Contextualizing the "Poetics of Openness" in the Works of Jasper Johns and Ji Lee

By Cynthia Browne.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Through insights taken from linguistic pragmatics (Emile Benveniste and Charles Pierce), I identify a particular form of what Umberto Eco calls the “open work” in art that functions symbolically as a "dialogical other.” In my paper, I identify and compare a historical manifestation of this form in Jasper Johns’ early canvas works, namely Target with Four Faces (1955) and Tango (1955), with its contemporary manifestation in one of Ji Lee’s street art projects ( Through this comparison, I examine how Johns’ more symbolic appropriation of everyday objects and the almost immediate institutionalization and categorization of his work in museums as “high art” severely limited its “openness.” In contrast, Lee’s metapragmatic usage of well-known, cartoon talk-bubbles, the deployment of their art on city streets and buildings, and their utilization of the new modes of distribution and circulation greatly enhanced the possibility for inventive, performative responses by viewers. By analyzing the semiotics of these works and the flows available for their circulation and exchange, this paper contributes to a better sociological understanding of how content and context affects the new kinds of relations between the artist and the audience emerging through the contemporary “poetics” of the open work. In a final discussion section on directions for future research, I specify a number of research questions and suggest some possible approaches for future analysis of these works’ reception aesthetics to ascertain the limitations of their “openness” in regards to their consumption. I suggest that the extent to which these open works encourage “acts of conscious freedom” (Eco:1989) requires an analysis of phenomenological accounts in reference to the contexts of power relations within and through which these open works “move.”

Keywords: Open Works, Reception Aesthetics, Linguistic Pragmatics, Semiotics, Trends in Contemporary Art

The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp.241-246. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 508.849KB).

Cynthia Browne

Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

I am a PhD Student in Social/Cultural Anthropology at Harvard University specializing in linguistic anthropology and visual culture. Research Focus: political art as forms of resistance, linguistic pragmatics, post-war French philosophy, in particular developments in post-structuralism and phenomenology and their ramifications for what Charles Taylor terms "mediational" epistemologies.


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