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QOQQOON (cocoon) is a webzine for writing by artists. We also republish hard-to-find pdfs online. In our current issue (#4), we are thinking about compromise. Submissions are welcome. Edited by Leigh Tennant and Steven Cottingham. Published on unceded, traditional, and ancestral Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territories (Vancouver, Canada) since 2018. ISSN 2563-4364.

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QOQQOON//Art as semiological fact

Art as semiological fact

It is becoming increasingly clear that the framework of the individual consciousness is determined, even in its most intimate levels, by contents which belong to the collective consciousness. Hence the problems of sign and meaning are becoming more and more urgent. For every mental content which transcends the limitations of individual consciousness gains from the mere fact of its communicability the character of a sign. The science of signs (semiology according to Saussure, sematology according to Bühler) must be worked out in all its implications; just as contemporary linguistics (e.g. the investigations of the Prague school, i.e. the Prague Linguistic Circle) is extending the field of semantics by dealing with all the elements of the linguistic system—even sounds—from this viewpoint, so the discoveries of linguistic semantics should be applied to all other series of signs and distinguished according to their special features. There is even a whole group of sciences particularly concerned with the problems of the sign (as also in those of structure and value which—let it be said in passing—are closely related to those of the sign; in this way the work of art is at one and the same time sign, structure, and value). These are the so-called ‘moral sciences’ (Geisteswissenschajten, sciences morales), which all work with a material that more or less clearly has the character of a sign, as a result of their double existence—in the world of the senses and in the collective consciousness.

The work of art can neither be identified, as psychological aesthetics claimed, with the creator’s state of mind nor with any of the states of mind that it provokes in the subjects who perceive it: it is clear that every state of subjective consciousness has something individual and momentary about it which makes it ineffable and incommunicable in its totality, while the work of art is intended to mediate between the author and the collectivity. We still have to reckon however with the ‘thing’ that represents the work of art in the world of the senses and is accessible to the perception of all without any degree of restriction. But the work of art cannot any more be reduced to its simple status as a ‘thing-work’, for it may happen that a ‘thing-work’ completely changes its aspect and its inner structure when it moves in time and space. Such alterations become palpable when, for example, we compare one to another a series of consecutive translations of the same literary work. The ‘thing-work’ thus only has the function of an external symbol (the ‘signifier’ in Saussure’s terminology) to which there corresponds in the collective consciousness a distinct signification (occasionally called the ‘aesthetic object’), which is conferred by what is common to the different subjective states of consciousness provoked in the members of a particular collectivity by the ‘thing-work’.

Beyond this central core which belongs to the collective consciousness, there are obviously, in every act of perception of a work of art, subjective mental elements approximating to those that Fechner understood by the term ‘associative factors’ of aesthetic perception. These subjective elements may themselves be objectified as well, but only insofar as their general quality or quantity are determined by the central core that is situated in the collective consciousness. For example, the subjective mental state that accompanies the perception of an impressionist painting by any particular individual, is quite different in kind from that which a cubist work arouses. As far as quantitative differences go, it is obvious that the number of subjective representations and emotions is greater for a surrealist literary work than it is for a classical work of art; the surrealist poem leaves it to the reader to imagine almost the entire contexture of the theme for himself, while the classical poem almost totally suppresses his freedom of subjective association by its ‘concise’ enunciation. In this way the subjective components of the mental state of the perceiving subject gain an objectively semiological character, comparable to that possessed by the ‘accessory’ meanings of a word. This happens through the intermediacy of the core, which belongs to collective consciousness.

I wish to bring these general remarks to a close. But let me add that in refusing to identify the work of art with the subjective state of mind, we are also rejecting at the same time any hedonistic theory. That is to say, the pleasure that a work of art arouses can at most attain an indirect objectification as a potential ‘accessory’ meaning: it would be incorrect to claim that it is an indispensable component part in the perception of every work of art. If there are periods in the development of art in which the tendency to arouse this pleasure exists, then there are also others which are indifferent to it, or strive for precisely the opposite effect.

