Meaning and Understanding of Various Semantic Units

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There are three basic semiotic methods of examination: interpretation, formalization and language analysis. Every cultural output may become a semantic unit. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, only interpretation is suitable for understanding of such units, on semiotic, as well as on semantic levels. Meanings of semantic units depend on different factors: sense of exactness is natural for sciences, therefore they require clear interpretation of signs; high art leads us to connotative ambiguity and philosophy usually doubts any meaning.

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The concepts used especially from 1960s to 1980s state that in the moment the text leaves its author’s hands, it finds itself in the endless queue of possible interpretations. “We can accept something like Popper’s principle, according to which there exist rules for making decisions about what interpretations are the best, but there is also a rule allowing us to learn which ones are “bad”. Internal coherency must be seen as the parameter of interpretation.” Hence, the text is accessible to either semantic (naïve) or semiotic (critical) reader that is able to identify inner meanings not even intended by the author. Such interpretation is justified, or more precisely right only if it follows the intention of the text.

The basic shapes have their own symbolism. The square indicates stableness and unity, but, paradoxically, advertising uses it only rarely. The triangle is symbolically connected with spiritual world; it can symbolize flame, God, infinity, movement, pyramid or fertility. The circle may affect the recipients as easy impression; it reminds us of perfection or change. Generally speaking, the oval shapes evoke balance and peace. In thousands of cases, they are directly implemented into the corporate logo.

Unfinished shapes are the best for attracting attention, although they do not always communicate the most desired meaning. Colours are amongst the essential symbolic languages of advertising. They appeal directly to our feelings and stimulate our emotions. Combinations of colours help us to create fictitious worlds. The interpretation of art vary always as recipients may not be a homogenous group. In addition to Eco‟s theory of the open work this concept is also related to the statements of Stuart Hall that define how particular groups and sub-groups of the society bring their own experience into the process of interpretation.

The human visual system extracts and groups similar features and separates dissimilar ones, segments the scene into coherent patterns, identifies objects, distinguishes between figure and ground, perceives object properties and parts, and recognizes perceptual organization (Palmer, 1999). Our ability to perceive figures and meaningful wholes instead of collections of lines have been described in terms of gestalt principles of (a) proximity, (b) similarity, (c) closure, (d) continuation, and (e) symmetry (Köhler, 1947).

Visual social semiotics inherits the concept of metafunctionality from Halliday (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2006[1996]: 20), which is the idea that three types of meaning are always simultaneously conveyed in communication, namely ideational, interpersonal and textual meaning. Ideational meaning is the functional representation of the world around us, and it is often divided into two separate metafunctions, named the experiential and the logical metafunction. The experiential metafunction is visually evident through processes (e.g. action), participants (e.g. the actor or the goal) and circumstantials (e.g. the setting).

The logical metafunction is about the complex relations between several processes and participants in the same image. The interpersonal metafunction is made up of interpersonal relations between the communicative participants as they are realized in the text. In visual communication, this is realized through different viewpoint and modality systems (Boeriis, 2009). The textual metafunction is the structural meaning of an image in the composition where elements ‘are integrated into a meaningful whole’ (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2006[1996]: 176).

One of the more difficult representation problems, then, concerns interpreting those artifacts that were created within modes of discourse that value opaqueness and subjectivity; these are typically aesthetic or artistic artifacts, and the problem becomes even more difficult when there is no related text with which to focus the interpretation.

One of the most influential theorists to address the problem of “meaning” in the arts is Erwin Panofsky. In his Studies in Iconology, Panofsky presented a theoretical system that allowed for interpretations of Renaissance paintings in light of philosophy, classical mythology, and general humanistic knowledge (Panofsky, 1962). Although Studies in Iconology is not formally part of the semiotic tradition and predates much of the work in that field; iconological and semiotic interpretation have much in common. Semiotics is the belief that meaning is constructed and understood in terms of sign systems, and that it is possible to study the relationship between actors in a culture and cultural artifacts via these signs (Eco, 1979). Semiotics as a field of study was founded by mathematician and logician Charles Sanders Pierce and retains some characteristics of his scientific, mathematically based thought. Many fields use semiotics as a basis for cultural interpretation.

Panofsky’s model of iconological representation;

  1. Pure formalistic analysis (Pre- iconographic interpretation)
  2. Pure descriptive
  3. Iconographical Interpretation

Image cataloger’s conception of image meaning and classification Markey (1983):

Primary subject matter- Image; line, form, volume, texture, pattern, colour etc.

Secondary subject mater- theme or concepts manifested in images, stories and allegories Krause (1988): i. Hard-objects and actions within the image.

Soft- subjective, responsive qualities of an image Shatford (1986): i. of-ness- factual delineation of objects and entities within image.

