Sunday, 6 May 2012


“'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean ‚ ‘neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Interpretation is something we do when we encounter experiences which seem somehow significant, that have, or appear to have, some kind of meaning. These experiences may be natural formations, patterns, correspondences or likenesses or equally they may be the result of human intention or its side effects. Interpretation involves asking such questions as what does this mean? Who is it for? How was it made? How could it be different? What does it neglect? What is it’s context? Why is it like this? What is it about? Is it clear? What do I like about it, what do I not and why?

Generally speaking there are three possible positions from which any interpretation may be made:

1: From the position of the producer: the “Artist”.
2: From the position of an individual interpreter: the “Viewer”.
3: From the position of a group: the “Audience”.

Artists may intend to produce meaning in their work, just as they might intend to express meaning through spoken language. They might choose to utilise their understanding of any number of preexistent communicative resources to articulate an idea in visual form or else they might instead trust their intuition - simply playing until something significant emerges that they then seize upon refine, emphasise or present unaltered. Alternatively, but radically differently, they might choose, like Humpty Dumpty, for their art to mean whatever they want it to mean without recourse to a more widely understood or agreed-upon set of significances. In this case the possibility for communicative coherence immediately evaporates because communication is impossible without shared understandings. (It should be admitted here that any given artwork may possess other redeeming features besides meaning but, for the purposes of this discussion, meaning is probably more than sufficient.)

Like Humpty Dumpty, I can "choose" to have a word mean anything I wish it to. I can use the word "cat" to designate a green, four-legged animal more commonly known as a frog seen at sunrise on a Tuesday morning from an elevated position. However, if no-one else were to accept this very particular meaning of the word "cat" there is no possibility of communicating anything of the object or detail which I alone ascribe to it. Individualised meanings therefore may signify all sorts of complex things to individuals, but as signifiers in coherent communication they are likely to be nothing more than nonsense. Communication is a collective process, drawing upon shared understandings. 
"Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice." - Steven Pinker
This is not to say that artists must always use generally available significances. Some artists may deliberately devise a private language in which they are able to explore or indulge interests or concerns that might compromise them if shared more widely. Similarly they might evolve a form of language which allows them to explore ideas which they feel would otherwise be unavailable to them using conventional forms. However, if at any point they wish to share these ideas then they either need to provide some means of access or else risk the possibility that their work will never be understood by others in the way that it is by themselves.

It is certainly true that receptive, attentive and perceptive viewers are often able to detect the signs of even the most obscure articulation in a wide variety of approaches and to follow these up with more concerted research and investigation. However, the only reason anyone would wish to decode an unfamiliar language is to discover what it has to communicate. Language is a means to an end and, whilst its rules might detain a linguist, it is usually the content we are after and if the content is unexceptional then the energy invested in decoding the language will most likely have been wasted.

As I briefly mentioned above, there are instances where artists deliberately choose a playful approach and observe this unfolding process in the hope of discovery. This strategy actually situates the artist, in large part, as a viewer: as an interpreter of meaning rather than its immediate producer. The artist discovers meaning rather than directly intending it. And, as with all interpreters of artworks, their view must necessarily be informed, whether consciously or unconsciously, by an understanding of the ways in which visual forms generate meaning. If this understanding is a purely personal one then there is little likelihood that it might be shared, but if it is informed by more widely held cultural codes, references and associations then it is likely that any meanings discovered might be interpreted in similar ways by other viewers.

The interpretations of individual viewers are therefore only ever partial (in both senses of the word). Even a well established and respected expert viewer or critic is limited by their experience and personal preferences. No single viewer is a catch all. The big difference in the case of critics though, is that they have a vested interest in interpreting artworks in ways that make sense to other viewers. If they stray too far into the realms of obscurity they are likely to find their professional credibility dwindling. Nonetheless critics are free to explicate the more esoteric aspects of artworks - indeed they are often expected to do so - and even to denounce them wherever they find them hollow. But we should not forget that the opinions, even of the most experienced of critics, are still only opinions – after all, Tolstoy believed Shakespeare to be vastly overrated.

Is there such a thing as the definitive interpretation of any given artwork? This is to presuppose a fundamental essence to which the artwork might be distilled, a pure originary interpretation that admits only truths and deflects all falsity. But interpretation is, by its very nature, subjective - therefore no single interpretation, no matter how commodious or authoritative, can ever pretend to the throne of objectivity. The closest interpretation ever approaches such a state is inter-subjectivity: a collection of subjectivities; a diverse and well informed audience.

Audiences consisting of varied individuals with differing backgrounds can make for fascinating discussions about artworks and such discussions rarely if ever find nothing upon which to agree concerning interpretation. But, once again, the goal of interpretation is not to distil artworks down to a single universal essence or truth. Differing interpretations draw attention to unique elements, aspects and implications of artworks and celebrate the richness and variety of experience. The value of interpretation, in this sense, is in its ability to deepen our understanding of artworks and to enrich our lives, not to furnish us with singular authoritative viewpoints that accept no alternatives.

