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13 Semiotics

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Mia Jankowicz

on 8 March 2015

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Transcript of 13 Semiotics

ARTV/DSGN/FILM 2113 Intro to Visual Cultures
Session 12 - Values of the Image / Semiotics

Key terms:
Denotative meaning
Connotative meaning

The Value(s) of Images
Vincent Van Gogh,
(1889) oil on canvas [collection Getty Museum, Los Angeles]
What would
Panofsky say about
this image?
Fry, or Bell?
How do they bring
value to the artwork?
Market resale value -
sold for US$53.9 million in 1990
Art is seen as a particularly strong investment for those who speculate in financial markets. Artworks can be traded for profit just like any other form of property.
Value can come from: the pleasure and fascination of looking.
Value can come from: the perceived authenticity of the artwork.
- Educational value
Eg, as an example to teach you about Post-Impressionism
- Connections to the biography of a celebrity artist.
Kirk Douglas playing Vincent van Gogh in
Lust for Life
, Dir. Vincente Minnelli (1956
Through the commodification of artworks
Vincent van Gogh,
Poppy Flowers
(1887) oil painting, 1887
[formerly the Collection of the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Cairo
When images are understood to have a
high cultural value, they are placed inside institutions.
These institutions follow
certain conventions for displaying art (for example, the use of a gold picture frame)
Eventually, these conventions of display
by themselves can convey the idea of precious value.
Thanks to these conventions, just the idea of the artwork itself can convey increased value.
How does this work?

Most of visual material takes a media form other than painting (often photography). How do
images gain value?
A: often, it is as information. We ask ourselves, how powerfully does the image convey an idea?
A news image, for example, is valued for its capacity to make its information rapidly “readable.” What editors are asking: can it be broadcast?
Case study
Stuart Franklin, "Tank Man" photo, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 1989
Franklin shot many images, and chose one for its communicative value.
This image became a cultural icon. Its imagery and composition communicated ideas beyond its literal meaning.
meaning of this image: a man standing in front of a column of tanks
Connotative meaning of this image: an individual taking a stand in the face of injustice

Denotative meaning
Verb form: denotes.
The denotative meaning of a word or image is its literal dictionary or descriptive meaning.
Ice cream: denotes a popular frozen dairy product sold worldwide in edible cones or paper cups.
Connotative meaning
Verb form: connotes
The connotative meaning (or more commonly, the connotations) of a word or image are the broader associations and meanings we bring to them.
Ice cream: connotes children's birthday parties, fun, trips to the beach.
June 19,1989 Time magazine cover

June 19,1989
magazine cover

The American interpretation of the connotations of this image (at least, according to
Connotations differ according to
who is perceiving the image or
So connotations depend on your context.
However ... how fixed are


This is a question that Ferdinand de Saussure attempts to answer.
Ferdinand de Saussure 1857-1913. His
Course in General Linguistics was
compiled from his essays and his students' lecture notes, was published in 1916 after his death.
de Saussure introduces the field of Semiotics.

- A science of language as signs.
- First developed in the field of linguistics, and subsequently developed into a field of social theory called Structuralism
But first, this method begins with a study of how

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, language is structured as a system of signs.
The semiotic method of analysis is used to pinpoint the structure of visual communication.
Signs are composed of two parts:
= Image/sound/word that stands for something

= Meaning or concept evoked by the signifier
= The sign is the associative total of the signifier and signified
Rene Magritte,
The Treachery of Images (Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe)
(1929), Oil on canvas. [Collection Los Angeles County Museum of Art]
We have already talked about this separation of signs from their meanings, just not in Saussure's terms. We talked about representation as a system that maintains a conceptual “gap” between symbols, ideas, and real things.
This word is a sign.

It communicates as a
and a

In fact, every word is a sign.

Let's break down this sign.
(sign) = [ the word + the concept it evokes ]
Sometimes we write this as s/S
According to Saussure, all linguistic communication is based on this system of signification.

In language, the sign is the vehicle that “stands for” meaning, values, things. It is a mechanism of mediation between the concept (thought) and real things in the world.
According to Saussure, all linguistic
communication is based on this system of signification:

In language, the sign is the vehicle that “stands for” meaning, values, things. It is a mechanism of mediation between concept (thought) and real things in the world.

Different signifiers can produce the same “signified” concept:
Signifier: "CAT" (the word)
Signifier: "Miaow" (the sound)
Signifier =
Signified =
A single signifier can also produce different signifieds.

(think about it – what images and ideas come to mind when you see this word?)
How do these dominant associations come about?
Cultural Convention
Codes of social conduct that are practiced within a given society, giving meaning to actions.

Convention is one way that the meaning is established between signifier and signified.
Saussure’s conclusion:

There is no natural, inevitable, intrinsic
relationship between the signifier and the signified.

The sign (the union of the signifier and signified) is arbitrary.

Therefore, no thing and no word will inevitably mean something. Meanings change. Linguistic meaning is not natural. It is cultural.
The sign = the associative total of the signifier and the signified
The signifier =
image/word/sound that stands for something else
The signified = meaning or concept evoked by the signifier
What fills this gap? How do the signifier and the signified become connected?
A: Culture. A society’s conventions, i.e. our shared usages and reactions to things, words, images, and other phenomena. We agree that these signs mean something.
= untrustworthy, 'catty', shallow
= Street animal
Language is a system of signs or signals,
which enables people to communicate with each other.

In language, the relationship between a word (or sound) and the things in the world it indicates is arbitrary and relative, not fixed.
In other words, the relationship between signifier and signified is conventional rather than natural.

As members of linguistic communities, we have entered into an unacknowledged agreement to make certain sounds mean certain things. Linguistic meaning only exists because it is shared and negotiated. It also changes.

Our world is comprised of these signs, and we make meaning by interpreting them.
“The signifier is an empty vessel into which cultural meaning is poured to
imbue it with meaning.”
(p. 118)

The sign – a signifier that has been filled with meaning – is the vehicle for cultural communication.

We can extend Saussure’s findings into
the analysis of visual signs as well.
Signifier= a red lightbulb
Signified= a command to stop
Sign= the combination of both, accepted as cultural convention
Semiotics is also useful for analyzing visual and
popular culture.

The tie is a “signifier par excellence” (115)
Sign = a tie

Signifier= a piece of cloth tied with a specific style of knot around a person's neck
Signified= professionalism, respectability
a large metal
tower in a 'A'
Signified: the beauty and
sophistication of Paris
Signified: the cheap entertainments of a British seaside resort
< The Eiffel tower
and Blackpool tower >
show us how arbitrary the connection of signification to signifier can be.
Reading &

- Visual Culture textbook, 118-127 (stop at the conclusion of the top paragraph ending ‘whole semiotic symphony’).

- Selections of “pensées” from Roland Barthes: “The Romans in Films,” “Toys,” “Ornamental Cookery,” in Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pages 26-28; 53-55; 78-80. Available for download on Blackboard.
Midterm results will be available in time for the course dropping deadline.
Full transcript