Monday, 21 May 2012

For artworks it is incumbent to grasp the universal - which dictates the nexus of the existing and is hidden by the existing - in the particular (...)

 - T. W. Adorno                                                                                                                                                        

It would be misleading to suggest that the interpretation of works of art is a matter of some difficulty and even greater controversy. Although this is putatively the case, it would  be more apt to suggest that this ‘difficulty’ is in reality not a difficulty at all. It is, on the contrary, arguably a quality intrinsic to art. To say that an artwork is ‘difficult’ actually refers more to its need for thoughtful attention than to its need for interpretation. Considering an artwork’s interpretation to be ‘difficult’ is to apply to art a hermeneutic methodology at odds with art’s real meaning.

The problem with the former is that it tends to look for a definitive answer as to how the artwork should be interpreted. This might explain why on the one hand artists are often dismayed when explanatory interpretations of their work are either expected or proffered, and on the other why there is a tendency nowadays to accept that artworks should be open to as many free, easy or imaginative interpretations as there are individuals to author them.

Both of these miss the point of the artwork, if we are willing to adopt a more critically thoughtful approach exemplified in the kind of interpretive method used in the field of anthropology by Clifford Geertz, for which he coined the phrase “thick description”.1

The traditional methods of anthropology developed in the nineteenth century had tended to see ‘primitive’ cultures in terms reflective of how they appeared viv-a-vis ‘modern’ science, culture, and civilization, which provided an a priori background - not only as a ready mean for calibration and comparison, but also as a ground for the application of techniques derived from a particular cultural and historical conditioning. In the twentieth century this gave way to a more ‘structuralist’ method, that was open to finding points of convergence between those cultures and our own: in other words, given that certain characteristics of human behaviour may be common to all people, diverse cultural narratives and practices could be studied from the point of view of what we can learn about ourselves, through tracing strands of commonality without emphasizing or privileging one culture over another. With this structuralist paradigm in mind, when studying any particular subject Geertz’s approach required an expansive  consideration of context, through which its significance and meaning might emerge. What we can infer from this is that far from merely providing a taxonomy of curious or archaic cultural practices through the lens of modern anthropology, this approach allows for not only a more careful examination of the culture in question, but also a re-evaluation of the ‘dominant’ culture that produces the scientific method used, in correspondence with what it may discover about itself through the study of its ‘other’. This is not to suggest, mistakenly, that diverse cultural practices and values are purely relative; rather that they share a universality that is often hidden, but might be revealed through proper, careful and critical, attention.

Now this approach may be followed not only in anthropology, but in history, notably our own history; in politics; religion; philosophy; philosophy of science and so on. And it may also be followed to good effect in the study of art, as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

But art itself already embodies something like the ‘thick‘ approach, in its interpretation of our experience of life and consciousness. It neither solicits a singular meaning through representation, nor does it disperse singularity through multiple meanings, each with its own distinctive authority.

Artworks operate through complex significations that converge in forms of possible meaning, forms that disperse and reform, reverberating infinitely - through which paradoxically we are able to feel a singular but hidden meaning: in short, they are the affirmation of our past, present, and future life in all its subtle nuances - a truth that resonates at the threshold of pure conscious existence, and its relationship to a universal one.


1  The terms “thick description” and “thin description”, in the sense used by Geertz, derive from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who applied them within a metaphorical scheme of “layers” of meaning to explain complex and simple interpretations of thought and actions.

Copyright © 2012 Brian Grassom

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Previous Comments

Jim H

Thanks Brian,

I’m wondering though how thoughtful attention might differ from interpretation? Both are ways by which we seek to understand things but surely thoughtful attention can be applied to pretty well anything whereas interpretation seems to be something more readily applied to intentional acts – as a means to decipher their underlying causes and this requires what is sometimes a “difficult” process of unpicking subtle clues and connections? Is it an either/or situation or might interpretation be a facet of thoughtful attention.



Tuesday, May 29, 2012 - 03:02 PM


There is no doubt that interpretation can be a part of thoughtful attention. If, as an artist,  you pay attention to something you are in a sense interpreting it. A simple example might be a portrait. When you do a portrait, attention through looking and drawing reveals aspects of the form that might otherwise go unnoticed. So, art helps us to interpret in that sense. But the meaning that is given is not in the form of an answer. It is far more subtle. When we look at the portrait this ‘meaning’ (if it is a good drawing) will become evident in its own way if again we pay attention to the work.

On the other hand, interpretation can be a way of finding meaning through opening up the many possibilities of the artwork, and this can only be done through careful attention - looking, reflecting, finding connections, and perhaps articulating. This can and should be an enriching experience. Again, all the contextual information we have about a work can help that experience, and it may work on many layers. Take, for example, Carl Andre’s “Bricks”. Critical attention often means removing preconceptions.

I don’t think there is any need to fret about ‘intentional fallacy’, or the circular argument of ‘authentic’ art. If a work is serious, it will tell, eventually. Nobody can really say what it is about an artwork that holds its meaning - that ‘s why it is done in the way it is - but “interpreting” it through attention can certainly help us. Sometimes, the interpretation is itself a work of art.

All of this points us to an experience of the inner self and the outer world, and somewhere in that relationship lies the real ‘meaning’ ... in my view.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012