One of the many other pleasures of discussing artworks in this way is the degree to which the act of interpretation is itself a creative process: one that generates new meanings (or old meanings in unfamiliar configurations). In her 1967 essay "Against Interpretation" Susan Sontag argued that this act of duplicating meanings, one upon the other, was a stifling nuisance:

"Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities."

Sontag makes no mention of the creative aspects of interpretation. Instead she wants to "silence" all discussion of content in preference for a descriptive “vocabulary of forms”, to dissolve "considerations of content into those of form". In effect, she wishes to rid art of the accumulation of interpretations that she believes threaten to overwhelm it. She makes a compelling case, but I think she missed a crucial point: interpretation feels good, we enjoy it and it makes sense – literally – moreover it makes sense for us: our sense. Nonetheless, this creative aspect of interpretation also poses deeper questions concerning the origins of meaning in artworks and the attribution of insight. If we, as viewers, generate significances, what happens when these significances exceed those envisaged by the maker? Who do we credit with the insights that derive from the interpretation of art? Such questions tend towards the same thinking that gives rise to the intentional fallacy. Only when we allow ourselves to become fixated upon the necessity of authorial intention and its possessive but mistaken desire to attribute insight to the maker alone do we then find ourselves confounded by this multiplication of inventive and imaginative interpretations. Artworks invite the imagination at all levels – they encourage the play of interpretive invention and refute the tyranny and narrowness of authorial origin.

The last sentence of Sontag’s Against Interpretation declares: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Gladly Susan, but preferably one that is inclusive rather than exclusive of the pleasures of the imagination.


Brian said...

Good, Jim.

Tamsin said...

This is a tough one, and I don't think I'm really qualified to discuss it with you. I just wanted to say something about an idea that's in my head in response to it all, in relation to Humpty Dumpty. I said in our last conversation that I was Humpty, in that I wasn't seeking to join the contemporary 'art world', or to think about what I was 'communicating' to anyone who might look at my painting. I realised a day or so later that I'm stuck on the whole idea of 'meaning' in the first place, in relation to painting.

I've just finished a painting. I'm not concerned with meaning, at all. I can't ask 'what it means', either to myself, or to anyone else. It emerged. It's part of a process of emergence, which things that have gone before feed in to, with or without conscious intention, and to which I respond.

I'm not sure I want to articulate what drives me on, or what it is that whispers to me from this painting that hasn't whispered to me much so far. I'm not sure I could if I tried. That's why it's a painting, and not a poem. Which I seem to remember saying when I left St Martins in 1976, similarly at sea with the talk about meaning.

I love your first paragraph. Beautifully expressed, and interestingly questioned. I'm probably just too lazy to really engage with what you're driving at here. But it feels complicated and contradictory. Does the artist communicate meaning or not? You seem to be saying that they do, but that at the same time that everything is open to individual interpretation.

I still really can't see the difference between 'seizing on something significant which emerges and refining it' and Humpty's view. Humpty surely CAN'T decide what he wants it to mean 'without recourse to more widely understood significances'. He's emerged within the specifics of culture and language like everyone else, he can never be a meaning-free zone.

By 'agreed-upon set of significances', do you mean, where the contemporary art world sees itself in relation to how it is currently fashionable to perceive the history of art?

This Brazen Teacher said...

Thought you might get a kick out of this article in the NY Times about Adam Lerner-- a museum director who began a lecture series called "Mixed Taste" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.

The series is wildly popular with the public-- it aims to do what you mentioned:

"Audiences consisting of varied individuals with differing backgrounds can make for fascinating discussions about artworks and such discussions rarely if ever find nothing upon which to agree concerning interpretation."

Lerner and his team assemble lecturers to speak on a myriad of seemingly unrelated topics, and then schedule them in pairs to speak for an audience.
The lecture elaborated on in the Times article was entitled: “Nietzsche and Puppies, Puppies, Puppies!” Ha ha!

A philosophy professor from the university of Colorado spent the first 30 min talking about Nietzsche, and then a dog trainer from Boulder spent 30 min talking about behavior modification techniques with dogs. Then the audience gets to ask questions. The point is to engage in interpretive dialog about the connections between these two seemingly opposite fields.

You should check out the article to see the connections between Nietzsche and puppies. It's pretty brilliant.

Thought provoking post as always.

Read more:

J. Hamlyn said...

@Brian: Thanks.
@Tamsin: I think that requires a proper response.
@Brazen: Thanks for the link - it sounds fantastic.

I'm feeling pretty under the weather at the moment with a nasty bout of flu so apologies for the terseness of my response.

This Brazen Teacher said...

Sending healthy energy your way :)

Tamsin said...

Well, this is deep stuff. Enjoy switching off your mind. I'm off down to Wales today for two weeks and won't have any internet access!

J. Hamlyn said...

Followup post:

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