Artworks discuss how interpretations, while correct, may not

have an “aboutness” (Danto, 1981) to them; they are always about something, and
therefore demand interpretation and simply cannot exist without some form of
interpretation of them. They can be interpreted in many different ways,
influenced by a number of different fields of thought, different levels of
knowledge, or dissimilar purposes for interpreting.
The essay at hand will explore this idea that each artwork is made to be
interpreted, and will look at different ways of doing so, supported and
influenced by the writings of aestheticians, art critics, literary theorists,
and art educators. This essay will also bring examples of different
interpretations of artworks by artists such as Rene Magritte, Edvard Munch, and
Vincent van Gogh, and will look at how it is possible for different, even contradictory
interpretations to exist and for them to be equally correct. The essay will
also discuss how interpretations, while correct, may not always be inherently good, and what, then, makes for a good
interpretation of art.


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interpretation of art is perhaps simultaneously the least understood, most
often confused, and the broadest form of art criticism. When interpreting works
of art, we as viewers make meaningful connections between what we are seeing
and experiencing in the work of art, and what we have seen and experienced
before in our lives. To interpret, says Terry Barrett (2002), is to make
something meaningful for ourselves, to open words of meaning and experience for
ourselves and for those hearing our interpretations. Not to interpret a work of
art in its presence, on the other hand, is to ignore it, leave it meaningless,
and, for many aestheticians, not to interpret a work of art is, indeed, not to
see it at all. No artwork can exist without an interpretation of it, for unlike
a tree, a rock, or other mere things,
it is always about something (Barrett,
2000). If the work of art is not understood at first glance, it ought to be
read – or viewed, or heard – again and yet again, for constant re-exposure to
it, complete absorption in it is a sure way to maximum understanding of it
(Hospers, 2016).
Interpretations are arguments, says Barrett (1994). There are different forms
of interpretations, different ways of interpreting, which will be discussed
later in this essay, and, despite the possible existence of contradictory and
different interpretations, there is also the existence of bad interpretations. An intelligent critic’s interpretation of an
artwork is an argument that is convincing and persuasive, making coherent
connections to reach conclusions based on and supported by evidence and reason
(Barrett, 1994).


works of art is something that is both individual and personal, and communal
and shared (Barrett, 2000). A shared interpretation is formulated for the
understanding of a group of people with similar interests. Individual
interpretations, on the other hand, have relevance and are formulated mainly
for the interpreters themselves. While individual representations are definitely
valid, however, they are relevant only up to a certain point, for an entirely
individual interpretation can be too personal, and while it may reveal a lot
about how and what the interpreter thinks and feels, it fails to reveal
anything about the art object being interpreted (Barrett, 2002), rendering it
mostly irrelevant to other interpreters or viewers. As claimed by Barrett in
the same essay, these kinds of interpretations tend to be so subjective that
the artwork itself can no longer be recognised, and while all interpretations
reveal the critic, the critic’s primary challenge remains to direct the reader
to better perceive and understand the art object in question.
 However, according to Paul Ricoeur
(1976), an interpretation is incomplete until the interpreter has meaningfully
appropriated the significance of the work for their own life. It is necessary,
in a way, to make the artwork the viewer’s own. Therefore, interpretations that
have individual as well as more communal characteristics to them can be more
relevant and personal to the viewer, and can also be informed by others’
interpretations of the work, making it meaningful to the community of
interpreters also analysing the same piece of art.                     


