On Understanding Abstract Portraits: Applying Cognitive Semiotics and Psychophysiological Symbolism

By William E. Wenger
2014, Vol. 6 No. 11 | pg. 2/3 |

We can begin to understand “expressibility” in certain kinds of artworks by approaching artistic encounters as an emotional discourse, by considering it an exercise of symbolic interactionism; meanings inferred from behaviors and/or their socially-received representative artifacts, such meaning being established through complex networks of ascribed associations based on human emotion, behavior, and social experience. This essay integrates aspects of a variety of theories on Self into a base concept of Self, which is described as “socioemotional.”

The socioemotional Self serves as an individual's psychological base of inference involved in an encounter with a “meaningful” external stimulus; it is produced by past and present perceptive experiences (interactions, relations, social and non-social stimuli), linked by causal resemblance, guided by the framework of cultural or social context, and is lucid and developmental in nature. This thesis, in accordance to the social-psychological theories it integrates and follows, considers emotions as appraisal mechanisms instrumental to our cognition.

In his essay, “An Analysis of Psychophysiological Symbolism and its Influence on Theories of Emotion,” Sociologist James Averill asserts that “cognitive appraisal is not simply an ancillary precursor of emotion, it is an integral part of what we mean by 'emotion.'” In addition, Averill states that “most standard emotional reactions transcend the biological imperatives in origin, and are based on the human capacity for symbolic systems of thought and behavior.”

Keeping this in mind, consider that contemporary forms of abstract artistic expression (including abstract portraits) run parallel with certain principles of new social movements, insofar as they involve communicative objects of lucid creative and collective interpretation, bound only by the imaginations of the audience and restricted, as well as guided by, the intentions of the artist – which essentially serve as a topical framework for the discourse of interpreting meaning and generating commentary around the subject matter of the piece.

In semiotic terms, we can claim that artists develop the foundation of the signifier/signified relationship of content and meaning, whilst the viewers are called to fill in the gaps through their engagement with the piece. The irrationality of the works which fall under this genre (abstract-expressionism) stirs communicative confusion. This sort of confusion has the potential to filter out idiosyncrasies, encourage deliberation, and interdependent thought, according to Paul Watzlawick’s work on communications theory, “How Real is Real” (1976).

This communicative confusion, which is key to the social aspect we are exploring, maybe amongst viewers or between a viewer and the framed conception of the artist's self, within the artistic encounter. Marcel Duchamp brought this concept to light with a famed quote of his, which states that: “A creative act is not performed by an artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

This essay asserts that through a modern social-psychological framework, these sorts of “creative acts,” using abstract portraits as an example, involve indeed more than one individual, but far more than two as well. We will see that the cognitive semiotic of shared meaning, which is delineated by the artist, and re-organized by the audience, is the product of numerous cultures, peoples, and social systems.

Referring again to Dilworth's work we can assert that abstract portraits, as artworks, are uniquely representative insofar as they represent not just the artwork's subject matter, but also the artist's dispositions, attitudes, and ideas about the subject matter-and the related emotional content he holds in regards to it. The medium, then, is a venue for creative and unorthodox communication, which the artist might manipulate to his benefit. By manipulating the medium, artists take advantage of various established means and methods of nonlinear emotional communication, and abstracts them into a symbolic or metaphorical analogue of what would otherwise be a standard semiotic signifier. This allows artists to utilize artworks and the medium as a means to work around the social restraints and display rules which hinder standard social discourse, while still making use of the communicative resources in a manner that is nonlinear and creative.

Artists may then essentially take advantage of Symbolic Interactionism, Cognitive Semiotics, and other principles of shared meaning to communicate that which is otherwise difficult to express. We will now take a closer look at these “means” and “elements” of social communication and behavior.

Sociologist James Averill was mentioned above as a contributor to the understanding of emotion and communication. His theory on Psychophysiological Symbolism serves as instrumental to the ways in which an artist uses his chosen medium to creatively communicate through an encounter with abstract artworks. Averill argues that “it is sometimes the case that psychological processes become linked to physiological structures not on the basis of empirical fact, but rather, on the basis of symbolic relationships which are extrinsic from a scientific point of view” (1969).

