Art, Interpretation of

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The concept of interpretation is key to our commerce with artworks. For if something is an artwork, then it falls into the category of things that are at least eligible for an interpretation. For example, all things being equal, an ordinary snow shovel is not a candidate for interpretation, but Marcel Duchamp's In Advance of a Broken Arm is, despite the fact that it is indiscernible from the other snow shovels produced at the same time, in the same factory.

However, not all the elements or combinations of elements in an artwork merit interpretation. Only those elements or combinations thereof are worthy of interpretation, which somehow mystify, perplex, or elude. The appropriate object of interpretation is that which goes beyond what is given or foregrounded (Barnes 1988).

An interpretation is a hypothesis that accounts for the presence of an element or combination of elements in an artwork where the presence of the relevant elements is not immediately obvious to the interpreter and/or to some target audience. The item may not be obvious in the sense of being unintelligible or enigmatic, or because it is symbolic or allegorical, or because it is understated, barely hinted at, only suggested, or it is in some other way recessive.

The purpose of an interpretation is to enhance our understanding of an artwork. There is something about the artwork that is obscure, ambiguous, apparently incoherent, anomalous, unexpected, inaccessible, perplexing, or latent that invites illumination. The aim of an interpretation is to elucidate the presence of the pertinent elements in the artwork by explaining the contribution they make to the unity, meaning, design, intended effect, and/or structure of the work. Consequently, the work of interpretation presupposes some target audienceto which the interpreter may or may not belongfor whom the significance of some part of the work, or even the artwork as a whole, is elusive, puzzling, obscure, nonmanifest, unfocused, symbolic, or otherwise not immediately apprehensible. The interpretation, then, ideally alleviates that perplexity or gap in the audience's understanding.

Not every element in an artwork calls for an interpretation. Where with respect to a painting such as El Greco's The Adoration of the Shepherds, everyone recognizes the subject to be a woman, a child, and two men, then the observation that "this painting represents a woman, a child and two men" is not an interpretation, but a description. Descriptions are nevertheless relevant to interpretations, since sound interpretations must rest upon accurate descriptions.

The literal meaning of many of the words and sentences in literary works are grasped by means of subpersonal routines of processing by literate readers in the language in which the work has been composed (Currie 2004). The literal meaning of the opening line of Kafka's The Castle "It was late in the evening when K. arrived"does not require an interpretation, insofar as it is obvious to the prepared reader. What might require an interpretation, on the other hand, is its place in the broader design of the novel. Interpretation only pertains to that which is not apparent to some audience. Thus, what is suggested, entailed, or implicated is grist for the interpreter's mill, though not what is spoken outright (although why an author chooses to speak directly rather than obliquely, in certain circumstances, may be a legitimate interpretive question).

That, in a movie, shots of waves pounding on the beach often symbolize intercourse when juxtaposed to shots of lovers may be obvious to the jaded film critic; however, making note of this cinematic figure counts as an interpretation, since there is a target audience for whom it is news. Likewise, a reading of the symbolism of the death's head in a vanitas painting is an interpretation, since most people, untutored in art history, are unaware of the association between it and the concept of mortality.

Interpretation is, in general, a holistic enterprise. It strives to isolate the point(s) or purpose(s) of an artwork in order to explain the ways in which the parts cohere or segue with the aims of the whole as contributions to the function and/or meaning of the artwork. The predominant tendency of interpretation is to show a work to be more and more unified in intent. Of course, in order to build up a conception of the whole, the interpreter must begin with the parts, conjecturing and then adjusting his hypotheses regarding their significance as they arrive before him. The interpreter moves from hypotheses about the part to hypotheses about the whole and then back to the part again. This is sometimes referred to as the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer 1975); it underscores the fact that interpretation is a continuous process of reflective equilibrium involving an iterative feedback loop from part to whole and then from whole to part.

The overall direction of interpretation is toward establishing the unity of intent, thought, or design in the artwork. Even an avant-garde work, like Luis Buñuel's L'age d'or, which is predicated upon insistently subverting our expectations by a series of what appear to be narrative non sequiturs, can be shown by an interpretation to exhibit a sort of second-order unity in virtue of its consistent choice for surrealist purposes of incoherent sequences of events. On the other hand, interpretation can also have a role to play in revealing the disunity in a work. After identifying the intended effect of a novel to provoke a sense of mystery in the audience, the interpreter may then go on to point out that that purpose was ill served by the ineptly transparent way in which the murderer was crudely marked as guilty from his first appearance onwards. Because of its overriding concern with the unity of the artwork, interpretation is intimately related to evaluation, often supplying premises for our judgments of the quality of artworks.

