FL 350

Semiotic Theory in Interart Discourse

Evaluation Criteria:

Study questions / oral presentation / research paper

Catalog Description and Objectives:

Are literature and the visual arts separate media that require separate modes of criticism?Or can there be a successful reciprocative association of interpretive methods?  Students will consider what theoreticians from the past (e.g., G.E. Lessing in Laocoön from 1766) to the present (e.g., W.J.T. Mitchell in Picture Theory from 1994) have contributed.  In an attempt to develop a methodology allowing for discussion of interart topics, students will focus on the writings of the American semiotician C.S. Peirce and also on Umberto Eco’s subsequent revisioning of Peirce’s theories.  Then students will examine various types of interart subjects and composite art forms, including artistic multiple talents, ekphrasis, concrete poetry, collage, comic books, film, opera, etc. 

 * * *

Outline of Content and Schedule of Course Work

Weeks 1 through 3

Ut pictura poesis: From Classical Antiquity to Modern Interart Scholarship

Students will look at extreme opposing positions regarding the relationship between literature and the other arts.  Lessing’s distinction between literature and the visual arts is based on the identification of two separate categories of aesthetic expression: succession and simultaneity.  Other theorists, as Hagstrum informs us, advocate a mutual illumination of the arts, believing such categories as “literature” and “visual art” to be largely artificial.

Hagstrum, Jean H. Excerpt from “Classical Antiquity.” In The Sister Arts. 1958. 3-17.

Lessing, G.E. Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Transl. E.A. McCormick. Orig. pub. 1766. Preface, chapts. 1-3, 6, 8, 12, 15-17.

A more conciliatory stance is expressed by such early twentieth-century interart theorists as Walzel or Wellek, who have played major roles in defining the parameters of the field now referred to as “Literature and the Other Arts.”  Certainly by the twentieth century it had become clear that critical interpretation of the trend of reciprocal influencing of literature and the the visual arts would have to employ a methodology that could account for both the literary elements and the visual elements exhibited by a particular work. 

Walzel, Oskar. Concerning the Mutual Illumination of the Arts. Trans. K. Hooper and U. Weisstein. Orig. pub. 1917. Excerpts.

Wellek, René and Austin Warren. “Literature and the Other Arts.” In Theory of Literature. 1st ed. 1948. 125-35.

Foucault, Michel. This is not a Pipe. Transl. J. Harkness. Orig. pub. 1973.

            Monsieur René Magritte: portrait of an artist. (videorecording ND673.M35 M6 1978) 60 min.

            Kandinsky, Wassily.  Concerning the Spiritual in Art. 1911/12. Selections and slides.


Contemporary scholars such as Steiner, Weisstein, and Mitchell have been instrumental in raising the level of critical inquiry in the interarts discipline.


Steiner, Wendy. “Res Poetica.” In The Colors of Rhetoric. 1982. 197-219.

            Examples of Concrete Poetry (Res Poetica) and Calligrammes (cf. Apollinaire, Guillaume).

Weisstein. Ulrich. “Literature and the Visual Arts.” In Interrelations of Literature. Ed. J.-P. Barricelli and J. Gibaldi. 1982. 251-77.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. 1994.


Weeks 4 through 7:

Introduction to the “Languages” of Music, Literature, Art, and Film

Students must master basic vocabulary particular to individual systems of signs; that is, students must become familiar with the formal elements associated with each artistic medium.  For example, to write about a work of literature, students must be able to determine what type of work it is: prose, drama, or poem (or some combination thereof).  If a poem, what type: sonnet, ode, elegy, ballad, or other?  If an ode, what specific kind?  What meter?  What rhyme scheme?  Which rhetorical devices are used?  Such questions are often difficult to answer without adequate training. Similarly, to write about a composite artistic medium, for example film, students will find it helpful to be able to use terminology related to such topics as editing and mise en scène; and yet, most students have never been exposed to a systematic approach to film. Furthermore students of a particular artistic tradition and medium—German literature, for one—are often called upon to be knowledgeable about parallel developments in the arenas of art and music. For example, when considering German literature of the Romantic period it is often extremely illuminating to delve, if only superficially, into the art and music of the period.  And yet, this cannot be done if students are not familiar with the “languages” associated with art and music.

To be more specific, couched in semiotic terminology, the “language” of film would be approached as follows:

Codes are systems of rules or conventions which enable one to interpret signs, objects, events, behavior, etc.:

X counts as Y in context C


(X means/suggests/connotes/implies Y by virtue of code C)


  1. The symbol ‘U’ means ‘AND’ in the language of symbolic logic.

  2. Long hair and blue jeans during the 1960s tended to imply “hippy” according to the then operable conventions of fashion.

