On the Interpretation of Art
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, some famous smart person once said. It’s cliché, sure. But it has broad implications in the interpretation of art. If beauty is something amorphous, changing from critic to critic, the same must be true of artists. With the artist seeing one thing, the beholder another, the totality of the image is resolved, with both sides in active union. Before this happens the work is incomplete. You know the fable of the falling tree; if sound is not heard, it is not sound, despite whether or not a tree falls through brush or disturbs the rest of the forest-making plants and animals around it uncomfortable. To a squirrel that lives in that hypothetical tree, it surely makes a sound when it falls and destroys her living room.
The point being, if the artist and the beholder see different things, surely the meaning of what is being seen must be different as well. Readers and patrons to art museums see much different creations than what was seen by the creators of them, and likely inspire different feelings. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning, it must follow, is in the eye of the person contemplating it. People complete the image by their affirmation of its quality. It is the same way artists and poets give us the material to define civilizations.
In a broad sense, an artist can be a painter, a musician, a writer, or a particularly good chef. All creators of work that exhibits the quality of expression are artists. As not all who paint or sing are artists, nor all who write, paint, or make music are artists. It hinges on how art is to be defined, and who is best capable to properly define it.
If the understanding of art is to be left to the artists, then an artist must attempt to define it. I think it’s better to define what art should do, and, rather than define it by description, instead show the effects that a work of art creates and define it by how well those effects are produced – empathy, beauty, understanding. Art, to me, is anything that engages feeling, passion, promotes empathy and demands understanding. It is something that breathes, something that demands to be seen or heard. The moment of realization is usually a painful one, as the easiest way to measure the effect of a work of art is to note when it starts hurting you. When you cry at the death of a favorite character, that hurt you feel is a symptom of experiencing art through empathy and emotion.
The best art is a type of art that shows depth of feeling and passion, something confers upon the reader a new understanding, an appreciation of something new and beautiful. The depth of expression is usually the measure of quality. It’s about emotion, in most cases, but expression isn’t limited to emotion. It runs the gamut of the human experience, from misery to euphoria and everything in between. Confusion isn’t a traditional emotion, but it can be tied to many, and is often the result of emotions in conflict.
Take Picasso’s Guernica, for example: it has the quality of emotional detachment, like looking at a newspaper reproduction of a tragedy. There are so many ideas, so much to see, that it’s easy to be numbed by the sheer noise of it. The technique of echoing or reinforcing a theme is common. With a painting that demands a wandering eye, when you don’t know what to look at, in a sense Picasso takes you to that confusing day in Guernica, experiencing the confusion of war, the smallness, the powerlessness, the horror. (The horror).
The baying horse, screeching with its neck crooked out of joint, a spear in its chest from which spills indecipherable news columns—a savage critique on journalists who profit by such horror. But there is hope, a candle, soft-light in the soft hands of an angel above Picasso’s pyramid of death. This is in thematic opposition to the electric lightbulb’s imitation light; the electric eye that lights the scene.
To give this painting some context, here is what The University of Wikipedia has to say:
The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by its allies, the German air force’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria.
Picasso painted scenes he may not have understood, believing the raid to haven taken place at night, for example, but his great gift and innovation was painting material not found in nature, giving more artistic license to indulge the imagination, if only loosely based on life or nature. This is where all great art begins and ends, in the imagination. Its power is measured by how much it works on our emotions from there, working on shaping us into more understanding, sensitive people.
To commit a scene to canvas is in defiance of nature, simply by preserving what is part of constant growth and change. This is a type of hope for the hopeless, that their wounds become a symbol that may move someone to a more humane consideration in the future. It also honors them, giving them a position in the public consciousness: Picasso’s brush does for those who died in Guernica what Antigone did for the honor of her dead brother Polyneices (and by extension, the nobility of death in our own lives) in Sophocles’ best play, Antigone.
Picasso’s mistress took several pictures of Picasso at work on Guernica and the painting becomes more and more confused and less optimistic as it progresses. Earlier drafts showcased a socialist fist thrust upward in defiance. This sense of winning the fight, if only morally, disappeared over time. It seems as though Picasso was being drained as he stood before such incomprehensible brutality. The eyes are tricked to follow those disjointed lines; the lines that lead upward to the consummation of imagination, expression, and technique. Creation, too, is a violent act.
The reception was lukewarm when Geurnica was unveiled at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, at the world fair in Paris in 1937. Historically Guernica has been interpreted as an anti-war protest, and many scholars have focused on the light, the electric-eye at the center, as it could be symbolic in a literary sense. The Spanish word for lightbulb is bombilla, similar enough to suggest correlation to bomba, the Spanish word for bomb. The perforation on the palms suggest the stigmata of Jesus, and is a likely homage to Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808.
This painting was inspired by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon. Lit by a box lantern at the feet of the firing squad, it lights them from below and casts their expressions in shadow. At the same time, the on-canvas light source illuminates the line-up of riflemen, serving as a gesture, as a means to guide the eye from the muzzle of the rifles into the background. This works towards creating depth of field and breathing room for the characters depicted. Picasso later reworked the painting (to make it more Picasso-y):
In matters of subjective art, two reasonable questions arise: by what criteria is the quality of someone’s interpretation judged? And, more importantly, it’s a nonsense question with an accidental sort of wisdom. If the author of a painting or a polonaise or waltz intends no meaning at all, is there an objective meaning? Is it even possible?
The type of criticism we have for art are explicable only in individualistic terms, as each person brings their personality, their history, and their culture with them. Sometimes a painting or a song or smell can take you to another place, or bring images and other ideas to the fore of your consciousness, ideas independent of the work. It could be a sort of nostalgia, an effortless remembrance. In this fashion a work of art can become meaningful in a way independent of the artist’s idea and its representation.
Subjectivity means that meaning is not set or definite, a positive aspect of art and its interpretation. This is how we connect the dots we cannot see and, in some cases, may not even be there. It may have a definite meaning to the author, but it is ambiguous to us; and this is what makes art great, this ability to connect to it personally and learn something about ourselves in the process. The interpretation of a work of art often says as much about the critic as it does about the artist. That is instructive, in and of itself.