According to the customary definition, the sign is a sensuous reality related to another reality which it is designed to evoke. We are thus forced to ask the question, what is this other reality for which the work of art is a substitute? We might, of course, be satisfied with the observation that the work of art is an autonomous sign characterized solely by the fact that it serves as a mediator between the members of the same collectivity. But that would only be to evade the question of the relation between the ‘work-thing’ and the reality at which it is aimed, not to resolve it. If there are signs that are related to no distinct reality, there is nonetheless always something aimed at by the sign; and this arises very naturally from the fact that the sign must be understood in the same way by both its emitter and its receiver. This ‘something’ is, however, not distinctly determined in the case of autonomous signs. What then is the nature of this indeterminate reality at which the work of art aims? It is the total context of so-called social phenomena: e.g. philosophy, politics, religion, economics, etc. That is why art more than any other social phenomenon is capable of characterizing and representing a given ‘epoch’; that is why for a long time the history of art has been lumped together with the history of culture in the widest sense of the term and, inversely, general history has been content to borrow the conjunctures in the history of art for the mutual demarcation of its periods.

The link between certain works of art and the total context of social phenomena does indeed seem very loose. This is the case, for example, with the so-called ‘poètes maudits’, whose works are alien to contemporary scales of value. But it is for precisely this reason that they remain excluded from literature, and the collectivity only takes them up when it becomes capable of expressing the social context as a result of its own evolution. I should make one explanatory remark here in order to avoid misunderstanding. When I say that the work of art aims at the context of social phenomena, that does not mean that it necessarily coincides with this context in such a manner that without further ado it can be understood as immediate testimony for it, or a passive reflection of it. Like every sign, it can have an indirect relation, e.g. one that is metaphorical or oblique in some other way, to the thing that it signifies, without for all that ceasing to refer to it. From the semiological character of art, it emerges that the work of art can never be exploited as a historical or sociological document unless its documentary value, i.e. the quality of its relation to the given context of social phenomena, has first been interpreted. Let me bring together the essential points of the discussion hitherto. The objective study of the phenomena of ‘art’ is directed to the work of art as a sign which is composed of a sensuous symbol created by the artist, of a signification (that is, aesthetic object) which is laid down in the collective consciousness, and of a relation to the signified thing, the relation which refers to the total context of social phenomena. The second of these components comprises the structure of the work proper.

* * *

But this does not exhaust the problems of the semiology of art. Alongside its function as an autonomous sign, the work of art has yet another function: that of a communicative sign. Thus a poem acts not only as a work of art, but also at the same time as a ‘parole’ (speech) which expresses a mental state, an idea, a feeling etc. There are arts in which this communicative function is very obvious (poetry, painting, sculpture), and others where it seems to be concealed (dancing) or even wholly invisible (music, architecture). Let me set aside the difficult problem of the latent presence or complete absence of the communicative element in music and architecture (although here too I would be inclined to recognize a diffuse communicative element; compare the family relationship between musical melody and linguistic intonation, whose communicative power is obvious), and turn to those arts whose functioning as communicative signs is indisputable. These are the arts in which there is a ‘subject’ (theme, content), and in which the subject seems at first sight to function as a communicative signification of the work. In reality, every component of a work of art, including the most ‘formal’, possesses a communicative value of its own, which is independent of the ‘subject’. Thus the colours and lines of a picture mean ‘something’, even in the absence of any kind of subject (cf. Kandinsky’s ‘absolute’ painting or the works of certain surrealist painters). The communicative power of ‘subjectless’ art, the power which I have described as diffuse, depends precisely on this potential semiological character of the ‘formal’ components. Strictly speaking, the total artistic structure functions once again as signification, indeed as communicative signification of the work of art. The subject of the work simply has the role of a crystallization point for this signification which would otherwise remain vague. The work of art thus has a double semiological signification, as autonomous and communicative, the second case being reserved primarily for the arts that have a ‘subject’. In the development of these arts, we see the emergence, with greater or less force, of a dialectical antinomy between the function of the autonomous sign and the function of the communicative sign. The history of prose (the novel, the short story) provides especially typical examples of this.

