Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #13: Semiotics


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #13:


the semiotics of face masks: what do they signal? [source]

Pronunciation: SEH-mee-AH-tiks (strongest accent on “AH”)

Definition: Semiotics is the study of signs.

The end.

Jk jk guys. I wouldn’t do that to you! Seriously, though, it is the study of signs. But what’s a sign? And why do people in lit and film circles seem to care about it so much?

Broadly, a sign is anything that communicates meaning.

(1) the English word “rainbow” – refers to that streak of colors in the sky, even though there’s no natural resemblance or connection between those seven letters and that visual phenomenon

(2) certain spots on your arm – a sign that you have measles

(3) a picture of your dog – represents your dog

(4a) face masks in Western cultures – communicate deception and concealment, and as a result, often cause apprehension, mistrust, or fear in others

(4b) face masks in many East Asian cultures much more neutral (in the way that a jacket might be neutral), but communicate some vague concern for one’s own and others’ health


the classic, original Double Rainbow video here

(4c) face masks in the time of COVID-19 – communicate more concern in cultures where face masks are already normalized, and now communicate concern even in Western cultures

(5) Hey, remember the Double Rainbow guy? Among passionate exclamations, he cries, “What does this mean?!??” SEMIOTICS OF DOUBLE RAINBOW! Don’t worry readers, he gives his take on this in a follow-up vid: “A double rainbow is a mirror of itself … and so my video is a mirror for the people watching it.” And there’s so much more about god, signs, and communication. So intense.

Q: What about society and power? Isn’t that relevant?
A: Yes! 100%. Social norms and power have a huge effect on signs and meaning. See (4a)-(4c). In COVID times, the fear and mistrust doesn’t disappear completely, especially for Black Americans who are disenfranchised and discriminated against in the US criminal justice system. Hence why many Black Americans are cautious about wearing face masks.

Q: Right buuuut why do art critics and art theory people care SO MUCH about semiotics?
A: Because arts also involve rich, complex communities and patterns of signs. Languages like English or Russian are obvious cases, but we also talk about the “language” of horror films, or the “language” of Buddhist iconography, or the “language” of mythology, the “language” of blueprints and maps… all systems of signs! IT’S SEMIOTICSSSS

Q: Why haven’t you told me about indexes and icons and more about (Ferdinand de) Saussure and (Charles Sanders) Peirce? Or Umberto Eco? Plzzzz help
A: This post is already too long. Maybe next time.

semiosis – the act/process of establishing and interpreting signs, a special Peircean term that has a more precise role in his theory

semiology – Saussure’s name for semiotics, so it sometimes labels his particular brand of semiotics

semiotic literary criticism – a school of literary criticism, sometimes gets super into organizing and diagramming signs

And now, what you were really hoping I’d post earlier:

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