Representation (arts)

Representation (arts)

Representation describes the signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation people know and understand the world and reality through the act of naming it. Signs are manipulated in order to make sense of the world.

For many philosophers, both ancient and modern, man is regarded as the "representational animal" or homo symbolicum, the creature whose distinct character is the creation and the manipulation of signs – things that "stand for" or "take the place of" something else.

Representation has been associated with aesthetics (art) and semiotics (signs). Mitchell says "representation is an extremely elastic notion, which extends all the way from a stone representing a man to a novel representing the day in the life of several Dubliners" The term representation carries a range of meanings and interpretations. In literary theory representation is commonly defined in three ways.

  1. To look like or resemble
  2. To stand in for something or someone
  3. To present a second time to re-present

Representation began with early literary theory in the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, and has evolved into a significant component of language, Saussurian and communication studies.

Defining representation

The most common and naïve perception about literature is that is a "representation of life". Representation has always played a central role in understanding literature.

The first definition is closely related to the medium, suggesting that representation functions through reproductions, or by possessing the likeness of an object. Representations, according to this definition, can be reproduced an incalculable number of times. Paintings for example, have been reproduced in this way. The majority of Western society will have, at some point in their lives, come across an image of Da Vinci’s famous painting, the Mona Lisa. However, very few of those people will have witnessed the painting in physical reality. It is as a result of their reproductive ability that representations, such as reproductions of the Mona Lisa, become accessible to the masses and work to stand between "the real" and the audience or spectator. Television soap operas such as Home and Away are another classic example in which the characters and their lives are intended to resemble real life; time reflects that of reality, the plots are located in the familiar and realistic settings of the home, school, work place, diner, gym and beach, with much of the focus revolving around issues evident within society today including divorce, love, happiness, relationships, marriage, children and the work-place.

The second definition refers to representation as using one thing to stand for another. It has been adopted by new historicists who use the meaning in regard to the symbolic construction of a particular society at a particular period in time. For instance, the reproductions or copies of the Mona Lisa stand in for or represent the original. It is important to recognise, that the ability of representation to do this may often be problematic, raising issues of authenticity and value.

This definition can also take on a political stance. The focus can shift towards political representation in which one person or group "stands in for" someone or something, in this case, the larger societal group. Such a form of representation is pivotal in the functioning of democratic societies. Thus, "representative government" is central in political theory and ideas about legislative authority, control and the interaction between individual citizens and the state.

In the context of this definition, both semiotic and political representations rely on someone or something to stand in for or act on behalf of someone or something. The third definition implies that "representation" is the ability of texts to draw upon features of the world and present them to the viewer, not simply as reflections, but more so, as constructions. Hence, the images do not portray reality in an unbiased way with 100% accuracy, but rather, present "versions of reality" influenced by culture and peoples habitual thoughts and actions. As a result, representations are influenced by culture and in much the same way, have the capacity to shape culture and mould society’s attitudes, values, perceptions and behaviours.

Representation is in literary theory is also sometimes referred to mimesis, the Greek word which means imitation or representation. Mimesis is an imitation or representation of something else rather than an attempt to literally duplicate the original.. In The Poetics Aristotle defined tragedy as "the imitation of an action." Aristotle believed poetry and drama were endeavours to take an example of human action and represent or re-present its essence and translate it into a new "medium" of material.

An example of this would be a play about World War II. The play would attempt to recreate the essence of a complex historical event that involved millions of people, thousands of square miles and several years in a simple representation involving a few dozen people in a few thousand square feet in a few hours. This play would be a mimesis of this historic event using stage props, lighting, and individual actors to convey the sense of what World War II was to the audience in a similar way the process of mimesis could be the creating of a film, writing a poem. Picasso painting Guernica might attempt to embody warfare as a montage of destruction of World War II. However, many classical theorists of art say the degree to which each form of art accurately embodies the essence of its subject determines the degree of its success..


Since ancient times representation has played a central role in understanding literature, aesthetics and semiotics. Plato and Aristotle are key figures in early literary theory who considered literature as simply one form of representation. Aristotle for instance, considered each mode of representation, verbal, visual or musical, as being natural to human beings. Therefore, what distinguishes humans from other animals is their ability to create and manipulate signs. Aristotle deemed mimesis as natural to man, therefore considered representations as necessary for people's learning and being in the world Plato, in contrast, looked upon representation with more caution. He recognised that literature is a representation of life, yet also believed that representations create worlds of illusion leading one away from the "real things". For Plato, representation, like contemporary media, intervenes between the viewer and the real, creating illusions which lead one away from "real things". Plato believed that representation needs therefore, to be controlled and monitored due to the possible dangers resulting in its ability to foster antisocial emotions or encourage the imitation of evil.