Since interpretation is so involved with exhibiting the unity of artworks, it is often connected to the discovery of meaning, especially in works of narrative, dramatic, and symbolic import. For meaningin the sense of a theme, a thesis, or an overriding conceptis one of the most frequent ways in which such works may be unified. The theme of the inhumanity of war, for instance, governs All Quiet on the Western Front. The interpreter, contemplating the parts of the work, for example its various episodes, hypothesizes this theme and then goes on to show how this concept colligates or unifies Remarque's choice of the incidents he presents to the reader. That is, an interpretation like this isolates the principle of selectionin this case, a conceptthat makes a coherent package of the collection of details assembled in the novel.


Meaning of various sorts is so frequently associated with interpretation that many philosophers identify the excavation of meaning as the sole object of interpretation and, for that reason, propose linguistic meaning as the model for understanding interpretation. Linguistic meaning, of course, is highly structured in terms of conventions of semantics and syntax. So on this view, interpreting a work is a matter of discovering its meaning through the rules of the relevant art form. With respect to a poem, for example, it is said, one need only appeal to the public meanings of the words and the traditional practices of figuration; no recourse, for example, to authorial intention is necessary. Because of its reliance upon the conventional meanings of words to the exclusion of authorial intention, this view, which was ably defended by the late Monroe Beardsley, can be called anti-intentionalism.

To the extent that anti-intentionalism depends upon our understanding of linguistic meaning in terms of conventions as a model for the interpretation of works, it cannot, at the very least, be generalized across the arts. For most of the arts do not possess the highly structured meaning conventions that language does. The fact that a stage director chooses to incorporate a swimming pool into the set of her theatrical production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is certainly a decision worth pondering in an interpretation of the performance ("What might the director be symbolizing by this?"); but there is no fixed, public meaning attached to the appearance of swimming pools onstage.

And yet even with respect to the literary arts, many of the traditional objects of interpretation are inhospitable to the linguistic model. For example, interpreters often focus upon the significance of plot ellipses or they question why a character possesses a certain set of apparently conflicting attributes. But neither of these recurring objects of interpretation can be referred to pre-existing codes or conventions of decipherment.

Furthermore, literary works often mobilize irony and allusion. The conventions of language will be of no avail with radical cases of irony, since in these instances the author means to say exactly the opposite of what the rules of language entail, while there are no conventions to tell the difference between allusions, properly so called, and coincidental similarities of phrasing. Indeed, even in the case of metaphor, we have no laws to tell us how to proceed in unraveling them interpretively. So it is even controversial whether the anti-intentionalist or conventionalist stance can serve as a comprehensive account of the arts of language which, on the face of it, would appear to be its most welcoming field of application.

Perhaps an even deeper problem with the linguistic-model version of the conventionalist or anti-intentionalist stance is that it presumes that the object of interpretation is always something construable as a meaningthat is, either as a proposition, an utterance, or a concept. But often the object of interpretation is what the artist has done rather that what he has "said." For example, the art historian may explain to her class that the artist has placed the crucified Christ at the vanishing point of his painting in order to emphasize that it is Christ's death that is the subject of the painting and not, for instance, the Roman soldiers playing dice at the side of the cross. This is a rhetorical or dramaturgical effect that, inasmuch as it may not be apparent to many viewers until it is pointed out, is worthy of interpretive attention. However, it does not involve meaning, linguistically construed. It does not say, "look here"; rather it has the effect of tending to draw the eye of the normal viewer in that direction. Yet, explaining the function of this device in the design of the work as a whole is interpretative because it contributes to disclosing the unity of intent of the workin effect, to explaining the way in which this strategy reinforces the plan, point, or purpose of the painting.

The limitations of the conventionalist model may encourage us to look elsewhere for a way of understanding interpretation. Moreover, we need not search far afield. For interpretation is not some strange phenomenon that we engage only with respect to rarefied objects like art objects; ordinary human life is shot through with interpretation.