  3. Certain activities on a grass field count as “scoring a home run” by virtue of the rules of baseball.

  4. Extreme high-angle shots tend to connote a subject’s inferiority, vulnerability, helplessness, entrapment by virtue of the conventions of filmmaking.

Of course, a great variety of codes combine to form the medium in which film expresses meaning.  There are codes that are:

culturally derived--those that exist outside the film and that filmmakers simply reproduce: for example, the way people dress;

shared by cinema with the other arts: for example, gesture, which is a code operable in theater as well as cinema; and 

primarily cinematic: for example, montage, that is, the joining or juxtaposing of one shot with another to create scenes and sequences.

In this course, students will at times attempt to determine, or to state, the message a filmmaker tries to communicate about the nature of relationships of power. At other times students will attempt to state the message that is communicated, regardless of original intent. 

To justify such statements, students will have to explain how the five main channels of information in film-- 

visual image,

print or other graphics,



noise (sound effects)--

work together to communicate the message.  Not all films make use of all five channels (for example, print and graphics were more common in the era of the silent film) and, further, the intermittent suppression of one channel (for example, silence) can also communicate information. 

Of the five channels, the visual image is usually the most important.  It is certainly the most complex channel of information and thus deserves closest attention.  The visual image consists of roughly four main categories of elements:



movement, and

montage (the art of editing).

These features of the visual image are the result of numerous devices or techniques employed by the filmmaker and are capable of communicating information by virtue of some code.


Introduction to the technical terminology specific to music:

Analyses of individual works

Franz Schubert: “Erlkönig” / “Gretchen am Spinnrade”


Introduction to the technical terminology specific to literature

Analyses of individual works

selected poems

The Visual Arts

Introduction to the technical terminology specific to the visual arts

Analyses of individual works

Kandinsky:  selected works


Introduction to the technical terminology specific to the visual image in film

Analyses of an early cinematic endeavor:

Murnau: Nosferatu

Week 8

Visual and Verbal Icons and Symbols

Numerous contemporary scholars write in depth about the arbitrariness of the artistic sign—whether verbal or visual.  This is not a new idea; rather it can be traced back as far as Plato.  More modern manifestations of this theoretical construct can be found in the writings of Nietzsche and Hofmannsthal.

Plato. Cratylus.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense.” 1873.

Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. “The Letter of Lord Chandos.” 1902.


Week 9 Spring Break / No Classes 

Weeks 10 and 11:

Sign Theory


All art works are composed of signs, as students will have learned in a previous week.  These signs are either icons, indices, or symbols.  In order to better articulate the difference of sign types, it will be necessary to consult, especially, the works of the American semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce and the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco.  Such distinguising of sign-types will lead to an analysis of relational thinking--more specifically, of abductive reasoning.  It is abductive reasoning which allows one to claim relations between works in literature and the visual arts.


Peirce, Charles Sanders.  Speculative Grammar. [Book II]. In his Collected Papers (8 vols).

            Chapter 2. “Division of Signs”

                                ¶1 Ground, Object, and Interpretant (2.227-2.229)

                                ¶4 One Trichotomy of Signs (2.243-2.249)

            Chapter 3. “The Icon, Index, and Symbol”

                                ¶1 Icons and Hypoicons (2.274-2.278)

                                ¶2 Genuine and Degenerate Indices (2.283-2.286)

                                ¶3 The Nature of Symbols (2.292-2.302)

                                ¶4 Sign (2.303-2.304)


Eco, Umberto. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. 1984.

Introduction (1-13)

1.10 (36)-1.12 (45) in “Signs” and Eco’s “Metaphor, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia.” New Literary History 15.2 (1984): 255-71.

2.3.5 (80-84) in “Dictionary vs. Encyclopedia”

3.11.3 (117)-3.12 (129) in “Metaphor”

4. (130)-4.3.1 (139) and 4.5 (156)-4.6 (163) in “Symbol”


Weeks 12 through 16:

Sign Theory applied to Composite Forms or Interart Topics


During the last weeks of term, students will investigate an interart topic or composite art form—perhaps even a semiotic approach to a topic not yet discussed—of their own choice, then report on their findings during class, and finally draft a research paper due the last day of finals week.

 Interarts research topics might include, among others: illustrated books or manuscripts, collage, opera, films or televsion shows (including cartoons), artistic multiple talents,  res poetica (concrete poetry), happenings, the rock-concert experience.

As for topics not yet discussed that might benefit from a semiotic approach: Umberto Eco puts it this way in his A Theory of Semiotics: “Signification encompasses the whole of cultural life” (46) and the subject matter of semiotics is “co-extensive with the whole range of cultural phenomena, however pretentious that approach may at first seems” (6).  In other words, everything is fair game for semioticians.