Aristotle went on to say it was a definitively human activity. From childhood man has an instinct for representation, and in this respect man differs from the other animals that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons though imitating things. Aristotle discusses representation in three ways—

  1. The object: The symbol being represented.
  2. Manner: The way the symbol it is represented.
  3. Means: The material that is used to represent it.

The means of literary representation is language. An important part of representation is the relationship between what the material and what it represents. The questions arising from this are, "A stone may represent a man but how? And by what and by what agreement, does this understanding of the representation occur?"

One apprehends reality only through representations of reality, through texts, discourses, images: there is no such thing as direct or unmediated access to reality. But because one can see reality only through representation it does not follow that one does not see reality at all… Reality is always more extensive and complicated than any system of representation can possibly comprehend, and we always sense that this is so-representation never "gets" reality, which is why human history has produced so many different and changing ways of trying to get it.

Consequently, throughout the history of human culture, people have become dissatisfied with language's ability to express reality and as a result have developed new modes of representation. It is necessary to construct new ways of seeing reality, as people only know reality through representation. From this arises the contrasting and alternate theories and representational modes of abstraction, realism and modernism, to name a few.

Contemporary ideas about representation

It is from Plato’s caution that in the modern era many are aware of political and ideological issues and the influences of representations. It is impossible to divorce representations from culture and the society that produces them. In the contemporary world there exist restrictions on subject matter, limiting the kinds of representational signs allowed to be employed, as well as boundaries that limit the audience or viewers of particular representations. In motion picture rating systems, M and R rated films are an example of such restrictions, highlighting also society’s attempt to restrict and modify representations to promote a certain set of ideologies and values. Despite these restrictions, representations still have the ability to take on a life of their own once in the public sphere, and can not be given a definitive or concrete meaning; as there will always be a gap between intention and realization, original and copy.

Consequently, for each of the above definitions there exists a process of communication and message sending and receiving. In such a system of communication and representations it is inevitable that potential problems may arise; misunderstandings, errors, and falsehoods. The accuracy of the representations can by no means be guaranteed, as they operate in a system of signs that can never work in isolation from other signs or cultural factors. For instance, the interpretation and reading of representations function in the context of a body of rules for interpreting, and within a society many of these codes or conventions are informally agreed upon and have been established over a number of years. Such understandings however, are not set in stone and may alter between times, places, peoples and contexts. How though, does this ‘agreement’ or understanding of representation occur? It has generally been agreed by semioticians that representational relationships can be categorised into three distinct headings: icon, symbol and index.

For instance objects and people do not have a constant meaning, but their meanings are fashioned by humans in the context of their culture, as they have the ability to make things mean or signify something. Viewing representation in such a way focuses on understanding how language and systems of knowledge production work to create and circulate meanings. Representation is simply the process in which such meanings are constructed. In much the same way as the post-structuralists, this approach to representation considers it as something larger than any one single representation. A similar perspective is viewing representation as part of a larger field, as Mitchell, saying, "…representation (in memory, in verbal descriptions, in images) not only 'mediates' our knowledge (of slavery and of many other things), but obstructs, fragments, and negates that knowledge" and proposes a move away from the perspective that representations are merely "objects representing", towards a focus on the relationships and processes through which representations are produced, valued, viewed and exchanged.

Peirce and representation

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was an innovator of his time. An excellent mathematician and founder of American pragmatics, he revolutionised a monistic metaphysical system. Peirce's central ideas were focused on logic, which he considered a division of semiotics.

Semiotics and logic

Peirce proposed that logic, as a whole, is connected to semiotics, of which it is one of three main parts:

  • Speculative grammar
  • Logical critic
  • Speculative rhetoric

Speculative grammar

Making a connection between the kinds of signs there are, and how they can be pooled is what Peirce means by speculative grammar. Within this broad term, Peirce further created three trichotomies of signs:

  • Qualisigns, sinsigns or legisigns – qualities, habits, individual events and states.
  • Icons, indices or symbols – create meaning through similarity to objects, relation to objects or caucus to objects.
  • Rhematic signs, dicisigns or arguments – predicational/relational, propositional, or argumentative in character.

