Week Seven: the Image as Object


This week for class, we had two readings that discussed the nature of images and what they can reveal. The first reading was an article by Roland Barthes entitled “Rhetoric of the Image,” which looked at the three levels of meaning in an image. Barthes examined adverting image because he believed that the meanings of the images must be easily observable since the signified levels of the image rely on a priori knowledge (193). For Barthes the first level of meaning for an image was its linguistic meaning, which serves as both an anchorage and relay since it helps form ones understanding on the literal message and guides interpretation for the symbolic message (197). The second level of meaning is the literal or denoted message, which Barthes contends does not exist in a pure form, and thus is always relational to the symbolic message (199). Furthermore, for all made images there are different codes implanted in them, such as with a drawing which has style and “does not reproduce everything… to be a strong message,” which makes the denoted message a “relationship… between two cultures” (199-200). The final level of meaning is the symbolic or connoted meaning, which relies on individual readings of the same cultural lexicon (201). Barthes continued by stating that a group of connoted signifiers acts as rhetoric, which then reveals ideology (203). Through this three part study of an image, Barthes believed that it would be possible to determine that meaning is “torn internally between the system of culture and the syntagm of nature,” meaning that meaning derives from a creative narrative that people have accepted as truth (204).

The second reading was Wendy Bellion’s book, Citizen Spectator, which looked at paintings as a form of visual deception in order to see the cultural function of these images (4). Bellion pointed out that this focus on illusions was taking place during a time of empirical philosophy, which held that “the sensory organs could be honed to ascertain truth” and thus these images helped satisfy an interest testing what people could know (28). For her study, Bellion looked a trompe l’oeils, visual artistic illusions, such as the Staircase Group, since they are “nothing but mere imitation of individual objects” but at the same time also revealed deeper aspects of the time’s culture (98). The most interesting section of Citizen Spectator was the discussion on originals and imitations in the form of Lewis’s art by those same names and in the form of the polygraphs. Both of these topics raised the question of “how to perceive differences between things of exact likeness” as well as “the ways in which language attains cultural meaning” (173 & 194). These questions are important because they connect back to the first reading and reveal that images have meaning because of the cultural processes occurring that give them meaning. This was seen clearly Bellion’s examination of the Invisible Lady illusion which, she described as helping “negotiate cultural changes” in the form of “contemporary concerns about female sight and speech” (234). Thus for Bellion, the study of the use of illusions in art help reveal deeper cultural trends occurring in colonial Philadelphia that effected the perceived meaning of objects they created.

These two readings will be useful in my material culture study since they point to the need to examine my object as a product of its cultural time period. This will important because as an object of war, my object can reveal not only much about the value and meaning attached weapons during World War II and the Cold War but also the meaning attached to it in the present culture since it was preserved as a museum to commemorate its use in war.



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