Durning-Lawrence Professor of History of Art in the University of London, at University College
Let me begin with the obvious statement that a blind man cannot perceive a visual message. Visual messages crowd upon us, and we are all blind to most of them. Response to every visual message would make life quite unbearable. It would be like listening to hundreds of verbal messages frozen into permanence. It is therefore most fortunate that the only visual messages which find response in our brain are those which we judge in some way or other useful or important to us. When that happens, the visual sign or symbol communicates a meaning.
This is true not only of a traffic light, but also of a picture by Rembrandt. But whereas the meaning of such conventional signs as traffic lights has been fixed and accepted by general consent, no such agreement exists and can exist in the arts. The meaning of the work of art is open to interpretation. What, then, is the relation between this kind of sign or symbol and the recipient of the message?
In order to create a common basis of understanding I have first to say a few words about the terms 'visual symbols' and 'interpretation'. In the context of this paper I want to comprehend the term 'visual symbol' in its widest sense. A representation -- as primitive or as childlike as it may be -- embodies a concept: a circle or oval or even an asymetrical object like the early American shell mask on Plate Ia* with a minimum of indications for eyes, nose and mouth means 'head'. It therefore functions as a symbol for a real head.____________________