Semiotic Semantics

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:

David Gothard – “Criminal Minds”

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.

Banksy – Norwegian Street Art

4 thoughts on “Semiotic Semantics”

  1. Awesome work David. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Your insights are very clever and allowed me to think about art with a different mindset and from a different perspective. I never really felt that art was a personal experience until reading your analysis. The rhetorical questions you asked also invited me to use my own knowledge as a reader of this post and sparked me to evaluate the purpose of some artist’s deeper meanings behind their pieces. I also felt that the stand-alone sentence “because art is personal” really helped to sum up your post and sanctioned a personal response within me. Good job!


  2. I really appreciated your style of writing from the moment you shared this in class. Such a clean read, you get the point across without rambling too much – something I wish I could do naturally. Your vocabulary showcases your level of knowledge on the subject and by including rhetorical questions you have invited your readers to engage further with your work. Continuously referring back to the theme’s keywords also helps your audience stay on track. I really enjoyed reading your piece, the way you have incorporated subtle humour while maintaining a sense of professionalism keeps things interesting. Keep it up!


  3. What an incredible piece of work David. Your in depth nature into what art is and how it portrays many different things was written so precisely. I felt like I was able to take away something from this personally as someone who has always struggled to understand the meanings behind art. This post allows different perspectives to come in and all leave with different more complex thoughts. references to the topic at hand and keeping a strong consistent tone meant that it was easy to follow and well executed. I appreciate this post for what it delivers.


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