Barely an hour goes by when most of us are not involved in interpreting the words and deeds, the sayings and doings of our conspecifics. The ability to read the minds of others is an indispensable part of social existence, and those who are extremely deficient at it, such as persons stricken by autism, are typically thought to be disabled. The interpretation of artworks appears simply to be a specialized extension of this natural capacity of the human frame, no different in kind than our interpretation of the behavior, verbal and otherwise, of the family, friends, strangers, and enemies who surround us daily.

Thus, our ordinary practices of interpretation may be expected to shed some light on the interpretation of artworks. In everyday life, interpretation is typically aimed at understanding the intentions of others. We scrutinize the speech and the behavior, often nonverbal, of conspecifics in order to make sense of it by inferring the intentions that gave rise to it. If the behavior takes place against the background of conventions, as speech does, we factor those conventions into our deliberations. However, arriving at our interpretation of an action, including a speech act, rarely involves applying conventional rules to behavior mechanically. We appeal to what we know about the agent, about her beliefs and her desires, about the context of her activity as well as what we know about pertinent conventions to arrive at our interpretations. Why not approach the interpretation of artworks in the same way that we interpret our conspecifics every day? Isn't it very likely that the interpretation of artworks is on a continuum with the interpretative propensities that appear to have been endowed innately by natural selection as a beneficial adaptation for social beings like ourselves?

If it is plausible to answer these questions affirmatively, then the narrow compass of linguistic meaning emphasized by the anti-intentionally disposed conventionalist may be exchanged for the broader notion of sense that is invoked when we speak of making sense of an actionwhere what makes sense or what renders an action comprehensible is the identification of the coherent intention that lies behind it. Why not suppose that making sense of an artwork is of a piece with making sense of an action? One advantage of this view, in contradistinction to the previous version of anti-intentionalism, is that art forms that are not governed by rules as strict as those of semantics and syntax are still readily interpretable under an intentionalist understanding of interpretation such as this one.

Artworks have a communicative dimension. Consequently, all things being equal, we should try engage them as we do the other communicative behaviors of our fellow humansas sources of information regarding their intentions. Where interpretation comes into play, its point is arguably to discern the communicative intentions of the creator of the work. An interpretation is successful to the degree that it tracks the intentions of artists. This view, for obvious reasons, we may call intentionalism.

Intentionalism is often rejected because it is thought to force its proponents to the nonsensical position that the preferred interpretation of an artwork is that it has whatever meaning or function its creator says it does. So if a poet says the word "blue" in his poem means "red," then "blue" means "red." But this is absurd. Of course, in a case like this, we may suspect the poet is dissembling about what he truly intends. In the ordinary course of affairs, we do not allow our interlocutors the last word on their intentions. So it needs to be emphasized that intentionalism is not committed to the view that an artwork means whatever an author merely says it does. Rather, intentionalism is after the actual intention of the artist.

But let us imagine that in this case, we somehow are able to ascertain that the poet really does intend "blue" to mean "red." Surely, we will not accept that this is what the word means, and, moreover, the anti-intentionalist can say whybecause it violates the rules of language.

This objection is fatal to the most radical variety of actual intentionalism (Knapp and Michaels 1982). However, there may be more modest forms of actual intentionalism that are capable of dodging this objection. One strategy in this respect is to regard the intentions of the creators of artworks as pertinent to the interpretation of artworks just in case the work itselfincluding, in this instance, the words and their conventional meaningscan support the putative intention of the artist (Hirsch 1967, Iseminger 1996, Carroll 1999). Where they cannot, isolating the artist's intention will not, the intentionalist concedes, promise a successful interpretation of the work. In this way, the modest actual intentionalist acknowledges the role of both conventional meaning as well as intention in interpretations (Stecker 2003).

Nevertheless, the modest actual intentionalist must surmount further challenges. One charge is that this approach misdirects the interpreter. Instead of focusing on the work, the interpreter is focused on something outside the work, in effect the artist's intention. However, the modest intentionalist notes that since the artwork is the primary source for our evidence about the artist's intention, intentionalism does not beckon us to turn away from the artwork, but to inspect it more closely. Furthermore, the intentionalist contends that it is not quite right to maintain that our interest is in the artwork as if it were an object in nature. Surely, since so many of the critical remarks we lavish on artworks presuppose the notion of achievement, our interest in the artwork is in the way intentions are realized in the work. But to appreciate that requires a grasp of the intentions that gave rise to the work.