About-ness- expressional qualities of an image.

Shatford (1986) also used Panofsky as a model, but whereas Krause and markey seem to be willing to believe that it is possible to consistently catalog at the iconographical level, Shatford suggests that even at this somewhat basic secondary level, unless an image cataloger has a deep and abiding knowledge of the images under their care, iconographical descriptions is an impartial goal for most systems or institutions.

The power and continued importance of semiotics as a useful field of philosophical thought. However, it should be noted that the use of semiotics as an interpretative tool is predicated on conceptualization of the primary artifact, whether that artifact is an image, film, piece of music, or even an entire culture as a kind of “text,” which can be “read.” While visually based art has similarities with language, they are not equal, and have different processes, goals, and ultimately require a different set of representation tools.

In Panofsky’s hierarchy, there are three levels to the interpretation of a painting: pre-iconographic, iconographic, and iconological. The pre-iconographic description is related to the factual, elementary, and easily understandable aspects of a work. In the pre-iconographic interpretation of a work of art the scholar identifies pure forms, lines, colors, and volumes represented in a painting. This act is called “pure formalistic analysis,” and is the basis on which an art historian is able to approach the description of the basic emotional states inherent in a work.

Unfortunately, even though this is considered the most basic level of description, Panofsky argued that it is difficult if not impossible for humans to objectively describe, using words, the volume, line, and forms in an image. Instead, viewers tend to identify objects: “that’s a horse,” “that’s a man,” & etc. They also tend to make assumptions, correct or not, about those objects, given their knowledge about the work. Panofsky believed that these assumptions make it essentially impossible to objectively think about the formal properties and emotional qualities of an image. In an attempt to rectify this shortcoming, Panofsky introduced a corrective principle, the “history of style,” whereby the scholar’s assumptions and preconceived notions would be sublimated through a focus on an artifact’s stylistic context, and any subsequent descriptions and interpretations would be grounded in historical and stylistic scholarship.

The second, iconographical level of interpretation is the level at which the scholar attempts to connect artistic motifs or groups of motifs, which were identified generically in the pre-iconographic analysis, with traditional themes or concepts. The Greek root for this word, graphein, means “to write,” and implies a purely descriptive, even statistical method or procedure. Iconography, for Panofsky, is important to establish dates and provenance and occasionally authenticity. It also furnishes the basis for further interpretation. At this level, the scholar is collecting and classifying evidence, and must make qualitative distinctions between important and unimportant elements in a work.

The ability to make these distinctions comes from deep familiarity with specific themes and concepts transmitted through literary sources, either through reading or oral tradition. Panofsky also judged the objective completion of this iconographical level as impossible without some supplemental corrective, in this case not a corrective related to style, but to types. For Panofsky, the only way to make assertions regarding the roles of the figures in any image would be through a thorough knowledge of the stories, the characteristics of the actors in the stories, and the importance of types in depiction of those stories.

Iconological interpretation is the third level of Panofsky’s model, and is the point at which the scholar focuses on “ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical association... qualified by one personality and condensed into one work” (Panofsky, 1962; pp. 30).

lconological interpretation is dependent on, and clarifies, the compositional and iconographical elements identified in the pre-iconographic and iconographic interpretations. The Greek root for iconology, logos, means “thought” or “reason,” and implies something interpretative rather than analytical. In an iconological interpretation the scholar considers the work of art as a symptom of “something else,” and interprets the formal and iconographical characteristics simply as more particularized evidence of this “something else” (Summers, 1989). Panofsky believed that the intellectual job for art historians was discovery and interpretation of these symbolic values apparent through iconological interpretation, which may be unknown to the artist, or might even be emphatically different from the image’s intended purpose or artistic expression.

Iconological interpretation and description of an image is, at a very deep and basic level, an intricate and complicated undertaking. Notwithstanding this complexity, art historians adopted Panofsky’s methodology as the primary means of interpretation for the next 30 or so years. The concept of iconology has also had a formative impact on image catalogers’ conception of image meaning and classification. Markey (1983) posited that primary and secondary subject matter were the means by which image catalogers could represent an image within a system: Primary subject matter is normally an objective description an image, while secondary subject matter focuses on identifying cultural symbols and is based on the prior identification of primary subject matter.

Indexing and retrieval by primary subject matter involves identification of the form, color, and pattern of visual images as a representation of the real world, and indexing and retrieval by secondary subject matter involves the identification of themes or concepts manifested in images, stories, and allegories. These two levels of subject matter map to Pansofsky’s first two iconological levels, pre-iconographical and iconographical. Krause (1988) developed a similar framework, defining “hard” and “soft” indexing: hard indexing being the relatively objective description of objects and actions within an image; soft indexing relating to the more subjective, responsive qualities in an image

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