Even more subtle difficulties arise if we pose the question of the relation between art and the things signified from the standpoint of communication. This relation is distinct from that which links every art, insofar as it consists of autonomous signs, with the total context of social phenomena. For, as a communicative sign, art is directed towards a distinct reality, e.g. a determinate event, a particular person or place, etc. In this respect, art resembles purely communicative signs; but the essential difference is that the communicative connection between the work of art and the signified thing has no existential value, even in those cases where such a value is asserted. As far as the subject of the work of art goes, it is impossible to formulate as a postulate the question of documentary authenticity, to the extent that we envisage the work as an artistic product. This does not mean that modifications in its connection to the thing signified are of no importance for the work of art: they act as factors in its structure. It is very important for the structure of a given work to know whether it conceives its subject as ‘real’ (even on occasions as documentary) or as ‘fictional’, or whether it oscillates between these two poles. Works could also be found which are based on a parallelism and a mutual equilibrium of the double relations to a distinct reality, one of which is without existential value and the other purely communicative. This is the case, for example, with a portrait in painting or sculpture, which is at once a communication of the person represented and a work of art without existential value; in literature the historical novel and the fictional biography are characterized by the same duality. These variations in the relation to reality play an important part in the structure of all the arts that work with a subject, but the theoretical investigation of these arts should never lose sight of the real essence of the subject, which lies in its status as a unit of meaning, and in no sense a passive copy of reality, even where it is a matter of ‘realistic’ or ‘naturalistic’ work. To sum up, the study of the structure of the work of art necessarily remains incomplete so long as the semiological character of art has not been thoroughly investigated. Without semiological orientation, the art theorist will always be open to the temptation to treat the work of art as a purely formal construction, or else as an immediate reflection either of the mental or the physiological dispositions of the author, or of the distinct reality expressed by the work, viz. the ideological, economic, social and cultural situation of a given milieu. This leads the theorist either to discuss the development of art as a series of formal transformations, or to deny this development completely (as is the case in certain tendencies of psychological aesthetics), or in the last resort to conceive it as a passive commentary on a development which is merely external to art. Only the semiological viewpoint allows theorists to recognize the autonomous existence and essential dynamics of the artistic structure, and to grasp the development of art as an immanent movement which also has a constant dialectical relation to the development of the other domains of culture.

* * *

The outline of a semiological study of art which has been briefly sketched here has as its aim: (1) to give a partial illustration of one particular aspect of the dichotomy between the natural sciences and the moral sciences, the theme of a whole section of this Congress; (2) to emphasize the importance of the semiological approach for aesthetics and the history of art. Let me finally bring together my main ideas in the form of theses:

A. The problem of the sign is, together with the problems of structure and value, one of the essential problems of the moral sciences, all of which work with material that more or less markedly has the character of a sign. Hence the discoveries of linguistic semantics should be applied to the material of these sciences—especially to those whose semiological character is most evident—which must be differentiated in accordance with the specific characteristics of the material in question.

B. The work of art has the character of a sign. It cannot be identified with the individual state of its originator’s consciousness, nor with that of the subjects who perceive the work, nor with what I have called the work-thing. It exists as an ‘aesthetic object’, whose location is in the consciousness of the whole collectivity. The sensuously perceivable work-thing is, in relation to this immaterial object, only an external symbol; the individual states of consciousness provoked by the work-thing represent the aesthetic object only in terms of what they all hold in common.

C. Every work of art is an autonomous sign, composed of (1) the ‘work-thing’, which functions as a sensuous symbol, (2) the ‘aesthetic object’, which is laid down in the collective consciousness and functions as the ‘signification’, (3) the relation to the thing signified, a relation which does not aim at a distinct existence—since it is a matter of an autonomous sign—but at the total context of social phenomena (science, philosophy, religion, politics, economy, etc.) in a given environment.

D. The arts of ‘subject’ (that is, theme or content) have a second semiological function: the communicative function. Here the sensuous symbol naturally remains the same as in the other cases; here again the signification is given by the aesthetic object as a whole, in just the same way. But, among the components of this object, it has a privileged carrier which functions as a crystallization point for the diffuse communicative power of the other components; this is the subject of the work. The relation to the thing signified refers to a distinct existence (an event, person, thing, etc.), as with every communicative sign. By virtue of this quality, the work of art thus resembles the purely communicative sign. However, the relation between the work of art and the thing signified has no existential value, and this is a major difference from purely communicative signs. The question of documentary authenticity cannot be formulated as a postulate as regards the subject of a work of art, insofar as we judge it as an artistic product. This does not mean that modifications in the relation to the thing signified (i.e. different degrees in the scale ‘reality/fiction’) are of no significance for the work of art: they function as factors in its structure.

E. Both semiological functions, the communicative and the autonomous, which coexist in the arts of subject, combine to form one of the essential dialectical antinomies in the development of these arts; their duality finds expression, throughout this development, in the constant oscillation of the relationship to reality.

–Jan Mukařovský, 1934

This text was originally delivered at the VIIIth International Congress of Philosophy held in Prague, 1934. This version comes from Stephen Bann, ed., Visual Poetics (20th Century Studies) (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, December 1976).

Cover image: Hal Fischer, Leather Apparel from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977,  gelatin silver print, 16 x 20 in. (41 x 51 cm).