At what point does the interpreter of the art become the artist? Where does art stop? At the limits of the canvas, or even within the artist’s mind?
Art interpretation is deeply philosophical. The “definition of art” is an entire encyclopedia article thousands of words long.
Is there anyone here that gets bored and overwhelmed at art museums? Inundated with visual info, unsure of where to start?
Never fear. Read on to learn some tips for foundational art interpretation so that the next time you confront a new artwork, it enriches your life.
Art Interpretation Tips
The reason why we asked at what point the interpreter becomes the artist is as follows.
Say you have a Picasso painting. Thousands of scholars have beautiful analyses of his paintings, but it is unclear the extent to which that analysis is in the original artwork.
If there is no consistent historiography or on-record statement of what the artist’s intent was then anything goes.
Art inspires thought, emotion, and conversation. It’s worth it to engage with art just for that even if you can’t arrive at some “ultimate” interpretation. Art and interpretation have value in themselves; it’s not that interpretation gives value to art or vice versa.
1. Gather Background Information
For understanding art, try to make use of any background information that is readily available. For example, if you are confronted with a particularly confusing piece of modern artwork, perhaps you can read more about the artist.
What’s the artist’s background? What issues are they passionate about? What could have possibly motivated them to create this art?
Say you’re looking at an impressionist painting. Some knowledge of impressionism as an era or artistic movement would definitely serve you well! In time, you’ll be able to recognize patterns and references among artists and painters of the same era.
Art history is fascinating and a true rabbit hole. Studying art history is definitely going to help you interpret art, but you don’t necessarily need to do so to get value out of talking about art.
2. Spark Conversation
Say you’re going to an art museum with a friend or on a date. Ask what your companion is thinking about a particular piece.
It could be boring trying to muddle about the artworks on your own, and it could take you by surprise how different someone else interprets a piece of art.
If you ask them why they think that way, you’ll discover more about their worldview and may find their interpretation and justifications just as persuasive as your own.
3. Keep an Open Mind
It’s easy to say, but plenty of people do not keep an open mind when it comes to art. They see a contemporary art piece and say “it’s just a bunch of squiggles. My dog could draw that.”
Maybe that’s the point! Maybe the piece is actually drawn by a dog, and it’s a commentary about the deep bond the artist has with their pet. Maybe the piece has political commentary about the commodification of the art world.
For example, many artists have turned to creating NFTs for profit. This is certainly controversial, so you’ll find much debate about the pros and cons of NFTs. To learn more about them, you can see here.
Don’t be too quick to dismiss art you find inaccessible.
Art and interpretation are hopelessly intertwined. Art interpretation sometimes feels like an absurd endeavor because everyone thinks something different.
There is intrinsic value, though, to talk about art. You’ll definitely get something out of it if you do. So keep engaging others in conversation, and keep learning!