Pushing out the boundaries

designing a systemic-functional model for non-European visual arts


  • Michael O'Toole Murdoch University




Visual Semiotics, Semantic Functions, Tristratal Systems, Rank Scale, Social Semioitics, Chinese Landscape Painting, Material Qualities


Convinced that Halliday’s model for the structures of language and the analysis of verbal texts was applicable to all semiotic systems, over the last 20 years the author has tested this hypothesis against the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. This has involved confronting such questions as: whether the tristratal nature of language applies to visual media; whether the three metafunctions – or renamed equivalents – distinguish simultaneous ways of making meaning as they do in language; whether the options in the ‘grammars’ of the arts comprise systems or clines, or both; whether it helps to distinguish ranks in visual structures and delicacy in their analysis; whether the ‘simultaneous syntagms’ of visual texts require adjustments to the concept of the sequential syntagm in language; whether the concept of ‘the social semiotic’ extends to what and how a culture expresses through its arts; whether an extra function (e.g. the Poetic function) adds a fundamental dimension to the analysis of artistic texts over visual texts in general. This paper attempts to push out the cultural boundaries to explore whether a classical Chinese landscape painting can be usefully analysed using the S-F semiotic grammar, or whether the special preoccupation of Chinese painters, viewers and art theorists with the quality of the materials used and their application requires the kind of focus on the substance stratum we would normally reserve for the analysis of sculpture in the West. This also raises questions about such distinctive features of the Chinese social semiotic at a given period as moral and aesthetic philosophies, the relation between painting and poetry, and the perception of the place in Chinese society of the artist by their public and themselves.

Author Biography

Michael O'Toole, Murdoch University

Emeritus Professor of Communication Studies, Murdoch University, Western Australia


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How to Cite

O’Toole, M. (2005). Pushing out the boundaries: designing a systemic-functional model for non-European visual arts. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 1(1), 83–97. https://doi.org/10.1558/lhs.2005.1.1.83