existence of different interpretations is inevitable and even encouraged. No
single interpretation of an artwork is exhaustive – not even the artist’s own.
An interpretation of an artwork need not match the artist’s own intent for the
artwork at all (Barrett, 1994), for the artist’s interpretation of their own
work of art is simply one interpretation among many, and is not necessarily
more accurate or more acceptable just because it is the artist’s own. Different
interpretations can exist simultaneously, because the goal of artworks is not a
single, exhaustive interpretation. Stephen David Ross (1994) has said that
there is no standard outside interpretation against which to measure the
accuracy of an understanding of an artwork. They may coexist, even if they
contradict each other, as there can be as many interpretations of a work of art
as there are people interpreting that work. People with different world views,
levels of knowledge, and opinions may interpret works dissimilarly. Definitions
of art are also closely tied to people’s sense of personal identity in relation
to profound questions of morality and work ethics (Whitehead, 2012). That is to
say, Foucault, for example, has interpreted the surrealist artist Rene
Magritte’s work for those interested in philosophy of language and
signification, while others may take a more emotion-driven approach, yet others
a more scientific one. This can also be seen in the works of Vincent van Gogh,
whose works have been interpreted from a scientific point of view by science
researchers, more emotional points of view by romantics, or from a
psychological point of view in terms of van Gogh’s mental state at the time of
the creation of his paintings. John Berger (1992) has said that the work of art
may change its meaning in accordance with who is looking at it. None of these
perspectives are necessarily incorrect. Oscar Wilde (1890) has said that,
indeed, diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new,
complex, and vital.


is also generally agreed upon that no interpretation of an artwork is
inherently wrong, and while that can be true to an extent – people form
different ideas, have different levels of knowledge, analyse works based on
their own area of expertise – it is certainly not true that all interpretations
are equally good. The validity of
dissimilar interpretations and understandings of works of art does not negate
the existence of bad ones. Good interpretations are not so much entirely right,
but to a greater degree reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative. A
good interpretation is well-articulated, coherent, and puts forth evidence of
its views; it is a persuasive piece
of writing that says more about the artwork than the artist, and should make
others believe the truth of what is being said. A weaker interpretation,
therefore may be too general or, on the contrary, too personal, as elaborated
upon in section II of this essay.

The meaning of an
artwork should also not be limited to what was intended by the artist: as
claimed by E.D. Hirsch (1967), sometimes, not even the artist knows what they
really mean. Therefore, the responsibility of interpreting that piece of art
falls mainly on the viewers, the interpreters, because the author’s meaning
cannot constitute a general principle or norm for determining the meaning of a
work of art. In a way, once the artwork has left the artist, it is no longer
theirs. Once leaving the artist, the piece gains a life of its own, based
solely on what the viewers bring to it (Gaugy, 2014). T.S. Eliot, for example,
has refused to comment on the meanings of his own texts, for, according to him,
the author has no control over the words once they are loosed upon the world,
and has no special privilege as an interpreter of them. One reading, as stated
by him, is equally valid as another. This can, then, be applied to other forms
of art, not just writing, and the author – whether it be the author of a text,
a painting, a photograph – is no longer in control over the life of the piece.
It, now, belongs to the world, to its viewers.


Figure 1: The Lovers II

are several aspects and fields of thought that can affect the way the viewer
interprets artworks, as will be explored in the next three sections of this
essay. The opinion of whether knowledge of the artist’s personal life or
historical background is a hindrance or an asset to the interpretation of an
artwork is a divisive one. As seen by some, knowledge of the artist’s
biography, historical background, and other factors is irrelevant to an
appreciation of the work of art, and is usually even harmful, tending to
substitute the recital of these facts for the more difficult attempt to come to
grips with the work of art itself (Hospers, 2016). In isolating the artwork
from the artist, the viewers are, in a way, asked to view the work of art as if
it had been created by no one. This can even make the viewer momentarily feel
as if the artwork is their own creation (Carrier, 1991). However, while it is
true that the objects of interpretations are not the artists but the artworks,
some interpretations of artworks are rather enhanced by knowledge of the
artist’s influences and history. Some art reflects the conditions under which
it was born, as well as the artist’s life. In terms of this idea, Rene Magritte’s
The Lovers II is the most obvious
example (Figure 1). One way to go about interpreting this painting is to take
into account Magritte’s personal history: when Magritte’s mother drowned
herself in 1912, Magritte, only 13 at the time, was present at the time his
mother’s body was recovered. She was said to have her nightdress wrapped around
her head. This later became a theme in a number of Magritte’s works, with the
figures’ heads wrapped up in white fabric. A more romantic interpretation of
this, however, could be about the blindness of love, about how lovers are often
blinded by their love for each other. Neither of these interpretations is
wrong, and goes to show how people’s emotions, ideas, and knowledge – or lack
thereof – of the artist’s personal history can affect the way they think of


of artworks can be the most commonly ignored aspects to works of art. Some
critics, as stated by Marcelin Pleynet (1991), rarely see the title of a work
as being anything more than a handy way of designating an artwork which would
otherwise be difficult to identify. Some artists want their artworks to work
without any added words at all, to “let the viewer see what they see” (Phillips,
Titles of artworks can also be misleading, for some artists purposefully give
their works random or misleading titles, thus making the titles semiotic lures;
therefore, the titles disavow the work of art, and vice versa (Smith, 1991).
As mentioned by Danto (1981), however, titles can give directions for
interpretations of artworks. The titles working as guides to interpretation can
be witnessed, for example, in the

