Thoughts on Art Interpretation
We believe that engaging with an artwork is what draws us in, it’s what leads to a fulfilling experience beyond the initial first impression. We can’t just visually scroll past an image as with our social media feeds or the 13 Seconds described in an earlier article. Superficial viewing leaves us feeling flat and even forgetting the artwork as we walk out the door. We need to analyze and interpret what we see to fully enjoy the art. We advocate for viewing art via an open-minded critique that allows us to build intellectual understanding and experience from what is presented. But interpretation is fraught with difficulties and half-truths. We rarely have access to artists or even their words while viewing a work, we might interpret their exact words differently than they were stated, or the passage of time and cultural differences could open a gap between their intent and our understanding. So it appears that even the idea of interpretation is destined to fail. If you’re feeling adventurous, here is one of the more famous essays on artistic interpretation ever written, Against Interpretation, by Susan Sontag. She eloquently addresses these pitfalls even if she doesn’t offer a solution. For us, the process of enjoying art is more important to our project than any “right answer” that could be derived through interpretation. We simply don’t know exactly what each artist meant in every circumstance, nor is that all that matters - our experience of the art adds to the initial work itself and creates something new. We don’t need a pretentious vocabulary for art criticism but we do need a simple set of questions to ask ourselves and a straightforward habit we can develop to enjoy art. A classic example from the late 18th and early 19th centuries was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who set forth three criteria for critics to consider in interpreting and evaluating a work of art: (1) What was the artist trying to do? (2) Did he do it? (3) Was it worth doing? You could use these questions as a starting point for viewing each work that comes into your home or even museum pieces. But I don’t think it starts early enough or finishes properly. Perhaps a better starting point is to ask yourself what you see - what are the shapes, lines, colors, and techniques. What media is the artist using in the form and structure of the art? Get a formal (the actual shapes) and physical understanding of the artwork first. We shouldn’t jump directly to the artist’s intent before asking these questions, nor should we end with asking ourselves about the merit of this artistic expression. Nonetheless, Goethe’s list is well known so worth foundational consideration. Then, moving forward, simply ask yourself what do you like about the art, what does it make you think and feel, and what 2-3 points would you convey to an acquaintance that visits your home. Overall we have the four questions below:
What are the physical characteristics of the art?
What do you like about it?
What does it make you think and feel?
How would you describe it to someone else?
We’d recommend describing the art to someone else as the final step because it helps to clarify your thinking, and because interpretation is both personal and communal. Many of our artistic impressions (Probably too many) are told to us beforehand by institutions that deem art exceptional. We need a quick checklist such as above to become a habit which allows us to explore art personally and compare our understanding with friends, peers, and institutions. This generates the debate which becomes so satisfying when we bring art into our lives. The catalyst for the proceeding discussion was our recent addition of descriptive cards to accompany each piece as it rotates through The Art Circuit. Initially we didn’t include descriptions because we wanted Members to have a pure experience of each artwork without words from the artist or the curators. We may have information about the art before Members but it does not make our information better or correct. It only tells you why art was selected for The Art Circuit according to our curatorial mission. The language also provides a window into what the art makes us think and feel. In many cases these are themes with a broad appeal. You can use this language to inform and initiate your viewing experience, but we hope you push well past it. Overall we believe you must engage with art to enjoy the full experience, even if interpretation itself can become an intellectual exercise in frustration with no correct answers. Therefore each artwork is a conversation and a process which starts in one home and continues through many others within the community.