Reading #3: Theory: Semiotics, Hermeneutics

In Richard Howells’ and Joaquim Negreiros book Visual Culture, the chapter “Ideology” addresses different approaches that have been taken to dissect and interpret art. There is a debate amongst various author about how to analyze works of art. Should you look at the aesthetic qualities or should you focus on how the work fits into the society of its time? Is it relevant to discuss how a work fits into today’s world? Roland Barthes thinks that it is worthwhile to view a work in today context because the author of the work is essentially “dead” once the work leaves their hands.
I found it interested to read about John Berger’s perspective on how the ruling class has made art seem exclusive and incomprehensible to the masses. Some of that division can still be seen today. Many people seem to be intimidated by art museums and insecure about their own abilities to understand art.
Berger’s observations about women in art are particularly interesting. Women have absolutely been portrayed as objects in Western art and it makes me wonder if these depictions are at least partially responsible for perpetuating unhealthy perceptions of women in today’s society. Female celebrities are more heavily scrutinized for how they look and dress as opposed to being judged based on their talents. The section about women in paintings frequently being nude reminded me of work by the activist group Guerrilla Girls.


How do we solve this discrepancy? Even though this graphic was made over 30 years ago, the current stats have barely changed. Should curators try to balance out male and female nudes? Should they balance out male and female artists? Or is that censoring the blatant discrimination of the past? Perhaps there should be some sort of a disclaimer that addresses how women are portrayed in art similar to the disclaimer that Warner Brother’s plays before some of their old prejudiced cartoons.


In the next chapter, “Semiotics,” the arbitrary nature of signs is discussed. They used examples of car names needing to be changed based on the country they are sold in. In the U.S. a Pinto is a type of horse whereas in Portugal it is a slang term for male genitalia. In that case, the sign remained the same but what it signified changed.
In the same way, logos sometimes have to change between cultures. For example, the Red Cross seeks to provide aid worldwide. However, in Muslim countries, the “cross” symbol can be seen as hostile because it looks like a Christian symbol. To accommodate these perceptions, the organization also operates under the Red Crescent (to be more Muslim-friendly) and the Red Diamond (to be more neutral).


In the next chapter, “Hermeneutics,” the authors tackle the difficult task of defining the word “culture.” It can be used to mean educated and cultivated. It can be used in the anthropological context of human customs and beliefs. The latter is significantly more broad. The chapter title refers to the study of interpretation. I thought it was interesting how difficult it is to understand cultural customs. Researchers like Geertz admitted that the study of cultures is not scientific.
Slightly related to cultural customs— when I was traveling around Europe, my friends and I walked almost everywhere around towns sightseeing. I noticed there was no sidewalk rules or etiquette. Here in the U.S., we always walk on the right no matter what. That way it is easy to pass slower people by zipping around to the left. Sidewalks in Europe were just pure anarchy and I found it frustrating when we were in a hurry. I’m not sure why no one was bothered by this.
I found an interesting BBC article about this. Apparently there are rules about sidewalk etiquette in Great Britain, but nobody follows them.
BBC Sidewalk Etiquette


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