From time to time I will post writing assignments from my various classes, back dated to the date of writing, but always tagged under Higher Ed. This assignment was a final essay from my Visual Culture class
In his essay, Semiology and Visual Interpretation, art historian and professor Norman Bryson, argues that painting, and by extension, all art is a system of signs and symbols. He further suggests that art should be interpreted, not singularly as the artist’s perception in historical context, but in a more social setting, using the cultural codes, signs and symbols of semiology. A comparison of the painting “The First Thanksgiving 1621” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, and the short film, “Semiotics of the Kitchen” by Martha Rosler, will illustrate that a semiological reading of media can be difficult to understand, due to the cultural codes each individual viewer uses to read the symbols and signs, based on their background.
The signs and symbols present in the First Thanksgiving painting can be read as the artist’s factual interpretation of an event that took place nearly 300 years before he created it. It can also be interpreted as a political statement based on the power that inspired the painting. A third reading could signify a more open abstraction, not using the details as facts, but rather assembling these symbols to impart a feeling or sentiment.
When viewing the Semiotics of The Kitchen short film, a reading of the artist’s intention could be taken as instructive, as if to say this is the way all kitchen tools are used. It could also be interpreted as satire, whereas none of this factually portrays how to use kitchen tools. Thirdly, this film could be read, similarly to the painting, as an assemblage of symbols to incite anger, or understanding. A side-by-side comparison of each of these media, using the three different readings can illustrate the notion that there are several ways to interpret art.
The first way of looking at these two pieces of media is as if they are a factual rendering. Bryson says that paintings should not be viewed as a literal translation of the artist’s perception, but rather as a system of signs to be deciphered by the viewer. He argues if the artist can communicate through the use of relevant signs and symbols, the viewer will then be able to understand the artist’s vision or intention. We can use familiar signs and symbols to determine if this painting is a view of what actually happened on that day in 1621, and similarly for the film, in that same assumption is instructional in nature.
This assumption can quickly be ruled out for the painting by doing some simple research. While this painting is a favored depiction of the holiday, historians claim the black garb the Pilgrims are wearing is inaccurate, as is the depiction of the natives of that area wearing feathers. Similarly, if we use our awareness of modern cooking practices, even a viewer from a different culture would be able to tell that this film is not meant to be instructional, if only by the out of character shrug at the end.
The second way we can look at these media is that they are meant to be a political statement – a way to further the motives of the power that either paid for, or inspired in some way these pieces. In the case of our Pilgrim painting, due to the fact that it was painted at a point in history after the event it depicts and well before what we consider to be modern times, it must now be deciphered through the lens of history. Look at this painting closely and you may notice a sense of segregation. With the Kitchen film, because it was made in the 70s, it too must be deciphered through the lens of history. The intention is likely not wholly satire, because it begs the question, couldn’t these seemingly harmless kitchen utensils all be used exactly in the way they are portrayed, by a woman lashing out against the stereotype in which she is cast? If the painting’s intended statement is friendship, as we have been taught to believe, why are the Pilgrims and Natives cordoned off into separate groups?
Bryson argues that mathematics, reading, and viewing art are all activities of the sign. The viewer’s ability to understand any given piece of media does not require what he calls a “magical connection to the image’s creator.” He claims that all we need is a basic understanding of the socially accepted codes that are used in our culture. Bryson claims that the ability to perceive a piece of media as a sign is the ability to understand the power that perceptualism excludes.
Finally, we can consider the question of whether these two pieces of media are as Bryson suggests, an assemblage of signs and symbols arranged in such a way as inciting some sort of passion or feeling. I would argue that this is indeed true for both of these pieces. The depiction of Pilgrims feasting with the Natives has indeed achieved it’s purpose which I believe to be the artist’s creation of iconic symbols, that combined with the social aspect of historical accounts and stories, evokes and broadcasts a feeling of brotherhood and congruity. Similarly, the filmmaker’s alphabetic litany of kitchen utensils is meant to arouse an awareness of the coiled and repressed power of the housewife of the 70s.
Whether or not either of these art pieces achieves the artist’s original aim, and admittedly, whether or not any of these suggestions truly was the artist’s intention, is not the point of this illustration. As Bryson would say, art is rendered trivial without discourse. It should be “viewed principally as the mimesis of perception modified by a schema.”(Bryson, 90) He urges painters to “rise above mere perception and by abstraction, to derive from perception its central forms, and to paint those.”(Bryson, 89)
We as viewers and consumers of art should use our diverse backgrounds and the cultural codes we have individually developed, along with public discourse to further understand the artist’s original intent and meaning in the media we consume.
 Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas (1863–1930).
 Semiotics of the Kitchen. Directed by Martha Rosler. Electronic Arts Intermix, 200. Film.
 Norman Bryson “Semiology and Visual Interpretation” in Thomas, Julia. Reading Images. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001.
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