How Community Changes The Artist’s Conception

The Artist and the Standard Interpretation

The Artist and the Standard Interpretation

  • The Artist creates her artwork, with a particular symbolic meaning in mind.
  • The Art Dealer/Gallery Owner tries to explain what the artist had in mind.
  • The Art Critic sees something somewhat different by projecting his own notions on the work.
  • The Art Historian synthesizes what she’s heard, and unwittingly, and unbenownst guesses some of the original intent.
  • Ultimate truth is the one written by History, so over time, this final interpretation becomes the accepted meaning.


Living in My Own, Personal Semiosphere

I am sure I’m not getting this right when I read these seminal papers on the “semiosphere”, beginning with Juri Lotman’s “On The Semiosphere” (Sign Systems Studies 33.1. 2005).  I have to admit that the text has me confused a bit. On the one hand, Juri defines the semiosphere as an analog to the biosphere, a large, all pervading expanse of interconnected life on our planet. On the other hand, as he describes its features (what it is and what it is not), he describes examples of something which can be quite a bit smaller than the entirety of semantic discourse in the world. This includes the semiospheres of countries, language groups, and professional practitioners.

In other words, what I would call contexts.

Taking from this the idea that a semiosphere represents the sum total aggregate of the symbollic space around this context, I had a vision of myself, walking with a sphere of communication techniques and examples (language, art, gesture, expression) floating about me. This cloud represented not just anything that I had ever said or written (or otherwise communicated) but included the entirety of what I might ever say, or be able to say.

The sum total of everything I will ever be able to communicate.

The sum total of everything I will ever be able to communicate.

And then I thought of two of us coming together, each with our own spheres of semiotics, including personal and community symbols, and an ability to recognize and quickly adapt to contexts known to us. I imagine the interplay of our own personal semiospheres, one to the other, as we begin to try to communicate.

Having brought with ourselves the entirety of our communicative arsenol, we lob niceties and platitudes at each other, then observe which ones hook together in the shared semiotic space surrounding us. Not all of our personal spheres can be fit together – like oil and water, even if we give them both the name “liquid” cannot mix.

On first encounter, we may only recognize “the weather” and “the place” as subjects shared and in common. But as we meet over time, and we remember what connections we made before, we build the “bridge” of communication between us, and this bridge becomes our starting point for subsequent communication  (in other words, our context).

The Context Continuum

So my previous post about the “Origins of a Context” was grossly simplistic. That is however, a good way to get a basic idea out there. Obviously there are many complex factors and layers of influence that affect the extent and content of a context.

One way to look at context is as a continuum from the very small to the very large. This “size” measurement is a reflection of the number of people who share the context, not necessarily the size of the population of concepts and symbols within it.

As I’ve said in other places, a context is defined by its membership first, and its content second.

Hence, by my definition, the smallest context is defined by a single human being. That person would create contexts of a private nature: mementos of their life and personal mnemonics. If the person were artistic, they might create art and artifacts of personal importance. These personal symbols would remain private until the person shares them with someone else.

As soon as they have been shared, even if only with one other person, these artifacts take on additional meaning and become community symbols. Once they have been placed into a larger community, further refinement and re-enforcement of the symbol becomes a community activity. For the original “artist”, their conception can take on a life of its own, and they may lose control over it.

As more and more people become aware of a symbol, the broader the context becomes. But in addition, the symbol itself will begin to change its meaning, either becoming much more generic and broad, or tightening up to some exclusively minimized idea. As soon as this happens (and it happens almost immediately after it begins to be shared) correct interpretation of the symbol must, by definition, take into account which context’s version of the symbol is being considered. Other writers have referred to this issue as one of identifying the “situational” meaning of the symbol, while others talk about the symbol’s “frame”. In my mind these are the same thing as what I’m calling “context”.

So what does this continuum of contexts look like? I’ve drawn a first draft diagram of the smooth transition from personal symbol to the “semiosphere”. It identifies the types and relative sizes of contexts and presents some of the names of their various features. It also shows where in the continuum various types of study and research fall.

I make no claims of absolute accuracy here, and invite comments from experts in these fields (and any others who want to project onto my template).


Continuum of Context from Single Person to Semiosphere

Continuum of Context from Single Person to Semiosphere


Context Switching: Image and Identity

Prof. Lindsay Clark responded to a comment I made on her blog by describing her thoughts about the differences between self image, self identity and social identity.

If I may try to separate her concepts a little, I think that “self identity” I might define loosely as the “meaning I want to project to the world about who I am”. In other words, its the information I want to share, the things I want the world to think about me. 