The intentionalist argues that the interpretation of artworks is on a continuum with our everyday interpretation of our conspecifics. However, critics of intentionalism maintain that once we enter the realm of art, things change. Even if standardly we interpret in order to identify the intentions behind the words and deeds of others, art is not like that. It has purposes above and beyond the practical concern with gathering information from our conspecifics. An essential function of art is to afford aesthetic experienceexperience valued for its own sakeby encouraging the imagination of the reader, listener, or viewer of the artwork in lively interpretive play. The claim that the proper aim of interpretation is to attempt to identify the intention of the artist may conflict with this putatively central function of art. Thus, in order to engage artworks appropriately, our normal inclination towards interpreting for intention should be suspended.

On the one hand, the view that a central function of art, one that trumps all the others, is to engender aesthetic experience by abetting the imaginative play of interpretation is, to say the least, controversial. Nor can it be bolstered, without begging the question, by suggesting that the authority of this viewpoint is manifest in the behavior of informed participants in the art world, since one finds that informed participants in the art world indulge in intentionalist interpretations with remarkable frequency.

On the other hand, it is difficult to gainsay that an artwork has at least a communicative dimensionthat it is meant as the expression of a thought or a feeling or as a projection of a design for contemplation, or is meant to have some other intersubjectively detectable effect. Moreover, it may be argued, that once we enter a communicative relationship with another, including the creator of an artwork, then it would appear that we are bound by certain moral responsibilities.

That is, we must treat the communiqué of the other fairly, with charity, and with accuracy; we must engage our interlocutor justly and attempt to get at what she intends to communicate. Perhaps the best evidence for this moral commitment is the injustice we ourselves feel when we believe that others are "putting words in our mouths."

But if such moral considerations are germane to interpretation, then it does not seem that the supposed pursuit of aesthetic experience through the free, or, at least intentionalistically independent, play of interpretations trumps all of our other legitimate interests in artworks. Rather the range of acceptable interpretations will be morally constrained by our best hypotheses about what the creator of the artwork intended (Carroll 1991).

Hypothetical Intentionalists

Nevertheless, even if it is conceded that the work of interpretation aims at hypothesizing the intention of the creator of the artwork, there is a dispute among intentionalists over what should count as its preferred interpretation. One sidecall them hypothetical intentionalistsclaims that the preferred interpretation of the artwork is the one that would be conjectured by an idealized, fully informed audience member, availing herself of all the publicly accessible information surrounding the artwork (including knowledge about the rest of the creator's oeuvre, about the history and practice of the pertinent genre and style of the artwork, about the social context of the work, and even concerning whatever is in the public record of the author's life) (Levinson 1996). The other half of this debatecall them modest actual intentionalistsmaintains that the preferred interpretation of the work is whatever the actual intention of the creator was so long as that is supported by the work itself.

Since both hypothetical and actual intentionalists will usually rely upon the same kinds of considerations to arrive at their interpretationshistorical context, art history, the rest of the creator's oeuvre, and so forthin practice the two positions are apt to converge generally on the same interpretations of the work. There is a point at which they clash, however. Since the goal of the modest actual intentionalist is the retrieval of the actual intention of the creator, she is willing to help herself to informationwheresoever it comes fromabout what the author really intended, so long as what the creator is thought to intend is consistent with his creation. This includes being prepared to use clues from the private diaries, letters and notes of the creator as well as the reliable testimony of friends of the creator. In contrast, the hypothetical intentionalist believes that the interpreter must be limited in her hypotheses to just what can be found in the public record.

The hypothetical intentionalist defends his viewpoint, in part, by asserting that the aforesaid limitations on the kinds of evidence to which an interpreter has a genuine right are part and parcel of the principles underwriting art world practice. It is a violation of the rules of the game, in other words, to use the private papers of an artist to formulate the preferred interpretation However, it is not clear where the hypothetical intentionalist locates the basis of this alleged rule. It cannot be observed in the actual practice of interpretation, since many critics appear quite happy to use unpublished biographical confidences in their work. Perhaps they are in some violation of some rule, but, since the eclipse of the New Criticism, no one appears to call them on it anymore. Moreover, the notion that such a rule could govern the art world seems unlikely. For when we become interested in an artist and his artworks, we are happy to learn everything we can about him and to incorporate it into our understanding, irrespective of from whence that information originates.

