A work of art can be very complicated
and may be interpreted in different ways by different people.
In art criticism, one's interpretation of a work is personal,
based upon the the information one has gathered from the work.
In art history, interpretation
identifies the influences of time
and place on the artist:
images of the same subject,
created at different times or in different locations may have
little in common. Their differences
reflect the contrasting personal and cultural
traditions and values of each artist.
Closely related words used at the college level are "hermeneutic" and "hermeneutics," words that have come to us from the Greek word for "interpret." Hermeneutic is an adjective meaning interpretive or explanatory. Hermeneutics is the study of and methodology of interpretation — of the ways of discovering meanings. As a science of textual interpretation, it was originated by Fredrich Schliermacher (1768-1834), a German theologian and philologist, who attempted to develop a systematic method of interpretation to resolve disputes over religious texts. His biographer, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), another German, and a neo-Kantian philosopher of history, extended the idea to history and the human sciences, suggesting that hermaneutics provided a methodological foundation for the cultural sciences that is distinct from the methodological foundation of the natural sciences. Since that time, hermeneutics has been understood as the theory of interpretation in general.
In the hermeneutic method one uses an interpretation of a given piece of "text" (which could be any act or product of an act) to help understand the whole of which it is a part. Interpretation proceeds in what Dilthey called a "hermeneutic circle," using current understanding of the whole to decipher a part, and current understanding of a part to decipher the whole, working back and forth until a coherent interpretation emerges. Applying this cycle systematically so that all of a "text" makes sense adds great rigor to an interpretation. It forces an interpreter to be systematic while staying within a consistent "inner" logic.
Schliermacher and Dilthey are sometimes regarded as "romanticist" hermeneuticians because they were attentive to the role of the "author's" intentions, viewing them as affecting the meaning of the text. Both saw a need to project oneself imaginatively into the world of others to get a feeling for their motives or intentions. Later in their lives both men placed more emphasis on the use of the social and historical context rather than authorial intention in understanding the meaning of an act or other text-like activity. The usual interpretation today, following Wittgenstein's criticism of the notion of a private language, is that the author of an act or utterance does not have privileged access to its meaning and must rely on the responses of others to clarify it. One not uncommonly intends to act in a certain way, for example, but finds that others respond as though it meant (was aimed to accomplish) something different. Contemporary debate about the role of "original intent" in the meaning of the US constitution shows that this issue has not gone away.
"Those who talk on the razor-edge
of double-meanings pluck the rarest blooms from the precipice
on either side."
Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946), American essayist, aphorist.
Afterthoughts, "In the World", 1931. See aphorism.
"Don't everlastingly read messages
into paintings — there's the Daisy — you Don't rave over or
read messages into it — you just look at that bully little Flower
— isn't that enough?"
John Marin (1872-1953), American modernist painter. See modernism.
"The least of things with a meaning
is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it."
Carl Jung (1875-1961), Austrian psychiatrist. Modern Man in
Search of a Soul, 1933.
"Human life itself may be almost
pure chaos, but the work of the artist — the only thing he's
good for — is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate
things, things that seem to be irreconcilable, and put them together
in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning. Even
if it's only his view of a meaning. That's what he's for — to
give his view of life."
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980), American short-story writer,
novelist. Interview in Writers at Work, Second Series,
edited by George Plimpton, 1963. See chaos.
"Life has to be given a meaning because
of the obvious fact that it has no meaning."
Henry Miller (1891-1980), American author. The Wisdom of the
Heart, "Creative Death", 1947.
"Today, each artist must undertake
to invent himself, a lifelong act of creation that constitutes
the essential content of the artist's work. The meaning of art
in our time flows from this function of self-creation. Art is
the laboratory for making new men."
Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978), American art critic, author. Discovering
the Present, part 4, chapter 24, 1973. See art
"Just as all thought, and primarily
that of non-signification, signifies something, so there is no
art that has no signification."
Albert Camus (1913-1960), French-Algerian philosopher, author.
The Rebel, part 4, 1951; translated 1953. See existentialism.
"In interpretation, understanding does not become something different. It becomes itself . . . . Nor is interpretation the acquiring of information about what is understood: it is rather the working out of possibilities projected in understanding." [italics in the original]
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), German existentialist philosopher. Being and Time, Macquarrie trans., 1962, pp. 189-190.
"All photographs are there to remind
us of what we forget. In this — as in other ways — they are
the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter
remembers. Because each one of us forgets different things, a
photo more than a painting may change its meaning according to
who is looking at it."
John Berger (1926-), British novelist, critic. Keeping a Rendezvous, "How Fast Does It Go?", 1992.
"Everywhere one seeks to produce
meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We
are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary,
we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us."
Jean Baudrillard (1929-), French semiologist. The Ecstasy of
Communication, "Seduction, or the Superficial Abyss",
1987. See semiotics.
"The meanings of things aren't stable.
Anything can mean almost anything." Jasper Johns (1930-)
American Pop Art painter. Interviewed by Peter Plagens, Newsweek,
"Rally Round the Flag Boys", October 28, 1996. See
"By day, Structuralists constructed
the structure of meaning and pondered the meaning of structure.
By night, Deconstructivists pulled the cortical edifice down.
And the next day the Structuralists started in again."
Tom Wolfe (1931-), American journalist, author. From Bauhaus
to Our House, chapter 5, 1981. See structuralism.
"Signifying and clarifying belong to the very nature of being human. Indeed, language or discourse is only one form of intercourse, only one of the great array of acoustic, olfactory, tactile, symbolic, and graphic ways of signification that we need to interpret in meeting the other. Whether we are dealing with the phonemes of oral conversation, the script of written texts, sculptures, paintings, musical scores, rituals, dance, body language, traffic signs, emblems or floral arrangements, encoding and decoding are always present. Colors, sounds, odors, textures, and gestures present as many complicated dilemmas of interpretation as do words and texts."
James H. Olthius (contemporary). "Otherwise than violence: Toward a hermeneutics of connection." In L. Zuidervaart and H. Luttifkhuizen (editors), The arts, community, and cultural democracy, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2000, pp. 140.