Meaning Displaced as Form

Authors/Artists considered in this analysis

  • Barr, “Is Modern Art Communistic” 1952
  • Shahn, “The Artist and the Politician” 1953
  • Siqueiros, “Open Letter to Painters of the Soviet Union” 1955
  • Lukács, “The Ideology of Modernism” 1958
  • Barthes, from “Myth Today” 1956


These five texts primarily discuss theories of mythology and ideology, specifically in terms of how such structures of knowledge function, exercise control, and limit consciousness. The connecting intertextual question that close reading generated is: What is the mythological/ideological relationship between form, concept, and meaning?


From this question I formulated the following hypothesis: Form and concept are inseparable and this relationship has mythological/ideological consequences. These categorical determinants working together constitute structure, and the placement of the meaning/form category is malleable in structural position. Specifically, myth and ideology work when meaning is transformed into form and thus is indistinct, imposed and hidden.


So the relationship between form, concept, and meaning is such that transformations based on context can occur and ambiguity follows. This transformation can be considered as a generally concealed operating mechanism which constructs myths and ideology. Not recognizing this mechanism allows differentiating categories to limit consciousness.

I will now proceed to define these key words used to support my argument: Structure, Form, Concept, Meaning, Myth, and Ideology.

  • Structure – the way in which parts are arranged to construct a whole interrelated complex entity
  • Form – the object shape mode in which a thing exists
  • Concept – a general mental idea or thought derived or inferred from explicit instances or occurrences of an object shape mode
  • Meaning – the inner significance of something that is conveyed, disposed, imposed or intended in a specified manner
  • Myth - a common belief or tradition that has evolved around something or someone; especially exemplifying the ideals and institutions of a society or subsection thereof
  • Ideology – a frame of ideas representing and supporting the social prerequisites and desires of an individual, group, class, or culture, often enforced through domination.

I will now present evidence for how meaning is transformed into form to create myths and ideologies. To accomplish this task, I will primarily explore the propositions proffered by Barthes as the structural framework. The most important aspect of Barthes critique is an inherent ambiguity that arises when a second order hierarchical structure is built upon a first order set of assumptions. This ambiguity is hidden from most members of the culture which are functioning based on meaning transformed into form. Operative under this structure, an interpretation becomes accepted as truth.

This critique is not limited to traditional semiotics. Barthes broadly defines language as “any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual.” Thus it includes oral speech, modes of writing, written discourse, newspaper article/reporting, modes of representation, photograph, cinema, sports, shows, publicity, even an object that means something: cars, food, pulp fiction….etc.

As Barthes clarifies, “… any material can arbitrarily be endowed with meaning.” Barthes goes on to give a concrete example of how a first order structure establishes meaning. A material object in the observable world, like a rose, elicits a concept, like passion. The combination of these two entities, a form and a thought, creates a separate associative meaning, such as love. Extrapolating to the second order myth function, love is converted into an object that elicits a concept, such as partner selection. The combination of these two entities, a form and thought, creates a separate associative meaning, such as marriage. The problem is that this new meaning is based on the assumption of the certainty implied and derived in the first order structure, namely that love is now a fixed object.

Removing the specifics and mapping the conceptual functions, the ambiguous order is revealed.

Barthes concludes that “Myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.” Now the following slides will address how the other four authors covered in this report address ideology in analogous structural terms.

Lukas contents that “It is the view of the world, the ideology underlying a writer’s work that counts.” It therefor follows that the ambiguity of a writers understanding is important to consider, recognizing that we must question the underlying transformation of associated meaning that has been reassigned as an object. On the other hand, Lukas seems to be in complete agreement with Barthes when he articulates “… style is rooted in content; it is the specific form of a specific content. Content determines form.”

Siqueiros seems to be oblivious to the inherent problem of transformed meaning when he says “Ideological art is the image of man and his environment…. Realism can never be anything but a means of creation in constant progress…” … it “must shake off the routine forms.”

In the case of Barr and Shahn, they recognized the fallacies that make ideology function. “Our ultimate victory or defeat in the struggle with communism will be a victory or defeat of ideas. But if we, by official acts of suppression, play the hypocrite toward our own beliefs, strangle our own liberties, and then we can hardly hope to win …” Furthermore they are aware that ideologies fallacies are based on defective logic. “Those that equate modern art with totalitarianism are ignorant of the facts … they are merely expressing a common dislike by means of a common prejudice.” The core of this argument was primarily based on the work of Barthes, a notoriously obtuse writer. Interpretation of his intention is difficult and problematic. In addition, his works are translated from French to English, and this will unavoidably cause a lack of precision. Nevertheless, the explanation put forth in the paper supports Barthes contention that “the more a system is specifically defined in its forms, the more amenable it is to … criticism.”


This model of meaning-shifts based on categorical ambiguity, although useful for understanding, is only one of a multiplicity of possible explanations. There are many other language ambiguity representations which could be developed, with each adding more insight. However, no single model is definitive.


In summary, within the four considered texts, specific references relative to ideology have been interrogated in terms relative to a structural mode of understanding. Broadly speaking, each of these texts addresses the problem of meaning. The relationship between form, concept and meaning is such that one can be transformed into the other based on context. This transformation can be considered as a generally hidden operating mechanism which constructs myths and ideology based on ambiguity. Not recognizing this mechanism allows differentiating categories to limit consciousness. This loss of awareness is the mechanism that provides mythologies and ideologies with their power to control.

In conclusion, as I travel across space and time, sensation provides points of reflection. Within context, there reside tools to combat ambiguity, leading to more closely approaching the nature of existence. Part of the process must involve establishing the boundaries of conception framed by opposition. For all objects of contemplation there are multiplicities of viewpoints, or nodes of equivalency. Art is a way to structure knowledge.