Visual Grammar

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During the course of my study Cultural Studies, which was called Comparative Art Studies: Word and Image when I started, I became interested in the field of visual grammar. I noticed a strong discrepancy between the two fields my study is said to combine: those of the word and those of the image. Whereas most courses that focussed on the image took on a historical perspective, many of the courses that focussed on the word were theoretical. These different approaches made and make the fields of art history and literature studies difficult to combine and compare. Because there also exists a historical tradition within the field of literature a historical approach seems to be the obvious way to combine both. However, this is not the only option. In this thesis I will opt for a theoretical approach.

I always had a personal preference for the theoretical approach and started investigating the seeming lack of theory of the visual. I soon found out that there is not a lack at all. The problem seems to be that there are visual theories in abundance. Semiotics, cognitive psychology, certain linguistic theories and even studies that would normally be considered art history all have their own theoretical approach to the visual domain. These studies are difficult to combine. Sometimes even the subject turned out to be incompatible: there is a large difference between studying images as cultural objects, objects of communication, means to study the semiotic system of the visual, or means to study the make-up of the human brain.

In many ways this thesis is a result of my ventures into these different fields and an attempt to combine them.

The general aim of this thesis is to construct something called a ‘visual grammar’. The way I conceive visual grammar it should focus on those aspects of the image that make it truly visual: the visual substance. In a way visual substance is the ‘material’ the visual designer works with; the stuff he or she designs. Visual signs or signifiers are part of the visual substance, as is composition and visual ‘articulation’ amongst other things.Visual grammar can both be used to analyse individual images as well as visual language itself. These types of analysis analysis can be used for different goals.

1. It can be used to say something about what an image means. Most theories of the visual have been designed with this goal in mind. Meaning, however, is often elusive and ambiguous, especially when one is dealing with images. Therefore it is often too easy to disagree with the proposed meaning of a particular image and consequently denounce the theory that suggested that meaning.

2. Another goal is to examine an image’s effectiveness in communicating a specific message. This goal needs images whose meaning is obvious. Such images can be easily found: information graphics (such as charts, maps and traffic signs) are the token example of this category. To a lesser extent this also applies to advertisements, cultural posters and political posters.

3. Yet another goal is to study the differences and similarities between different types of images. This goal assumes that different grammatical ‘patterns’ exist for different visual genres. To me it is the most important goal within the context of this thesis, as I will use visual grammar to study these differences.

To be able to also investigate the second goal, this thesis largely focuses on graphic design; most examples and illustrations will be drawn from this category. This is not an accidental choice; the meaning of these types of images is more or less fixed (or at least bound within an obvious context) it is easier to separate the meaning from the way it is constructed. This also implies that aesthetic qualities do not play an important role in the selection of the examples, even though I occasionally draw them from visual art. In any event, the boundaries between visual art and visual design are blurred at best. All examples are selected because they can clarify the points I try to make.

Throughout this thesis I will use terms such as ‘language’, ‘grammar’, ‘genre’ and ‘meaning’ in the broadest possible sense. My notion of language is heavily influenced by semiotics. I call all systematic use of signs language. But I do not turn a blind eye to the possible consequences of this broad application of the notion language. In fact, in chapter 1 I will explain the way I interpret ‘language’ and why and how language theory can be applied to images.

Likewise, my notion of grammar is heavily influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky and Ray Jackendoff. To them grammar is not the traditional grammar one learns at school. It is linked to the mechanics and procedures people – often subconsciously – employ to make sense of visual, spoken or written messages. Grammar is a set of rules that models the use of language. Chapter 2 is dedicated to this notion of grammar. These two scholars also comprise the most important ‘language’ sources in this thesis. This is a deliberate choice on my part for I feel that their generative approach to grammar best ties in with the other two main theories on which this thesis is based: semiotics and cognitive science.

Genre, on the other hand, is to me simply a set of images, or texts, that share some characteristics: stylistics, intended public, social context, etc. It has little to do with the traditional genres of art history or literature. I use genre in a way that is closer to the semiotic notion of ‘discourse’. In this way genres are often used intuitively by many people when they distinguish between commercial and cultural posters or claim that a particular poster is a typical film poster. Chapter 3 focuses on this notion of genre.

Meaning, finally, will often stay elusive throughout this thesis – as only seems proper. I feel that images more often than not have many different meanings. Visual grammar cannot and should not try to fix the meaning of an image. When I speak about meaning I generally talk about possible meaning. Visual grammar can be used to analyse meaning only to the extent that it can show how a possible meaning can be linked to structural characteristics of an image.

Chapters 1, 2 and 3 compromise the theoretical frame work of this thesis. In chapter 4 I will flesh out this framework and formulate my theory of visual grammar. In this chapter I will formulate grammatical rules that can be used to analyse images. The final chapter contains the presentation of a brief study I have conducted using this grammar, for which I have analysed and classified a set of 406 posters. This research has two distinctive goals. On the one hand, it serves to bolster the claims about the visual grammar presented in chapter 4. On the other hand, I will use the research to investigate the claims and assumptions that underlie chapter 3. In this way the research serves as an illustration that visual grammar can be used to investigate visual language itself.

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