People have been interpreting signs ever since the weekend sport was playing tag with a giant saber-toothed cat and the prize was survival. Since then, we have given a name to the practice of looking at things and thinking what they could mean and what they do mean. Semiotics can be invaluable when trying to get a certain message across to an audience of any size. Take this image:
What is represented in this image is a devil sitting in the tree growing out of the head of a boy who is buried underground. The connotations of this image aren’t quite as easy to ascertain. This image may have been designed to add credence to one side of the “nature versus nurture” debate. It might have been created to underline a point about the corruptibility of innocence, or that sinful thinking will yield no fruit. This image was actually created by artist David Gothard for an article in Utne Reader, entitled “Criminal Minds”, which spoke about predicting violent behaviour in people from an early age using brain scans. What this can tell us about interpreting art is that without context, you might struggle to understand what the artist is trying to convey.
But does it really matter what message an artist is trying to deliver to the wider world? If it isn’t obvious to an audience, then why bother making it in the first place? Why should we, the audience, bear the responsibility of interpretation?
Because art is personal.
Art belongs as much to the public as it does the artist. Street signs, graffiti, doodles on the back of a notepad can all be interpreted in different ways. All of them can be called art. Without context, a region specific hazard sign could mean one of many things depending on how you see it and in what circumstances. Semiotics, in theory, is as easy as a flow chart, but when applied practically, it can get to be quite semantic.