Interpreting Art

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

When it comes to interpreting art, all opinions are equal... but some are 'more equal' than others. Why? Well, since nothing exists by itself, 'context' matters. Context is the additional information that allows us to derive a deeper understanding in virtually every human endeavor. It's because of the context, for example, that we consider Robin Hood to be a hero rather than a thief. When we say one opinion is more 'informed' than another, what we really mean is that, it speaks to a larger context.

Art interpretation is about providing the context to better understand and explain what the artist's message and intent is all about. And it offers us an opportunity to achieve a deeper, and more satisfying experience, when viewing a particular work of art.

Perhaps you consider yourself to be an art lover. But there are probably times when you find yourself scratching your head, in a desperate attempt to decide if the artist may be 'pulling your leg'. All of us, at one time or another, have asked ourselves these questions. Why is that art? What is the artist trying to say? Couldn’t a four-year-old do that? What makes this painting so valuable? Art is, after all, meant to invoke a personal experience. Here are a few things you might consider that can help make it a deeper, and more satisfying, experience.

Look and See

What’s the difference between looking and seeing? In the context of interpreting art, looking is a passive experience, and is about literally describing what is in front of you. Seeing, on the other hand, is an active experience, and is about applying meaning to the artwork. When we see, we transform lines, shapes, and colors into symbols. And it's the activity of seeing that allows us to derive a deeper meaning from the work.

Art Is Language

Generally, the viewer makes a snap-decision, within the first few seconds, about a work of art. And since first impressions are generally lasting impressions, it’s easy to forego any further investigation into a 'deeper' meaning. But just like literature, art employs 'language' to communicate a feeling, or tell a story. In literature, the language is, of course, based on words. In art (in particular, painting or photography), the language is 'graphical'... it's based on shape, colors, and texture.

Explore Your First Impressions

Remember that, with art, there is no right or wrong. How does it make you feel... happy, sad, confused, repulsed, indifferent? Taking note of how it makes you feel is a good place to start, but it should just be the beginning of your experience. How are you interpreting the art?

Ask Yourself Why

Why does this particular piece makes you feel that way. Has the artist depicted an obvious and recognizable subject? Or, alternatively, is he leaving you to decide what it is you see? Now is when you'll want to pay closer attention to the artist's use of language, the shapes, colors, and textures he has employed. Typically, bright colours tend to feel joyful and inviting or aggressive and lively, while dull colours tend to feel sad and subdued, or mysterious and foreboding. The shapes and outlines define the compositional aspects of the work. Elements that feel balanced tend to suggest strength or tranquility. Or, on the other hand, a lack of balance can make the over-all composition feel awkward and uncertain. The question is, are these various elements working together to contribute to the impact of your emotional experience?

Interpreting art on Artistic Merit

That brings us to finally consider the artistic merit, in the context of the artistic language. Do you suppose the artist felt the same way you do, as you gaze upon the work? If so, are the elements of his artistic language being used effectively to convey his message? The artist will have made some very deliberate decisions about the materials, style and approach, and these will contribute directly into the overall feel and meaning of the artwork.

Does the art look as if it was carefully made, or thrown together quickly? Do the colors work well together? Do the lines and shapes show a consistency and fluidity. The answers to these questions are, in themselves, neither right or wrong. But ask yourself how well the artist's compositional elements support the message you are getting. The question is not how hard or easy it was to create the work, but rather, why does it make you feel this way?

The Historical Context

Your greatest reward derived from viewing a work of art can actually come after you walk away. That's when you can research the historical context behind the work. In particular, the historical context will provide you with a greater understanding and appreciation of how the artist's methods and materials may have contributed to the evolving artistic styles and genres.

After all, it's the artist whose job it is to break open the boundaries that limit our understanding and appreciation of the human experience. The very purpose of art is to provide us all with a deeper and richer life experience!

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