a social practice.” The authors begin Chapter 1 by reminding us that
we do not “look” at anything without participating in a practice formed by a variety of
factors, including the historical moment, social meaning, and intent of the creator.
Practices of looking are also formed by power relationships; even the act of choosing to
look or not to look is an act of power. We engage in the practices of looking every day,
with an ever-increasing amount of visual artifacts permeating most cultures.
Representation is the use of language and images to create meaning about the
world around us. Mimesis is a concept that understands representation as a process of
imitating or mirroring the real without taking into account how codes and conventions of
representation impact meanings.
We ourselves construct meaning through historical and cultural contexts. The
artist René Magritte contrasted mimesis and representation with his painting The
Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”).
The Myth of Photographic Truth
The myth of photographic truth is that we perceive photographs to be an
unmediated copy of the real world. This understanding comes from positivism, the
theory that scientific knowledge, gained through empirical data, is the only authentic
knowledge. Machines (such as cameras) were thought to be more reliable than humans to
provide this data and knowledge. As we know, however, images can be altered, reflect
only one instant in a situation, and can be taken out of social and historical context. The
power of images is strong because we still share this belief that photos are faithful
records of events. Roland Barthes considered photographic truth a myth, not because the
photographs aren’t true but because his understanding of truth (as always culturally
inflected) is at odds with the positivist understanding of truth as something that can be
independently verified.
Barthes gives us a system for interpreting two levels of meaning at play in
examining an image: The denotative meaning is an image’s literal, descriptive meaning,
whereas its connotative meaning relies on the cultural and historical context and the
viewer’s shared experience and knowledge of these contexts. In the example of Robert
Frank’s photograph TrolleyNew Orleans, the denotative meaning is “passengers on a
trolley,” whereas the photograph connotes race relations in the 1950s. Further knowledge
of the context and circumstances of the photograph (the year in which it was taken, the
events preceding and following the date of the photograph, the photographer himself)
contribute to an even more textured connotative meaning.
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Barthes’s theory of myth goes beyond the myth of photographic truth; myths are
how meanings, formed by hidden sets of rules and conventions, are made to seem
universal but are in reality specific to certain groups. Through myth, the connotative
meaning is made to seem natural or denotative.
Images and Ideology
Ideology also contributes to the construction of an image’s meaning. An ideology
is a system of belief in a culture. Ideologies are more than the negative nonreflective
practices of a culture; they’re shared, extensive sets of patterns and beliefs that guide
human interaction and behavior. In the modernist period, dominant ideologies, such as
that of positivism, were typically accepted as facts, whereas in postmodernity, people
have tended to recognize that ideologies are at play and are that meanings are always
connotative. It is now widely understood that there is no one “natural” ideology. The
places where these ideologies intersect and collide inform our practices of looking.
In the text’s example of O. J. Simpson’s mugshot on the cover of Time, the social
convention of the mugshot (connoting guilt and shame), combined with the historical
convention of darkening skin (connoting villainy and deviance), resulted in the
controversial use of an altered photograph that reflects the interplay of ideologies.
How We Negotiate the Meaning of Images
Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and how we interpret them. According
to Ferdinand de Saussure, meanings change according to context and the rules of
language. Barthes’s semiotic model is based on Saussure’s work, where
Signifier = Image/Sound/Word
Signified = Mental Concept
and together, Signifier + Signified = Sign.
Barthes’s semiotic model demonstrates how an image can have multiple meanings and
how signs (such as the dove, symbolic of peace) that seem to be natural are in fact
Charles Sanders Peirce theorized that languages and thought are processes of sign
interpretation. In Peirce’s semiotic model, the sign is the word or image, not the
relationship between the image and meaning, and the interpretant is the interpreted
meaning, with the object itself separate from the sign and the interpretant.
Peirce also distinguished between three types of signs: iconic, indexical, and
symbolic. Iconic signs resemble the object itself. Symbolic signs, such as the word cat
for the actual animal cat, do not resemble the object itself, are arbitrary, and require prior
knowledge of a system (such as the English language) to make sense. The third type of
sign, indexical, is valuable to the study of visual culture because of its explanation of the
sign’s relationship to its interpretant; the two have co-existed at the same place at one
time. Fingerprints are indexical signs; they signify that a specific person existed in that
place at one time. Photographs are iconic (they resemble the object photographed), but
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