CCC editor’s note:

What has semiotics got to do with everyday art education? After you read this article, we believe you’ll answer, “A lot.” Smith-Shank clearly and concisely introduces the reader to basic precepts of semiotics and to a conception of education based on semiotic principles. Then the focus of the article shifts and, using true art classroom experiences, Smith-Shank shows how students can be encouraged to question underlying assumptions about what an artist does. This opens up new possibilities of understanding how artists and the arts can play active roles in shaping environments in which we live and work.

This paper originally appeared in Studies in Art Education, Volume 36, Issue 4, Summer 1995.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), acknowledged founder of American semiotics, was asked a little over one hundred years ago to write a definition of the "university" for the Century Dictionary. As was his habit, Peirce (in Houser, 1987) wrote precisely and in the style of his time:

An association of men for the purpose of study, which confers degrees which are acknowledged as valid throughout Christendom, is endowed, and is privileged by the state in order that the people may receive intellectual guidance, and that the theoretical problems which present themselves in the development of civilization may be resolved. (p. 255)

The Century Dictionary editors swiftly returned this definition to Peirce for revision, insisting that it should include the notion of "instruction," because without instruction, learning does not happen.

Peirce wrote back that if they had any such notion they were grievously mistaken, that a university had not and never had anything to do with instruction and that until we got over this idea we should not have any university in this country. (John J. Chapman (1892) in Houser, p. 255)

If Peirce is to be believed, and the university is a place for learning and not instruction, what happens to our conception of the roles of teachers and learners within a university setting? Clearly, the modernist, behavioral, and information-processing cognitive models that have traditionally served as primary foundations for developing instruction methods in this country are not adequate. (Cunningham, 1987)

Each of these models assumes that there is a correct body of knowledge for a teacher to communicate to students. These models assume a hierarchical architecture of facts and ideas with higher forms of knowing built through some concatenation of simpler forms.

In order to move away from the dominant hierarchical model, it is necessary to develop an entirely different framework. Pedagogy based on the semiotic work of Peirce, and exemplified by his definition of the university, forces a reconsideration of the roles which learners, teachers, and subject matter play within educational endeavors. This reconsideration may be called "semiotic pedagogy." Although Peirce argued for the place of learning at the university level, semiotic pedagogy is appropriate for all educational contexts, not only higher education, and not only classroom learning. Because of semiotics' emphasis on codes, signs, and their inter-actions, it is especially appropriate for those of us involved in the study of art education.

It is not enough, then, to frame a foundation philosophically. In addition, it is necessary to build upon an historical framework. Since art educators are striving to identify agendas for the next millennium, my suggestion is to revisit ideas born during the fin de siecle, where American art education and Peircian semiotics were initially molded, for a look at how the last century can inform the next.

It is important to look at semiotics not only in theoretical terms, but also in practical terms. To this end, I will include a variety of practical experiences to illustrate a semiotically informed approach to art education.

Semiotics is a broad approach to understanding the nature of meaning, cognition, culture, behavior, and life itself. A number of semiotic approaches to these and other topics have been developed over the past century in this country and abroad (c.f., Barthes, 1967; Bourdieu, 1977; Culler, 1981; Eco, 1979; Jakobson, 1990; Johansen, 1993; Maritain, 1957; Morris, 1946; Ricoeur, 1981; Saussure, 1966; Sebeok, 1972; Volosinov, 1976). Therefore, any attempt to characterize semiotics inevitably involves choices. This paper represents a view of semiotics which places particular emphasis on ideas gleaned from Peircian semiotics. Unfortunately, semiotics is often explained in ambiguous and user-unfriendly terms and has, therefore, remained virtually inaccessible to people who are unwilling to wade through turgid, dense, and troublesome tomes. In this paper, I will attempt to identify clearly three basic semiotic issues and demonstrate their relevance to leaning about art.

Over one hundred years ago, C. S. Peirce (pronounced "purse") steadfastly and methodically built his theory of signs upon the philosophic foundations of teachers and philosophers such as the Stoics, Plato, the Scholastic Realists, Locke, and Kant (Corrington, 1993). A sign, according to Peirce, is "something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity" (Buchler, 1955, p. 99). A sign can be verbal, visual, gestural, musical. A sign stands for something which Peirce called the vobject by creating an Interpretant which is an additional sign which stands for some aspect of the object. The interpretant may be a thought or a notation that represents an object, but is never the object itself. What this means is that our expe-rience of the world is always mediated through signs, and we can never directly and fully know an object. We can only know it through interpretants (signs of the object) which allow us a glimpse at "some respect or capacity" of that object.

