Encoding and decoding an artistic message


Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

René Magritte7


To experience an artwork we make use of our sensory system, just like we do with any other thing in our lives. Then, by processing the information received, we automatically generate some thoughts about it. But unlike all other things in our lives, artworks invite us to deeper contemplations, in order to interpret their meanings. And we do this by unconsciously asking ourselves one or more of the following questions:

“1.  What is the artwork8 intended to mean?

  2.  What could it mean?

  3.  What does it mean?

  4.  What is its significance to me?” (Stecker 2003, 4; italics added)

In a reverse procedure, the artist reflects upon an idea, an emotion or some kind of a stimulus and encrypts a message about it in the artwork, with the help of artistic material. Each form of art owns numerous methods that can be employed for encoding and distributing a message. Of course, the more abstract an artwork is, the more difficult to decipher the initial intentions of the artist is. In conceptual art, for instance, the physical creation is only the support of the artistic idea, which undermines the importance of an aesthetic experience. That is to say that an artwork can either be the message itself or just a container of it.


Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” has been voted the most influential modern artwork of all times in a poll of 500 art experts from the UK9. But the disagreement of people quickly appeared in negative reactions like: “This is ludicrous! I mean what ISN'T art these days? These days you can stick your name on anything and call it art. I see no beauty in a sculptured toilet.” (Maya McKee, Southampton, UK)10  or “It certainly is original, but when compared against all the other art works out there that took plenty more time and work, I think it's just insulting to the other artists.” (Steve Wilson, Nottingham, England)10. This demonstrates that most of the people are accustomed to look at art as some sort of craftsmanship and not necessarily a means of making a point or expressing an idea. And this is understandable, because until the 20th Century artists portrayed the world with great regard to aesthetics. The more an artist would work on a creation and make it beautiful, the more admiration would the public display for it. Elisabeth Schellekens (2007) explains this in the following way:

The artwork is a process rather than a material thing, and as such it is no longer something that can be grasped merely by seeing, hearing or touching the end product of that process. The notion of agency in art-making is thus particularly emphasized. In many cases, the ‘art-making’ and the ‘artwork’ come together, as what is sought is an identification of the notion of the work of art with the conceptual activity of the artist.


Different disciplines, like psychology, aesthetics, semantics and semiotics, have been transposed to the field of art with the purpose of studying human perception and behavior regarding art. These studies can be (and often are) used as tools for manipulation. Knowing how individuals may react to certain images or sounds empowers scientists, artists and others who are familiar with the scientific theory to influence the way one thinks (or even acts). Artists can intentionally provoke different emotions to their public. Nonetheless, the impact of an artist’s work is still reliant on each targeted individual. Therefore, when experiencing the same artwork, emotions can (and will) vary from one person to another. Nowadays, the methods used to make the public sensitive to artistic messages have to be more aggressive in order to outbalance the information that mass-media bombs continuously. To illustrate this, in his struggle to raise awareness about the condition of stray dogs, the artist Guillermo Habacuc Vargas Jiménez captured one of them, chained it in a gallery and put a big sign made of dog biscuits on the back wall: “Eres Lo Que Lees” (“You Are What You Read”). This action shocked people all over the world, even if they had only read about it, and their feedback matched the aggressiveness of the artist’s method. An online petition11 was signed by almost 3 million people, including Vargas himself apparently, to boycott his participation at the 2008 Bienal Centroamericana Honduras.


Contemporary semioticians use the terms encoding and decoding when referring to “the creation and interpretation of texts” (Chandler 2001). In 1960, the structural linguist Roman Jakobson introduced a model of classifying communication, involving an addresser (encoder), an addressee (the receiver), a contact (a psychological link between the two persons), a code, a context, a message and six appropriate functions: referential, expressive, conative, phatic, metalingual and poetic (Jakobson cited in Chandler 2001). The next table (ibid.) exemplifies these notions and how they interact:


Oriented towards





imparting information

It's raining.



expressing feelings or attitudes

It's bloody pissing down again!



influencing behaviour

Wait here till it stops raining!



establishing or maintaining social relationships

Nasty weather again, isn't it?



referring to the nature of the interaction

This is the weather forecast.



foregrounding textual features

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.


To encode and decode a message by means of symbols and metaphors is essential in order to understand narrative in fields that are not word-based, such as abstract art. Symbols and metaphors stand for something else then their primary meaning. Compared to metaphors, in the case of which we have to totally ignore the literal sense and replace it with the new figurative one, symbols have to be interpreted having in mind their primary sense but adding new connotations to it.


8 Robert Stecker uses the word object for these basic interpretative questions, but they are equally valid when applied in art.