Artistic interpretation

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M028-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

Interpretation aims to advance understanding by providing explanations of various kinds. In art, it should aim to maximize our understanding and appreciation of a work, and enable us to grasp its artistic values. When we interpret an art work we may explain why its elements are placed in their contexts, for example, to convey a certain meaning or express a certain feeling. In the case of literature we explain why words and passages are placed where they are, why characters and events are described as they are, and so on. When we interpret whole works, we explain how they fit into broader explanatory frameworks (for instance, Freudian or Marxist) or how they relate to various traditions so as to serve (or reject) the values emphasized in those traditions.

The distinction between description, or the presentation of the fundamental data constituting a work of art, and interpretation, which involves explaining why those elements exist in a work, what values they serve, may be used to justify claims that interpretations can never be known to be true, while descriptions are obviously true or false. While this is reinforced by the fact that a work may generate conflicting interpretations, the distinction does not imply that interpretations cannot be known to be correct.

In a related debate, many see the artist’s intention in creating their work as the key to a valid interpretation. Since, however, many people find value in works in ways unintended by the artist, the onus is on the intentionalist to demonstrate the primacy of the value that the artist intended the work to have.

Ultimately, contending interpretations may not present as great a problem to a theory of interpretation as at first seems inevitable. Interpretations give priority in different ways to different artistic values; the choice of these values is simply a matter of artistic taste, not truth, and may not threaten the validity of any reasonably grounded interpretation.

    Citing this article:
    Goldman, Alan H.. Artistic interpretation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M028-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

    Related Articles