A Semiotic Profile: Donald Preziosi

Donald Preziosi

Donald Preziosi is Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of California – Los Angeles and pioneer in visual semiotics in the United States and influential theoretician of art history and museology. His Rethinking Art History: Reflections on a Coy Science (1989) was a landmark text marking the theoretical turn in art history in the late 1980s. Preziosi studied linguistics with Roman Jakobson and pre-historic archeology with Georg Hanfmann, both at Harvard. He subsequently taught at Yale, Cornell, SUNY and then UCLA. Preziosi delivered the Slade Lectures in Fine Arts at Oxford University in 2001. While the Oxford Slade Lectures were entitled ‘Seeing through Art History,’ they were published as Brain of the Earth’s Body: Art, Museums & the Phantasms of Modernity. He continued as Visiting Professor until 2004, and in 2011-12 was visiting professor at the University of York, UK.

Preziosi’s semiotics is consistently interdisciplinary – aware of other disciplines without compromising the integrity of semiotics – and empirical, applied to real interpretive problems rather than pure systems. His work on Minoan architecture has been the impetus and spur for his investigations but working in the pre-historical field has been a useful perch for considering the origins of art, the variety of sign systems in art and architecture, and the role of belief and magic in the foundation of artistic ideas, as they evolve into modernity and the present.

Toward a Visual Semiotics

Preziosi’s work on visual semiotics began in the 1960s studying linguistics with Roman Jakobson. When turning to prehistoric archeology, it was natural to develop a strictly visual approach to the meaning of built spaces. In two early works, Preziosi outlined his semiotic theory: Architecture, Language & Meaning and The Semiotics of the Built Environment, both of 1979.

In Architecture, Language and Meaning, Preziosi was concerned to understand the architectural code, steering clear of the “muddy waters of linguistic analogy” (p. 3). Architecture was a particularly useful object of investigation in regard to this problem because,

[i]n evident contrast to the situation with verbal language, where not only is the acoustic medium itself relatively homogeneous, the linguistic signals are themselves processed by the brain in different ways than nonlinguistic acoustic signal…By contrast, architectonic signs are realized through what appears to be an impossibly complex hybrid of media (p.4).

Thus, the “complexity of its material component” (p. 7) – particularly its “relative permanence” (p. 9) – lead to an appropriate model for the visual sign-system (c.f. p. 51).

Preziosi (1979, 1983) felt the linguistic analogy had to be followed with great care but his analysis of architecture did yield what he thought were “minimal” units so often sought after in the spirit of linguistic reductionism. Departing from Jakobson’s distinction between directly sense-discriminative and indirectly sense-determinative functions, the first one separating (in linguistics) the lexical (phonological) from the morphological (syntactic). Likened to phonemes, forms make up syllable-like templates, which in turn create morpheme-like figures and so on, as in the following table (after 1979, 67):

Sense-Discriminative Units Linguistic Term Architectonic Term
A Distinctive Features Distinctive Features
B Phonemes Forms
C Syllables Templates
Sense-Determinative Units
D Morphemes Figures
E Words Cells
Patterns of Aggregation of Sense-Determinative Units
F phrases matrices
(n) Sentences, texts, discourses, etc. Compounds, structures, settlements, etc.

Preziosi finds consequently that the number of forms “is not only finite but fairly small” (62). Sketching the binarily encoded contrasts that are possible, one is able to formalize “stylistic” profiles of different architectural traditions. As a result of this foundation, Preziosi (1983) produced Minoan Architectural Design as part of the de Gruyter series, Approaches to Semiotics. Preziosi (1979) had earlier noted how architecture has both syntagmatic and paradigmatic elements, played out over time. In the case of Minoan architecture, in which elevations and whole interiors are more difficult to speculate about, he (1983) worked mostly with the evidence that can be gleaned from the ground plan.

Long judged to possess an unstructured quality and opposed to the strict symmetry of contemporary Egyptian architecture, Minoan buildings were often seen as labyrinthine and chaotic. Preziosi admits that, “no two Minoan houses are identical in plan” (6). However, instead of looking at elements in isolation, he sought to determine higher-order relationships common to a number of buildings and in this way found consistent elements. Any invariance one finds, then, is the rule of derivation of the forms, “in which a cluster of space-cells is composed in hierarchical fashion (with respect to relative size) and in geometric fashion (with respect to the positioning of cells of different size” (26).

