The Paradox of Sensory Qualities as Signs – Intersections Between Semiotics and Art History

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Recent efforts to develop pictorial semiotics in a cognitive direction should give occasion to reconsider the “plastic” (plastique) or nonfigurative sign. In art history, there is already a long-lasting, albeit neglected, tradition of systematic studies of how spatial, linear and chromatic structures presuppose a higher-order abstraction and signification that is not necessarily dependent on “iconic content” in a narrow or pictorial sense. Already in 1992, Groupe µ pointed out that a major error of pictorial semiotics had been to treat the “iconic” (or figurative) sign as the norm, and the plastic (or nonfigurative) sign as its stylistic surplus or residue. However, this error follows naturally from traditional conceptions of form and content, in which form is regarded as the sensory substrate of the representation, and content as its purely mental or imaginary counterpart. From these premises, the acknowledgement of a genuinely semiotic function specific to the sensory qualities of the picture would represent a paradox: it would contradict the status of “form” as a non-thematized carrier of visual information. The transference of this dualism to the realm of pictorial semiotics most probably rests on overly simplistic readings of Saussure’s conception of le signifiant.
It is an historical fact that aesthetic formalism originated at the same time as modern/structural linguistics. Formalist art criticism (and to some extent stylistic analysis in art history) advanced the idea of “pure form”, i.e., a sensory entity that, in the absence of a mental/iconic content, expresses only itself. This is also paradoxical, but in full accordance with the dualistic conception of form and content. Being one of the first art historians to engage in debates on semiotics, Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996) criticized formalism early on, for example in his review of Alfred J. Barr Jr’s Cubism and Abstract Art (1936). Later in his career he took a stance against the idea, represented by Claude Lévi-Strauss, that there could be a full mathematical and structuralist analysis of the system of pictorial art.
Schapiro based his argument on simple psychological observations of how geometrical configurations will be described differently, depending on their orientation and the addition of further elements. These observations are akin to some empirical applications of Osgood’s semantic differential, and to Groupe µ’s proposal of a “system of plastic form” (systématique de la forme). As studies of his notes and correspondence show, Schapiro was clearly influenced by Peircean conceptions of semiosis and meaning, not least through the philosophy of his teacher John Dewey. This influence constitutes a possible link between Schapiro’s work and current developments in cognitive semiotics, at least to the extent that these developments support Peirce’s non-dualistic conception of the relationship between sense perception and iconic content.
Period5 Nov 20217 Nov 2021
Event titleThe XII conference of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies
Event typeConference
LocationVilnius, Lithuania
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • plastic sign
  • iconic sign
  • abstraction
  • formalism
  • Meyer Schapiro
  • Charles Sanders Peirce