Figure 2: The Murderess

of Edvard Munch, to simply name one.  I
have used Munch’s The Murderess (Figure
2) as an example here.

title of this work hints to the viewers as to what might have happened. Without
the title, what has happened to the man and who is the cause of it would be
noticeably more ambiguous. The woman in the painting would not necessarily be
viewed as the murderer. She could very well simply be the dead man’s wife,
having just come home to find her husband dead. The title identifies the person
behind the killing, giving the viewers a hint as to what has transpired, and
the direction in which to continue interpreting that work.
Titles, therefore, can have a big influence on the interpretation of an
otherwise ambiguous artwork, thus giving interpreters a direction in which to go
about interpreting that work. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to
the interpreter: some might enjoy the ambiguity of artworks, and may find the
titles redundant or restrictive.


Figure 3: Geisha in Rain

isn’t hard to believe that emotions and interpretations of artworks are
intimately connected. Thought and feeling are irrevocably intertwined. As
stated by Barrett (1994), viewers’ ability to respond to a work of art is
emotional as well as intellectual, from the gut and the heart just as well as
from the head. Viewers can look at artworks and come to completely different
conclusions about them, based on their emotional associations with the things
depicted in the images. To give an example, viewers can look at a painting and
experience completely different emotions on the basis of something as seemingly
simple as colour. The colour red, for instance, may signify romance and passion
to some, yet rage and fury to another, thus leading them to experience
different emotions when faced with a primarily red-toned artwork (Figure 3),
and to interpret it differently.

Figure 4: Starry Night

Similarly to emotions, art can
also be interpreted through the background knowledge of science
and the laws of nature. That is, van Gogh’s works, for instance, can be looked
at and considered poignant or downcast, or, on another hand, oddly scientific.
The movement of the light here, in Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (Figure 4) can be considered romantic, but there is
also a surprising amount of scientific information in it. The poignant swirling
patterns, for example, perfectly mimic the same physical laws as turbulent
fluids found in nature (Freiberger, 2006). Van Gogh has been said to be the
only painter to be able to render turbulence with such mathematical precision
(Ball, 2006). In the essay about the connections between mathematics and art,
Freiberger (2006) has also said:

 It is believed by some scientists that this
kind of analysis can give deep insights into how mathematical structures guide
our visual perception and shape our appreciation of art.

This goes to prove
how the interpretations of artworks can be influenced by completely different
fields of thought, such as emotions or science, and can lead the viewers to
interpret and experience a work completely differently. And just like mentioned
before, the interpretation of a scientific researcher is no more or less
correct than that of the psychologist or the romantic viewer.

conclude, all artworks have a meaning to them, for a work of art cannot exist
without an interpretation of it. To look at a work of art without interpreting
it is, as claimed by many aestheticians, as good as not seeing the artwork at
all. To interpret a work of art, on the other hand, is to create meaningful
connections between what we are seeing and experiencing and what we have seen
and experienced before in our lives. Interpretations of works of art can vary
depending on the levels of the interpreters’ knowledge, interests, work ethics
and morality, and are all equally valid, if not always equally good. Some artworks may have directions
for interpretation to them, such as knowledge of the artist’s background and
history. There are also other factors and influences that come into play when interpreting
artworks, such as titles of the works, – which can be helpful or, in some
cases, hindrances – emotions of the interpreter, or in some cases, science and
the laws of light and nature. All in all, interpretations of artworks are
subjective, diverse, and never necessarily wrong, even if they do not match the
artist’s own view of the work, and often belong to the viewers and interpreters
just as much as to the artists themselves.