The new level of care and premeditation Preziosi attributed to Minoan architects led him to posit that many structures were designed at once and were not mere agglomerative accretions. Furthermore, due to their rectilinear exactness, he posited that they were laid out along standard grids of ropes and stakes, and that their plans betray multiples of at least two different standard measures, showing the modular nature of much Minoan architecture. In this way, the careful analysis of elements revealed a deep structure of hidden coherence.

The Elements of Visual Communication

Preziosi’s early mandate called for a dynamic and relational approach to signifying, which he felt was largely captured in Jakobson’s (1960) six-part model of human communication “Linguistics and Poetics.” Its origins, however, according to Preziosi (1979, 49; 1989) originate in Jan Mukarovsky’s work on architecture (“On the Problem of Function in Architecture”). While Mukarovsky was attacking Preziosi’s shared problem, the built environment, he was still victim to the “verbocentrist paradigm of the sign itself” (p. 116): “Ultimately, his ‘artwork as sign’ is a metaphor from verbal language and from a perspective on language that remains essentially wed to a communicational metaphor: The art object is a medium of intermediary in a transitive transfer from artist (addresser) to beholder-addressee” (118).

Mukarovsky had posited three levels of signification in buildings (“functional horizons”):

  • Usage-context
  • Historical Purpose
  • Functional Horizon
  • Aesthetic
  • Individual Functional Horizon

Useful for the history of semiotics is Preziosi’s note, in which he reports that Jakobson belived that Mukarovsky had been influenced by Jakobson’s comments in the 1930s. However, Preziosi notes that “Jakobson’s own writings do not, before the 1960 essay, include any such perspectives, although notions of communication, whereby meaning resides in total interactive context, permeate his writings at all periods” (224).

Jakobson’s model for speech situation, intended exclusively for verbal communication, is a better model for Preziosi, because it can be translated in spirit to the visual, rather than literally (as with Mukarovsky). Below is an adaptation of the well-known diagram, incorporating both element and function together.

The emotive orientation of a speech act is suggested in architecture through an “expressive orientation upon the identity and state of an ‘addresser’ (maker and/or user)” (1979, 52). The conative function is found in the way “certain behaviors are staged or induced through spatiotemporal organization of given constructs” (52). The phatic or “territorial” function is “often coexistent with its conative or directive function” (53), while the aesthetic function is foregrounded when a building or environment reveals a “predominance of orientation upon its own signalization or composition” 53). Allied to the metalinguistic is the code function, usually realized architectonically “through historical reference or allusion” (54). Finally, built dwellings and environments have a referential function, which is its “usage” (55).

Contrary to the situation with Mukarovsky, in which the communicational function is presumed, it is only one within Jakobson’s model. Furthermore, “the message does not and cannot supply all of the meaning of the interaction; a significant portion of what is communicated derives from the specific contextual situation, the code itself within which the individual articulation arises, and the means and circumstances of contact between maker and user or beholder” (1989, 149). The system is made dynamic by the fact that each of the elements and their respective functions (e.g. emotive, referential, etc.) will vary in degrees of domination.

In Brain of the Earth’s Body, Preziosi revealed the results of late consultation with Roman Jakobson at the Ossabaw Island Writers Resort, near Savannah off the coast of Georgia. He follows Jakobson’s (1980) resolution of Peirce’s tripartite system into a series of two oppositions. If we construct two axes of contiguous/similar and factual/imputed, and if index and symbol become one axis, then icon needs a complement, which Jakobson suggested to be “artifice.” Jakobson, however, never specified what this might look like in visual semiotics.

Preziosi pressed this into visual semiotics by explaining it as “ostensification,” but argued that the same kind of imputed similarity can be found in the visual realm, where a virtual relationship is posited to exist. As noted below, Preziosi found that if Peirce’s other three sign functions found ready application to different forms of art, artifice/ostensification “revealed a window back onto an ancient, medieval, and early modern tradition of meaning construction since forgotten or obscured” (145).

The Coy Science

In the 1980s, Preziosi began incorporating elements into his semiotics that would be identified as ‘post-structuralist,’ particularly the work of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (Preziosi, 1985, 1989). Unlike many of the post-structuralist turn, however, Preziosi directed semiotic tools in the reform of the discipline of art history, not as a helplessly flawed project, but as an ongoing project to understand the presuppositions of the apparatus of art history. Unlike some of his theoretical peers, for example, Preziosi (1999) continued to write serviceable histories, as for instance his co-authored text on Minoan art and architecture. As he wrote in The Brain of the Earth’s Body (2003), he wanted to “see through art history” in the sense of “what what it does does” and “seeing art history through” (4). In other words, he argued for “throwing the bathwater out whilst keeping the baby, though not without a thorough rubdown with some pretty rough towels.”