I might consider that “self image” be defined as “what I think I mean to myself alone”. This being private, I would tend to keep a lot more of my interior personna to myself than I try to project. 

Leaving “social identity” to be defined as “what others think I represent or stand for (or, the meaning of me in the world)”. This would be the amalgamation of “messages received” not necessarily the messages I intended to send.

And while I think there would be strong relationships and hopefully a good bit of overlap among these three sets, they are necessarily not the same things.

The teenager example Prof. Clark chose is a good one because it shows these ideas in microcosm. She wrote:

The artifacts of this tend to be personal and may not be able to be recognized by anyone else. (e.g. a teenager who keeps the bottle cap from the soda he was drinking when he had his first kiss)….

The individual may consciously or unconsciously try to affect that perception through symbolic artifacts. (e.g. a teenager who displays a poster of the latest hit band in his locker). These artifacts, for obvious reasons, tend to be social symbols which are recognized by all people of that social group.

Here is an annotated short story in the voice of an imagined teenager to illustrate how I have made distinctions amongst these terms. My apologies to the professor if this is not exactly what she had in mind…

I have a poster of my favorite singer because I really am a fan of music, and music is an important aspect of who I am. Having that poster reminds me of how much I like music (self image). I put the poster in my locker because I want to tell my friends a message about how much I like music, and in particular how much I like my favorite singer (self identity). But this backfired on me because my peers and cohorts think my favorite singer is (fill in the negative connotation here) “babyish” and now my classmates think I am definitely the same (social identity).

If we take the poster itself and consider it as just a, what I call, “syntactic medium” (quickly, this is something that can be used to carry a projected meaning or concept), we can see there are three different meanings depending on the point of view and situation (context).

In my private context (the dialog I have with myself) I am excited, enthused and my sense of self is re-energized when I see my poster.

In the hallway at school, my friends (cohort context) see the poster and are reminded that I really like the singer. They may not like them as much, but being my friends, they have received the message that this singer is important to me (that I enjoy them), and they may now be on the lookout for other souvenirs of that artist on my behalf.

But in the larger high school environment (community context), my poster has now caused some of the disdain my peers hold for the singer to have been transferred onto me. Oh well, at least my friends understand me…

What I like about this story is that it also illustrates how easily we humans can shift from one context to another seemlessly. In the span of three sentences, our teenager can express what that one symbol represents in three different contexts.

As a software developer, I can tell you how miraculous that talent of ours is, because software cannot do it! Software (at least as the world currently develops it) would necessarily only understand one of the three contexts.

Semantics of Architecture, Personal and Public

Poking around the blogosphere (should that be capitalized…?) this weekend, I came across Prof. Lindsay Clark’s blog describing some of her research interests in how architectural space becomes a “symbolic space”. I would love to see more details of her thinking there.

If I apply my own thought process to an architectural space, I could see several ways in which that space could be imbued with meaning. 

First of all, as an individual person living in a space, even a simple box-like room, that space will begin to acquire meaning by virtue of my living in it.

 “This corner is where I stood when I first saw the 9-11 video.”

 “I was sitting right here, just so, when I got the phone call about the birth of my nephew.”

 “The last thing she did when she left was to drop the key right there on that spot on the carpet.”

But this meaning is private, personal, and not at all obvious. Anyone else who comes into my physical abode, won’t notice these things, unless they happened to be in the room at the same time and hence remembered these events for themselves.

Second, I could embellish or alter my little space in various ways. I could paint it (with a pattern or not), add images or statuary, or architectural elements, etc. These too may or may not present themselves to a second person as terribly meaningful, unless my selection of elements includes icons or references from some community we both happen to share.

Third, I could imagine, as an architect, working very hard at embedding cultural (community) references through the use of shape and structure, materials, position and location, etc. While I would try to be clever about such symbology, I would likely also try to not be too esoteric, lest my intent be lost on the majority of visitors to the space. The best work, I would think, would appear fresh and clever, and be mostly obvious or at least easily accessed/discovered through direct experience of the space without other forms of description.

 (Nothing like ruining a good joke or a good symbol by having to explain it over and over…)

In this sense, the referents of the structure’s symbols should be recognized through the context of the surrounding environment as experienced in conjunction with or on approach to the space.  

A structure whose meaning requires explicit description (say through placards or brochures) becomes less a symbol in its own right, and more just an exhibit space. While the purpose and meaning of the Egyptian pyramids of Giza in their particulars are not obvious, their size, shape, age and location lends an obvious gravitas to them that I imagine a visitor can not help but recognize, even if they don’t read the brochure. Such a space is what I would describe as a symbolic space.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never been, but would love to go someday).

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