Peirce grounded his theory of signs on several assumptions about thinking and logic, including five assumptions which form the foundation of a semiotic pedagogy: (1) we reason by using triadic relations (the sign, object, and interpretant relation); (2) reasoning always builds on previous reasoning; (3) all reasoning is from external signs (which may precipitate internal interpretants which are also signs); (4) there is no thinking without signs; and (5) all mental events are inferences.

Not only did Peirce develop a theory of semiotics, he is credited with founding Pragmatism. Under his influence, friend and fellow scholar, William James, and his student, John Dewey, went on to develop and promote their own versions of prag-matism. Pragmatism joins with Peirce's theory of signs to form the heart of semiotic pedagogy. Peirce's basic principles of pragmatism are, according to Corrington (1993):
an emphasis on the future, on practical bearings, on experimental method, on communal forms of inquiry, on habit, and on self control [and] that all of reality moves toward forms of connectedness that give evidence to general laws and principles within an evolving universe ... it starts and ends with a recognition of continuity. (p. 51)
Pragmatism is a way of reasoning from sign to sign in order to understand something. As Thomas A Sebeok, a scholar of semiotics explained (Cunningham & Smith-Shank, 1992):

Essentially, you're spinning interpretants forever and ever. You take a concept, sign, object, and endlessly interpret it and every time you interpret it you add new knowledge (which may be false) but at all times you expand. (p. 66)

Reasoning from sign to sign is what Peirce called "semiosis;" semiosis is the subject matter of semiotics. Semiotic pedagogy is purposeful nurturing of semiosis, purposeful nurturing of reasoning from sign to sign within an unlimited arena of signs. Unlimited semiosis, or learning, is the process Sebeok poetically explained as "spinning interpretants for ever and ever." (Cunningham & Smith-Shank, 1992, p. 66)

Semiotics and Peircian pragmatism can play an important role in rethinking the learning and teaching process. Three ideas which form the heart of semiotic pedagogy, derived from the concept of unlimited semiosis, are: (1) "collateral experi-ence" makes learning possible; (2) historically determined disciplinary boundaries constrain learning; and (3) the consequences of learning and teaching change when the notion of environment is understood as evolving and interconnected to creatures which share space, rather than as static surroundings for human beings. This reconceived environment was named Umwelt by von Uexkull (1982) and has been elaborated upon by Deely (1993). Each of these three areas will be addressed in turn, with examples from art education.

From extensive experience looking at diseased cells, scientists know that when cells change to a particular color, a particular disease has taken hold, The special color serves as a clue to identifying the disease. Scientists who know to look for the colored markings are more likely to find diseased cells than a novice who has not learned to associate color changes with disease. Like the scientific novice, we cannot find meanings for any signs which we do not notice. Collateral experience is previous experience which makes a novel situation accessible. Nathan Houser points out (Cunningham & Smith-Shank, 1992):

As Peirce would say, only where there is collateral experience of an object can we learn anything else about it. As a result, it is essential that the teacher use signs that resonate in such a way with what the student already knows that the student will have some ground to stand on. (p. 67)

Collateral experience, which is essential for semiosis, is a key to understanding how semiotic pedagogy works. By helping students connect new experiences to the vast network of their own past experiences, teachers nurture semiosis, or learning.

When collateral experience is granted an essential role in the learning process, students come to an educational encounter with, acknowledged resources. They cease to be blank slates on which teachers can write their topics. Rather, students' collateral experiences serve as a context from which they can make reasoned connections. In this way, subject matter and students' histories are useful starting points for learning.
Collateral experience is often used unconsciously to make novel situations seem familiar. When we enter rooms we have never before entered and come upon an object which has four legs, two arms, a back, and is upholstered, we can be pretty certain that it is a chair. We have experienced "chairness" before and have made a habit of using objects of this style as seats.

Suppose though, when we sat on this object (which due to habit, we assumed was a chair), it felt wet and cold, it starting melting, we heard what seemed to be the chirping of hundreds of birds, and smelled the odor of ammonia, then we would have to reassess the situation. Our reassessment is forced because of the incongruity of the signs we experienced. In this case, we revisit the contexts of past sensory experiences of hearing, smell, and touch so that the episode can be understood as a coherent whole within our bank of collateral experience. When these are not adequate clues to explain the event, we must hypothesize new cognitive models to make sense of the situation. It is only when our habits, are disrupted to the point that we are uncomfortable with the status quo, that we are motivated to reassess our previous beliefs and habits.

Many students at the college level who are not art majors are uncomfortable with art (c.f. Smith-Shank, 1993). Their discomfort, due to collateral experience, has become a habit which will remain part of their lives unless the habit is disrupted in some way. In order to encourage students to think about the collateral experience they bring to art education, and their habitual ways of thinking about art, I ask students to do an exercise in self-reflection. This exercise is not designed to eliminate their art anxiety or to serve as any type of therapy. Rather, it is a starting point for exploring one aspect of their unique experiences which define their beliefs about art.