Preziosi used post-structuralist insights to understand the particular status of art history as a disciplinary practice at the time. He coined the idea of the “anamorphic archive” to mean a body of works of art accessible to the privileged art historian, all at once. Preziosi argued that art history as practices “is at base an ahistorical discipline” (189). In Rethinking Art History (1989), Preziosi found semiotics – particularly the early work of Jan Mukarovsky (118) – complicit in this scenario, because to construe art as “always communicating, or as always communicating in the same or equivalent ways over time or context” was found both in the discipline of iconology and some varieties of visual semiotics. Semiotics could reinforce this idea when it abetted in the “singular and relatively modern notion that the primary mode of existence of the art object is ‘to mean’” (1989, 96).

With a historical survey of the theory of signification going back to the logicians of Port Royale, Preziosi was able to show how there is a strong counter-pull to “modernist” ideas of signing that are in tension with “Eucharistic” alternatives. With Claire Farago (2012) they furthermore show how in the Renaissance artists took over the theologically potent image (of the divine) by substituting the language of artifice: “ontological issues were discussed in rhetorical terms” (29). The agency shifted from the referent in the image to the maker of the image, something that both Protestant and Catholic apologists agreed upon.

This is all important for looking at the institution of modern aesthetics at the end of the eighteenth century. Because church authorities had to instruct the faithful on the proper way in which to discourse with images, now that the agency of the maker was foregrounded and piety was in question, the result was “institutionalized classicism taught in academies of art for over three centuries” (40). P. 111.

Current Prospects:

Preziosi suggests that postmodernism has derailed itself by failing to acknowledge its semiotic basis. In Brain of the Earth’s Body he returns to the idea of artifice as a means to unravel the way in which art as a repressed spirituality – “secular theologism” – functions in society. Against a brief use of such ideas by writers of the October group and “what looked at the time as if it would become an entirely new line of critical thinking about visual signification” and what turned out instead to be merely a fad, Preziosi returns to Jakobson for “the psycho-semiotic foundations of artistic production and reception-how things mean, in other words, and what the responsibilities of the historian and critic might be or could be today” (141).


Selected Preziosi Bibliography (BOOKS)

Labrys. Report of the Yale Project on Architectural & Settlement Analysis (New Haven, CT: Charlton Press, 1970).

Architecture, Language & Meaning (The Hague: De Gruyter, 1979).

The Semiotics of the Built Environment (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1979).

Minoan Architectural Design (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1983).

Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (New Haven & London: Yale Univ. Press, 1989).

Aegean Art and Architecture (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999) co-author Louise Hitchcock.

Brain of the Earth’s Body: Art, Museums, and the Phantasms of Modernity (The 2001 Oxford Slade Lectures) (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Enchanted Credulities: Art, Religion, Amnesia (London: Routledge, 2013).


The Ottoman City & Its Parts: Urban Structure & Social Order [Rifa’at Ali AbouEl-Haj, Irene A. Bierman, & Donald Preziosi, eds., (co-editor and two original introductory essays; 1992].

The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); 2nd edition (2009); Chinese translation 2012, Korean translation 2013.

Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (co-edited with Claire Farago. Coauthor of introductory essay and co-author of individual chapter introductions (London: Ashgate Press, 2004).

In the Aftermath of Art: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Politics (Routledge, London, 2006): essays on visual culture and art history, 1988-2003, with a Critical Commentary by Johanne Lamoureux.

Art is Not What You Think It Is (Oxford & London: Blackwells Publishers [Manifesto Series], 2012), co-author Claire Farago.


Ian Verstegen

Holenstein, Elmar. “On the Poetry and the Plurifunctionality of Language.” In Barry Smith, ed, Structure and Gestalt: Philosophy and Literature in Austria-Hungary (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1981).

Jakobson, R. The Framework of Language (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980).

Mukarovsky, J. (1937) “On the Problem of Functions in Architecture”, Structure, Sign and Function, Selected Essays, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978, 236- 50.

Mukarovsky, Jan, “Die poetische Benennung und die ästhetische Funktion der Sprache [Copenhagen Linguistics Conference], Kapitel aus der Poetik, trans. Walter Schamschula (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967), 44-54.

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