These symbol-structures are cultural, religious, cosmological, aesthetic, or otherwise social in origin, according to Averill. Such ideas are perpetuated by physiological psychologists and academics holding views on things-emotional deep-seeded in the traditions set by Plato and innovated upon by Aquinas and Descartes, the result generally being that “the emotions were assigned to structures of a lower nature because of their unfavorable contrast with reason. They became a function of the body-machine, with the 'soul' only passively affected.” Under such views, our commonplace notions of emotional expression, various emotions are ascribed to assorted expressions and postures, in some cases being localized to specific points of physiology.

It is in these ideas that the root of commonplace notions of emotion lie, and through persistently practiced sociocultural communication through the generations pervasive and seemingly innate communicative structures of symbolism are incubated and developed. While Psychophysiological Symbolism in some cases “proves a hindrance to an adequate understanding of emotional phenomena,” according to Averill, when taken as a communicative tool under larger cognitive processes which surround the emotional communication that occurs in artistic encounters, the ways in which Psychophysiological Symbolism contribute to our commonplace notions of emotion identification can prove to be highly instrumental. Specifically, we might see it as the way in which we recognize some stimuli as emotional and identify expression under certain circumstances, while it does not necessarily dictate or explain the cognitive processes that follow.

The semiotic element of the creative communication occurring under the emotional discourse within an artistic encounter can largely be attributed to Psychophysiological Symbolism as a phenomenon. A traffic sign, a salute, key-lining, and nonverbal gestures – Averill asserts that we attach extrinsic symbolism to such things to see them as meaningful and expressive by way of the emotions we implicitly associate with them.

Extrinsic symbolism may also be extended to various color palettes, insofar as (with attention and respect to cultural relativity) various physiological aspects may also come to be associated with color, tone, and hue and a display – red may correlate to passion, blue to melancholy, and so on. This essay argues that artists, through the creative manipulation of the medium, may generate emotionally expressive commentary by involving abstractions of this psychophysiological method of nonlinear emotional communication into the artwork's formal content.

As an example, we will be considering an abstract portrait of someone. Generally speaking, how is it that we can come to know the subject of an abstract portrait better than if we were to view instead a simple photograph of him? The photograph may more accurately represent the subject anatomically, but the artist, through the manipulation of the medium (paint and canvas in this case), presents a different sort of formal content for the viewer which does not just represent the subject matter but at the same time also presents emotionally expressive commentary on the subject matter.

How? In Nelson Goodman's “Languages of Art” he asserts that something (in this case, the portrait) need not directly resemble the other thing (the subject of the portrait) in order to represent it...this essay argues that the kind of resemblance achieved in an abstract portrait is, in accordance to Goodman's theory, more akin to arbitrary denotation. This essay asserts that this denotation is social and cultural in origin, however, as opposed to the textbook meaning of arbitrary.

Meaning is based on the cognitive appraisal and recognition of delineated elements of communicable expressive symbol structures - specifically, Psychophysiological Symbolism. Wide, broad, sturdy structures may associate with stoicism and a sage-like furrowed brow...a sharp loud line of action can be linked to energy or fervor as the body “tenses up” in anger...we attach emotional meaning and personality characteristics to all of these things via Psychophysiological Symbolism.

La Femme-Fleur, by Pablo Picasso serves as an excellent example of this cognitive semiotic language in action. This work, as well as the artist, is closely tied to the abstract-expressionism movements, although it often finds itself divorced from that classification, it still serves as a pertinent example for the purposes of this thesis. This work is a non-realistic portrait of Francoise Gilot that portrays her using a long narrow line segment for a torso, a wide blue oval shaped face, green hair that developed into a large leaf form, and various other accompanying abstract forms placed mid-torso. According to “Puzzles About Art: An Aesthetics Casebook,” Picasso stated that “a realistic portrait would not represent (the subject of the portrait) at all.”

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