I ask them to think about "the artist" in their family. If they cannot identify a family artist, they may discuss a classmate as the class artist. They are to decide what qualities make that person the artist. In most cases, the family or class artist is a per-son who draws or paints realistically, and furthermore a student who is anxious about art cannot draw or paint realistically.

The students, through collateral experience and habit, narrowly define the field of art and believe themselves to be locked outside the boundaries of the discipline.


The following scenario will make a point: a teacher, wearing a brand new, beautiful purple fake fur coat, runs into the second grade classroom just as the starting bell rings. She quickly unhooks the buttons of her coat and throws it over the brass coat rack behind her desk. She smoothes her hair and announces breathlessly, "Good Morning! Please take out your art box!" A little girl in the front row raises her hand and asks in the style of second graders, "Is that a new coat? Did you get it for your birthday? What kind of animal did it come from? Why is it purple? Did it come from a purple animal? Is it from an endangered animal? Did it come from a purple cow like in the poem? The teacher interrupts gently but firmly, "I'm sorry Tonya, it's art time now."

How we think is directly related to how we learn. When learning is understood as thinking, it is a process and not a product. It becomes an ongoing process of inquiry which cannot be defined by the limits of subject matter parameters. Tonya was spinning interpretants. She was bringing her collateral experience into the conversation as a direct result of her encounter with aspects of the object, the teacher's coat. Tonya had contexts with which to understand the coat as a gift, an animal skin, evidence of an ecological problem, and as poetry. Like most second graders, she was spinning for more interpretants in order to expand her understanding, not her thinking about social studies, art, science, math, or even coats. Rather, she was attempting to know more directly the world in which she lives.

Many educational practices are context-barren, and as such, are not helpful to people like Tonya, who are trying to make sense of their worlds. As Houser (1987) points out:
We simply do not learn anything at all by merely coming into contact with the world. We may get hurt, but we don't learn anything by mere contact alone. We must transcend mere dyadic contact, which we might regard as empty experience, and achieve semiosis in order to learn from our experience. (p. 270)

Learning and inquiry are inherently interdisciplinary. There is no non-artificial way to isolate one subject from another. Charles Suhor (Cunningham & Smith--Shank, 1992) points out:

Anyone who approaches teaching from a semiotic frame of reference will do less compartmentalizing. Since subject matter areas are organized as they are due to a historical accident, a semiotic viewpoint looks at a particular area as useful but ultimately arbitrary roping off the process of semiosis.
(p. 66)

Art education has been carving a niche for itself in the public schools for the past one hundred years; however, to gain status in the curriculum it must be an overarching force for inquiry and learning. Donald Soucy, Professor of Art Education at the University of New Brunswick, takes an exemplary stand. A disclaimer on the syllabus for his course on art for elementary teachers states, "This course will not teach you to teach art; no one course could" (personal correspondence, 9/1/93). Rather than a methods course for teaching elementary teachers how to teach art, it is designed for elementary teachers to develop collateral experience in art which will serve them later as elementary school generalists. Venues other than public schools could also promote art education in this broader sense. How is art education redefined, then, when habitual disciplinary boundaries are disrupted? Another classroom situation shows how.

Since most people, including young children, tend to equate artistic talent with the ability to draw or paint in a realistic manner, I ask these second grade students to redefine art after their name-an-artist task.

They are asked to cross a disciplinary boundary that has become a habit, by envisioning artistic talent as something having nothing to do with the ability to draw, sculpt, or create things for public display. Instead, they redefine talent in art as the ability to make environments pleasant through their senses.

They are asked again to identify a family member or classmate, who is this other type of artist, to note if this will be a different person from the previously named artist, and to specify this artist's talents or behaviors. After considerable discussion about the new criteria, most students will identify a different artist. This artist, quite often the student's mother, has abilities and talents which transcend traditional high art disciplinary boundaries, are traditionally tangential to art education, and include baking and gardening. At the same time, however, traditional crafts such as quiltmaking and stitchery are identified in this instance. It seems that redefining the space in which the art is performed or presented redefines not only the artist, but art.

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Charles Sanders Peirce, father of American semiotics and pragmatism, insisted that edu-cational institutions were places for learning and not for instruction. If Peirce's argument is accepted, then it is necessary to redefine the roles of teachers, students, and subject mat-ters in relation to learning. Semiotics, with its emphasis on codes, signs, and their inter-actions, is especially appropriate for rethinking the learning and teaching process in art, as well as parameters which may constrain the art education field. This paper identifies three basic semiotic issues and describes classroom activities that show relevance to an alternative pedagogy in art education.