Theory & History


To say that something is semantic is to say that something is meaningful. In a trivial way, all art and all experience are semantic because human being (with “being” being seen as a verb – we are always “doing being human,”) can only be meaningful. To be aware of anything is to sense the meaning of that thing or it’s “meaningless,” – a kind of meaningful. If you perceive a cloud, the “meaning” of the cloud is at least it’s status as a noun – a thing your mind apprehends. If that cloud is shaped like something in your imagination — a duck or an eagle, for example, — the cloud becomes “over-determined.” It “means” both cloud and the imagined shape and you can choose to select between those two meanings. The structure of your conscious mind won’t let you render the cloud as meaningful in both ways at the same time. Exactly like the duck-rabbit figure, experience can mean one thing at once. Human beings can toggle back and forth between sustainable meanings, but there’s always only one meaning held in presence at any given time.

The deliberate manipulation of meaning makes a work semantic. Again, this is nothing new. Artists use pigment or material to “re-present,” something else. By employing well-known techniques of perspective and shadow, a representational painter might make a canvass “mean” a depiction of a landscape or a portrait. An abstract artist, on the other hand, attempts to make the canvas “mean” just the canvass (though, more accurately, she or he is making the canvass “mean” a work of art – its own distinct thing and hardly meaningless.”)

To create a work as semantic and nothing but semantic – the distillation of meaning as meaning – requires the use of technology. Three technologies that work include geometry (invented in classical Greece), written language (invented four or five thousand years ago), and semantic sound (discerned from the moment humans first became conscious beings). Let’s take examples of the first two as they are applied to art:

Geometry and meaning: Sol Lewitt

Geometry is a technology. More of human history has been lived without an explicit knowledge of geometry than has been lived with it. It has diffused broadly enough in human culture, though, to serve as the basis for semantic art as semantic art. Take for example, Sol Lewitt’s work:

This is a work “about” incompletion. The viewer brings a culturally acquired sense of “cube,” and (for some viewers), the work creates a vacancy. A semantic void. What is artistic about this work is not just what it is, but also what it isn’t that we can feel.

Written Language and Meaning: John Baldessari & PixiePravda

Language wasn’t always written. Instead, writing should be thought of as a technology and as late as the 4th century AD, Augustine was considered a prodigy because he could read without sounding out the words with his mouth. Something most ten year-olds can do without much effort in our largely literate America. We’ve become so deeply immersed in written language that when artists turn to language it is natural for them to turn to written language. Take the following two examples:

A portion of Baldessari’s pure beauty, cropped.
A portion of PixiePravda’s”Incomplte,” cropped.

Both works are semantic in that the artistic force is provided by the juxtaposition of textual (linguistic) data with semantic experience. In both cases, a “gap” opens up between the expectation of the viewer and the “performance” of the work. In Baldessari’s work, the transposition of the idea or expectation of pure beauty into the simple phrase “pure beauty,” takes expectation and crashes it back on the simplify of language. In PixiePravda’s work, the viewer is aware that the text is an embodiment of the idea. The expectations of the word create a gap between those expectations and the text of the work itself. The energy comes not from the work (the energy from art always and only comes from the mind of the viewer).

Semantic Sound: Synecdoche

A third technology is the digital or analog re-creation of semantic sound for artistic impact. We differentiate “semantic sound” from “sound,” as the former being a deliberately pure version of the latter. Both are distinguished from noise. Semantic sound allows us to open a second semantic stream and force both image and sound data upon the viewer simultaneously. Because the work is created in semantic sound, it has duration. It takes place in time with a discernible start and stop. This makes sound very much unlike sight, which is also subject to chronological constraints, but human beings have evolved in such a way as to make this very difficult to feel. We feel sight as instantaneous. We don’t feel the movement of our eyes over a surface as taking time. It does, but the mind evolved to tune that out and light is fast enough (186,000 miles per second), so that any real delay in sight from terrestrial objects takes place in the biochemical delay between the reception of light by the rods and cones of the ocular surface and the transmission of that data via the optic nerve to the brain.

Here is an example of a work using semantic sound to call attention to duration:

We’ll write more, but in this post we wanted to announce our family tree and catalogue a few of our neighboring species. We like all of the work we’ve cited very much. We’re glad to be neighbors and descendants.

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