Through grouping logic into three trichotomies of signs, he calculated that there were only 10 kinds of logically possible signs, through which he attempted to create a relation of all potential accepted and predictable signs, whether simple or complex.

Logical critic

Through the use of this term Peirce refers to everyday logic, commonly used in regard to mathematical logic. The main objective of this term therefore, is to categorise the correlations between correct and incorrect reasoning.

Speculative rhetoric

In speculative rhetoric Peirce refers to the importance of the effective use of sign in constructing helpful courses of research and giving valuable expositions. Here Peirce coincides with Morris’s notion of pragmatics, in his interpretation of this term. It is also known as "methodeutic", in that it is the analysis of the methods used in exploring, giving expositions and creating submissions of truth.

Using signs and objects

During his research and involvement in signs, Peirce concluded that there are three ways in which signs represent objects:

  • Iconic
  • Symbolic
  • IndexicalIconic representation

This term refers to signs of resemblance, such as portraits and paintings. Such signs are designed to mimic that which it is trying to bear a resemblance to. Symbolic representation Symbolic representations draw from what is socially accepted and culturally agreed upon. Rather than being based on the resemblance of the sign to what it signifies, it is based on arbitrary stipulation. Thus, it uses what is already known and accepted within our society to give meaning. This can be both in spoken and written language.

For example, we can call a large metal object with four wheels, four doors, an engine and seats a "car" because such a term is agreed upon within our culture and it allows us to communicate. In much the same way, as a society with a common set of understandings regarding language and signs, we can also write the word "car" and in the context of Australia and other English speaking nations, know what it symbolises and is trying to represent.Indexical representation Peirce explains that this type of sign refers to cause and effect. For example, if we see smoke we conclude that it is the effect of a cause - fire.

Saussure and representation

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913) played a major role in the development of semiotics with his argument that language is a system of signs that needs to be understood in order to fully understand the process of linguistics. The study of semiotics examines the signs and types of representation that humans use to express feelings, ideas, thoughts and ideologies. Although semiotics is often used in the form of textual analysis it also involves the study of representation and the processes involved with representation.

The process of representation are characterised by using signs that we recall mentally or phonetically to comprehend the world. Saussure says before a human can use the word "tree" she or he has to envision the mental concept of a tree.

Two things are fundamental to the study of signs:

  1. The signified: a mental concept, and
  2. The signifier: the verbal manifestation, the sequence of letters or sounds, the linguistic realisation.

The signifier is the world or sound and the signified is the representation. Saussure points out that signs:

  • Are arbitrary: There is no link between the signifier and the signified
  • Are relational: We understand we take on meaning in relation to other words. Such as we understand "up" in relation to "down" or a dog in relation to other animals, such as a cat.
  • constitute our world – "You cannot get outside of language. We exist inside a system of signs".

Saussure suggests that the meaning of a sign is arbitrary, in effect; there is no link between the signifier and the signifiedThe signifier is the word or the sound of the word and the signified is the representation of the word or sound. For example, when referring to the term "sister" (signifier) a person from an English speaking country such as Australia, may associate that term as representing someone in their immediate family who is a female but not their parent (signified). An Aboriginal Australian may associate the term "sister" to represent a close friend that they have a bond with. This means that the representation of a signifier depends completely upon a person’s cultural, linguistic and social background. Saussure argues that if words or sounds were simply labels for existing things in the world, translation from one language or culture to another would be easy, it is the fact that this can be extremely difficult that suggests that words trigger a representation of an object or thought depending on the person that is representing the signifier. The signified triggered from the representation of a signifier in one particular language do not necessarily represent the same signified in another language. Even within one particular language many words refer to the same thing but represent different people's interpretations of it. A person may refer to a particular place as their "work" whereas someone else represents the same signifier as their "favorite restaurant". This can also be subject to historical changes in both the signifier and the way objects are signified.

Saussure claims that an imperative function of all written languages and alphabetic systems is to "represent" spoken language. Most languages do not have writing systems that represent the phonemic sounds they make. For example, in English the written letter "a" represents different phonetic sounds depending on which word it is written in. The letter "a" has a different sound in the word in each of the following words, "apple", "gate", "margarine" and "beat", therefore, how is a person unaware of the phonemic sounds, able to pronounce the word properly by simply looking at alphabetic spelling. The way the word is represented on paper is not always the way the word would be represented phonetically. This leads to common misrepresentations of the phonemic sounds of speech and suggests that the writing system does not properly represent the true nature of the pronunciation of words.



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