Reader-Response Theory

Because interpretation is so often involved with the identification of meaning, it is quite natural to suppose that it is connected to intentions. For, the meaning of an utterancesuch as "The door is closed"depends upon whether the speaker intends to be reporting a fact or asking a question (signaled, perhaps, by changing one's intonation at the end of the sentence). However, while agreeing that the meaning of an utterance requires an intention, some may question whether the pertinent intention needs to be that of the author or creator of the artwork. Might not the intention be supplied by the consumers of the workthe readers of the poem, for example?

On this view, which is a variant of reception theory or reader-response aesthetics (Tompkins 1980), the author of the poem supplies his readership with a texta mere sequence of words whose meanings are to be imputed by the audience, albeit usually within the constraints of the possible dictionary senses of the relevant words and the rules of grammar. In this way, each reader may be thought to construct her own artwork, much as the interpretation of a score by a musician counts as a work of performing art in its own right. That is, in the inevitable process of filling-in the indeterminacies of the text (a sheer sequence of symbols sans fully determinate meaning), the reader putatively creates her own artwork.

Even if this view of interpretation suits some art forms, like literature, it is difficult to generalize across the arts. How exactly would it apply to architecture? It strains language violently to say that each spectator constructs his own building, and where, in any event, would those buildings be situated exactly? There would appear to be room for only one Notre Dame cathedral on its present site in Paris; or, Are all those imputed cathedrals immaterial? Surely, such thinking leads to a strange form of architecture.

Another problem with this way of talking is that it would seem to evaporate the relevant category of interpretation entirely. In ordinary language, we countenance at least two notions of interpretationthe notion of a critical interpretation (which has been the topic of this entry) and what might be called a performative interpretationthe sort of interpretation that a musician gives to a piece of music or that an actor gives to a role. These two kinds of interpretations may be relatedthe actor may produce or consult a critical interpretation of a play before creating his role through an interpretation/performance. But the two sorts of interpretation are usually thought to be distinct.

However, on the variation of reception aesthetics under discussion, the difference disappears. There is no artwork to be interpreted critically because the interpretationthe performative interpretationby the reader just is the artwork. There is no conceptual space left over for the critical interpretation to inhabit. Or, in other words, the distinction between the artwork and its (critical) interpretation has disappeared.

Furthermore, if each interpretation, in the sense germane to the reception theorist, amounts to a different artwork, then it is not clear how we will go about comparing different interpretations. What will be the reference point in such comparisons? But we do compare interpretations. Consequently, a theory that makes this impossible is suspicious.

And finally, if audiences create artworks, what is it precisely that artists do? Is it that short-story writers produce textsstrings of symbols without intended meanings? This surely is not what writers think they do, nor does it seem humanly feasible for an author to produce a document on such a scale with no definite utterance meanings in mind. And how would we go about evaluating works constructed on this construal? Would the "text" that generated the most (or the least) reader-response artworks be the best and why? Or, would there be some other criteria.

At the very least, the reception-theory version of interpretation canvassed so far would call for a dramatic overhaul in the way in which we talk and think about art. Before embracing such a view of interpretation, we should require a fuller account of that alternative conceptual framework than any developed so far. On the other hand, it may be an added virtue of modest actual intentionalism that it fits our current interpretive practices as neatly as it does.

See also Hermeneutics; Literature, Philosophy of; Structuralism and Post-structuralism.


Barnes, Annette. On Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

Beardsley, Monroe. Aesthetics. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.

Carroll, Noël. "Art, Intention and Conversation." In Intention and Interpretation, edited by Gary Iseminger. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Carroll, Noël, "Interpretation and Intention: The Debate between Actual and Hypothetical Intentionalism." In The Philosophy of Interpretation, edited by Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Currie, Gregory. "Interpretation and Pragmatics." In Arts and Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Hirsch, E. D. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.

Iseminger, Gary. "Actual Intentionalism versus Hypothetical Intentionalism." In The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54 (1996): 319326.

Knapp, Steven, and Walter Benn Michaels. "Against Theory." Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 723742.

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Tompkins, Jane, ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Noël Carroll (2005)

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