UNDERSTANDING SEMANTICS AND SYNTACTICS IN ART
Updated: Aug 12
This is an article “Understanding Semantics and Syntactics in Art” by Marc Primo Warren
In simple terms, semantics is the branch of linguistics that is associated with the meaning of the words we use while syntax pertains to the structure and how we arrange the words into well-formed sentences. Together, they integrate to form a thought that we can understand and appreciate. In art, the processing of semantic and syntactic values send us brain signals that elicits responses as it relates to how we perceive order in our surroundings.
Both semantics and syntactics as it is are an activity for the nervous system to process. By creating significantly meaningful segmentations, artists are able to integrate an appeal to semantic understanding to their audiences. Syntax, on the other hand, relies on how the artist fuses various factors to present style, message, and composition. Artists use and rearrange art elements to achieve unique meaning and interpretation.
A neuropsychological effect
Not all artworks use the appeal for clear semantics and syntactics. Some are also created with inconsistencies, most of which are evident in surrealism. As a neuropsychological effect, our brains detect these inconsistencies in a surrealist painting which tells us that we are looking at something that’s different from what we already know and understand, and requires more inspection.
For example, a clear photo will send a different set of semantic and syntactic signals to the brain as compared to an oil painting of the same image. Much more than that of an abstract. This merely shows us that our visual perception processes specific information as we take in various forms of media.
Very much like music
Look around you and observe how your brain processes what you see into a more coherent and logical picture. That's how syntax in art works. We structure visual cues so that we can form and capture what we see accordingly and relate it to other information that’s stored in our minds. It is innate in every individual to give meaning to the things he sees by imposing order, arrangement, and rules. The same goes when we are viewing art. We probe its meaning by studying its structure to form a language that relies more on thought than verbal description.
This human auto-process is a phenomenon that allows us to detect both merits and violations in art. This same principle is used in classical music to detect meaning and structure in chord progression and relativity, arrangement, tempo, and harmony that appeals to the same parts of our temporal and frontal lobes.
Forming thought sentences
Perhaps, the easiest way to explain the role of semantics and syntactics in art is how we study language. We learn words and their meanings then study how we should form them into the most effective sentences that get our messages across. In art, we learn techniques, elements, and style and review why they are used for a particular medium, then study how an artist integrates every stroke, shade, line, and light to form a piece that would tell us something significant.
In appreciation of surrealist and abstract art, we accept how artists bend these rules of structure to give us a more profound and unique meaning. Arguably, most surrealist artworks present something that is not natural in real life yet gives us positive emotional values that though are non-ambiguous, still offer logical and coherent signals to our brains much like in poetry or how the Beatniks redefined literary flow.
Understanding art relies on how we effectively internalize the artist’s work and process it to paint a perfect picture in our minds. Having a good grasp on how both semantics and syntax works for the various forms of art we digest everyday is important if we seek to appreciate the true messages behind each one.