Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, "Semiotics and Art History," The Art Bulletin (Vol. 73, No. 2, June 1991) 174-298.
annotation by Kristan Hanson (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)

In "Semiotics and Art History," Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson critique those tenets and practices of art history that cleave to positivist views of knowledge, and alternatively, they posit a set of semiotic tools that can further art historical analyses. The methodological approach of placing an artwork in its context proves especially problematic for Bal and Bryson, for context is produced and is itself a text consisting of signs that require interpretation. Thus, it is imperative that art historians consider an artwork as both an effect of past social practices and an affect of our own interaction with the work.

Bal and Bryson also concern themselves with the suitability of various methodological approaches for interdisciplinary studies. They argue that semiotics, by virtue of its supradisciplinary status, lends itself to interdisciplinary studies because of its ability to cross from one discipline to another without creating any hierarchical distinctions or an eclectic transfer of concepts. With regards to art history proper, Bal and Bryson propose a semiotic turn that would dissolve the privileging of language over visual representation. For example, narratology (the study of images that contain a non-literary narrative) provides for the description and interpretation of narrative images in a way that articulates their visual storytelling, without reducing them to illustration.

The article is divided into eight sections; the first three sections being devoted to a semiotic critique of three issues central to the work of art historians: context, senders, and receivers. For Bal and Bryson, context as a key term in art history, refers to (at least) the context of the production of works of art, as well as the context of their commentary in art-historical discourse. Likewise, the status of the concept of the artist, whether in a modernist or a humanist discourse, must be negotiated in relationship to the position of the art historian, as any account fashioned about the artist is also within the field of the sign and semiosis. With regards to the study of reception in art history, Bal and Bryson argue the necessity of investigating the institutional forces that identify reception with certain groups, rather than others, as well as those forces that have denied the multiplicity of the experience of viewing in favor of a single clearly delineated narrative.

The next two sections offer a brief discussion of the historic development of two traditions within semiotics, focusing on the work of Charles Sandres Peirce and that of Ferdinand Saussure. The icon, index, symbol, typology is central to Peircean semotics: an icon is a symbol that possesses the character of the object that it signifies, even though its object has no existence ("a lead pencil streak as representing a geometric line"); an index is a sign that indicates its antecedent object by virtue of existential contiguity ("a piece of mould with a bullet-hole in it as a sign of a shot’); and a symbol is a sign that refers to its object through a conventional rule of correlation that is dependent upon the intellectual operation of an interpretant ("any utterance of speech which signifies what it does only by virtue of its being understood to have that signification"). Bal and Bryson then consider two further aspects of semiotics that are less directly related to the social history of art, psychoanalysis and narratology. In discussing psychoanalysis as a semiotic theory, Bal and Bryson critique four strands of criticism that derive from Freudian thought—the analogical model, the medical model, the specification model and the hermeneutic model—before turning to Jacques Lacan’s work on the role of signification in the formation of visual subjectivity and the stages of visual experience. In their section on narratology, Bal and Bryson stress the importance of the two-sided structure of narrative, and argue that narrative semiotics allows for an insightful reading of visual narrative apart from an analysis of visual allusions to verbal narrative.

In the last section of the article, Bal and Bryson engage with the complications that a semiotic approach introduces into the role of history, focusing upon intertextuality and iconography in relation to the location of meaning, as well as the polysemous nature of signs. They conclude with the assertion that a sign is not a thing, but an event that occurs in a historically and socially specific situation that is then interpreted within a framework of socially constructed codes. Hence, any semiotic view of art history must consider the power structures at work in this framing.