10 January 2007

Signifier Signified

If you don't get the title, don't worry. I didn't really get it for a long time too.

But then I was driving early in the morning years ago in Utah. There was no one else on the road, and you know how you can see for miles in some places because the valley is so flat. I was at one of those spots where I knew there was no one at all. Anyway, I came to an intersection and the light was red, so I stopped. When it turned green, the following thoughts flashed through my head in very quick succession as I drove on:

"green means go" - "but it doesn't. That color is just called green (a slight distinction, I know) and it only signifies right of way in this limited context."

It was the first time that I really understood the difference between our words and their referents, that it is all a construction and none of it (except words like *BANG*) has any essential connection to the concepts/objects they signify. Why does this matter? What does it have to do with art? Well, of course there's the whole disjuncture between a picture of something and the thing itself--analogous with the division between things and the way we name them.

The thing about art is that it has, for three decades or more, been quite aware of the theory that surrounds it, and again and again, the most successful works of contemporary art are actively involved in pushing the theory onward. Cindy Sherman's myriad images of herself in disguise are a good example of art that points to the fringes where the arguments gets gray and murky and shines a light on it. Sherman's work deserves a post of its own. Maybe next time.


Dad said...

Are words like "bang" similar across languages. If not, then how does that impact our perspective of the situation and how does that differ between languages? How does it change our perspective of the same piece of art?

Mary Ann said...

Dan, you show up here and comment as though you don't know what you are talking about and I know that's just a game.

This is a huge weakness in the exception I cited. Even though German and English are comparatively similar languages these types of words are entirely different. And yet, I still managed to convince myself while writing that a bang sounds quite a bit like our word BANG.

So, throw out my exception. There are no exceptions.

Dad said...

By the way, did you take any classes that got into how one piece of art can be interpreted in so many different ways and what impact that has on what an artist actually finally decides to produce?

Mary Ann said...

The various ways works of art are/have been interpreted was a big deal in every class I've taken.

But as for what that means for artists . . . It seems that recently, artists are much less self-aware than I'd think. I would expect that artists would anticipate their cirtics, look for a place in the ongoing story of art, repsond directly to the actions/inactions of their predecessors.

But it seems that most artists either don't articulate their attention to these matters or are afraid to admit it, or maybe actually really don't know or care.

Dad said...

I am surprised that artists are not more into how different people will interpret what they produce rather as I thought that was a "purpose" of art. Hmmmmm