Modern Iconography Term Paper

Pages: 5 (1530 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Art  (general)

¶ … Iconography picture is worth a thousand words.

Everyone has heard this saying before, but what does it really mean? Are we to infer that every work of art is loaded with meaning, waiting for a detailed interpretation? Is there such a thing as a "right" or "wrong" interpretation of a work of art? How does one go about discovering the meaning of a work of art? Can works of art be "read" like books, or do they require specialized knowledge?

These are all questions that iconography has attempted to answer throughout the ages. Today, iconography - the study of meaning in works of art - is more vital than ever before. But the nature of this approach to interpreting works of art continues to grow and expand just as the world continues to grow and expand via technological progress. Thus, it is vital to take into account the shifting guise of iconography, as well as what it means to contemporary artists.

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In this essay, I intend to explore modern conceptions of iconography and show how it continues to play a role in the social reception and critical interpretations of contemporary art. I will explore the meaning behind religious symbols commonly used in works of art throughout history. I will also explore the ways in which iconography itself has been considered over the ages, effectively drawing a parallel between past and present forms of iconography. Through the work of contemporary artists such as Felix Gonzales-Torres, Guillermo Kuitca, and Vik Muniz, I will explore the deployment of iconographical symbols and images in art in the context of the present. Through this analysis, I hope to show how modernization and the ongoing process of technological innovation continue to shape the evolving practice of iconographical analysis in works of art both old and new.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Modern Iconography Assignment

Iconography concerns itself with the symbols and historical context that are believed to determine the intrinsic meaning of a work of art. While iconography played a major role in the art history of the 19th century, it was not until the 20th century that the principles of iconography became solidified into a coherent program. This was mainly the work of one man, the art historian Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky engineered a three-tiered approach to iconographical understanding. The first, primary level was representative of the most basic form of understanding, without having any additional cultural knowledge. The second level includes that cultural knowledge, and thus involves a deeper understanding of a work of art. The third level takes into account intrinsic meaning or content - that is, meaning that may be obscure in the surface of a work of art and must be interpreted by taking into consideration various factors, including historical context, personal data regarding the artist's life, and technical considerations.

It is this third level, which Panofsky termed "iconology" in order to distinguish it from "iconography," that Panofsky felt was the most important.

Thus, in such works as Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Panofsky was able to identify common symbols and icons found in the work of Michelangelo.

Without understanding the Neoplatonic symbolism that proliferates in Michelangelo's tomb for the Medici brothers, we are stuck at the first level of understanding, as described above. The symbolism found in the depiction of the four times of day, for example, which Panofsky attributes to that period's conception of the four basic humors of human psychology, would have been readily decipherable by the layman in the Renaissance era, but today the decoding of such symbols requires specialist knowledge. Other symbols that proliferate in Western art - such as the figures of Jesus and Mary - remain firmly entrenched in our culture to the present day.

The search for meaning in works of art continues to play a major role in our consideration of works of modern and contemporary art. At the same time, the symbols commonly deployed in more recent works of art tend to be more specific, and hence more abstract, than the religious symbols and figures commonly found in older works of art. For example, an untitled installation by Felix Gonzales-Torres from 1991 consisted of a large pile of candies on the floor that the audience was encouraged to take from, thus decimating the work of art throughout the duration of its exhibition. The rapidly disappearing elements of the work of art is symbolic of the decimation of human lives by the AIDS virus throughout the 1980s and continuing up to the present day.

In the work of Guillermo Kuitca, one commonly finds references to water. One critic has interpreted this as symbolic of the beginnings of both life in a new world, evoking the colonial experience, as well as the origins of life itself.

Some artists make explicit reference to iconography as an art historical motif in their work. Chief among these is Vik Muniz, who has made replicas of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa with peanut butter and jelly. Muniz has also produced re-creations of a number of Monet's paintings, provocatively suggesting that art is a self-perpetuating referential universe that is inescapable. In this respect, Muniz's work functions as both artwork and the embodiment of iconographical discourse.

In more recent times, there has been a shift from iconography to semiology, or semiotics, in deciphering the symbolical meaning of works of art. According to Bal and Bryson,

The basic tenet of semiotics, the theory of sign and sign-use, is anti-realist. Human culture is made up of signs, each of which stands for something other than itself, and the people inhabiting culture busy themselves making sense of those signs. The core of semiotic theory is the definition of the factors involved in this permanent process of sign-making and interpreting and the development of conceptual tools that help us to grasp that process as it goes on in various cultural activity.

This shift from iconography to semiotics occurred between the Second World War and the 1960s, and has had a tremendous impact, not merely on the interpretation of works of art both ancient and modern, but on the way contemporary artists approach their work, as made explicitly clear by the example of the artists discussed above.

Much work has been done on the religious icons and symbols used by artists in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Today, now that the visual language of art has been significantly expanded, a new way of reading particular symbols is necessary. Semiotics is a system of decoding symbols not merely in the visual realm, but in literary discourse, as well. In many ways, semiotics can be viewed as an updated version of iconography. Whereas the task of iconography in the 19th century was to create an index of symbols and their culturally determined meanings, semiotics has established the fact that meaning is always multi-layered, obtuse, and difficult to pin down. It thus serves to elaborate the third tier of Panofsky's approach to iconography - that is, it elaborates iconology into what a full science investigating the metaphysics of meaning in classic and contemporary works of art.

The evolution of iconography/iconology into semiotics/semiology is indicative of the rapid pace of modernization and the effects it has had on our society. This shift also reveals the way society thinks and processes visual images. Artists have thus responded to these changes by incorporating classical iconographical motifs as well as semiotic discourse into their works. Vik Muniz's chief subject is the history of art itself. It is a history that he ironically subverts by utilizing common processed foods as his chief material. Felix Gonzales-Torres also made use of mass produced food products, but for an entirely different purpose. Gonzales-Torres was making a vital commentary on a fatal disease that had become politicized in the American culture wars of the 1980s. And yet… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Modern Iconography" Term Paper in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Modern Iconography.  (2007, November 16).  Retrieved November 26, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Modern Iconography."  16 November 2007.  Web.  26 November 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Modern Iconography."  November 16, 2007.  Accessed November 26, 2021.