Interpreting Artworks. Recovering the Meaning.


“Poetry comes from the place that no one commands and no one conquers.” Leonard Cohen

The works of art that sustain our interest are the ones that perpetuate enquiry into their meaning. What can be immediately known is usually of no interest to us. It is those works that have an air of mystery about them that entice curiosity, nurture imagination and sustain attention. These works live because of their inexplicability. But they also live because there is something about them that makes us feel that we could know them, something that makes them comprehensible and fools us into thinking that we could come to understand them.

According to Alexander Nehamas no work of art can be fully known or exhaust its interpretation. Art is characterised by this open-endedness and ambivalence. As John Berger puts it: “Before most works of art, as with trees, we can see and assess only a section of the whole: the roots are invisible.”[1] It is because of this incapacity to fix their meaning that artworks have duration and evolve over time, being perpetually analysed and re-interpreted. All these analyses, argues Nehamas, aim to reach that one ‘right’ reading, the ‘true’ meaning of the work but because none ever could, the search is interminable. During the life-spam of an artwork various theories will emerge and various theories will be accepted as ‘right’ but while there will be many seemingly ‘right’ theories throughout the time, there will be only one ‘right’ theory at any given moment, argues Nehamas – a single interpretation that is, to our present knowledge, better (most complete) than all others and can best answer the newly risen questions.

As they exceed their era and the historical context they were made in and a part of, artworks are read and interpreted by a vast variety of people of significantly different cultural, socio-political, economic, philosophical and intellectual background. As such, they resonate in a vast variety of ways and inevitably receive a variety of readings. Pluralists such as Peter Jones claim that “the business of making sense of the text…, is necessarily ‘aspectual’ [and] … since no view point is privileged, different readings of a text … can be equally acceptable.”[2] This view resonates with Roland Barthes’ idea that “the place of the writing … is reading.”[3] But critical monism advocated by Nehamas does not allow for the complete autonomy of the reader and his/her point of view. Whilst the many readings are possible (we are capable and free to make them), this is not to say that many readings are ‘right’, if by ‘right’ we mean closest to the work’s ‘true’ meaning. “Interpretation,” writes Nehamas, “is in one sense aspectual, but criticism is not for this reason less than ‘objective’. Different ways of trying to understand a text may well be equally legitimate… But simply because an activity can be pursued in different ways, it does not follow that different results must be reached, nor that if they are, then they must be equally plausible.”[4] Some points of view are, therefore, more ideal than others and have authority over others. In other words, we could speak of something line an ‘ideal reader’ who is in a position to comprehend the text better. For instance, the ideal reader could be someone of the same linguistic background as the author who can better understand the nuances of the original language that get inevitably lost in even the best of translations.

It is true, agrees Nehamas, that what now appears to be an ideal point of view might not be so in the years to come, just as what once seemed as an ideal point of view is not so any more. As we learn more about the intrinsic nature of the universe and human psychology, about the things that are of importance to our understanding of an artwork, the interpretation of a work changes and improves. What is, however, important to this critical monism theory is that there is some logic to this evolution of interpretation. The subsequent interpretations build on the previous ones and are causally connected to them just like the current self is causally connected to the past self, even though a person changes (sometimes radically) over time. New interpretations, thus, take the previous ones into account and build on them so in a way they contain the previous ones (even if in the form of refusal) and are indebted to them. As they discard the previous interpretations, the new interpretations need to consider why the previous ones were plausible at the time and what makes them inadequate now. This change occurs, explains Nehamas “as new interpretations reveal features of a text previously unnoticed, rearrange the significance of those already accounted for, or even cause us to change some of our general critical canons.” [5] In this view the new interpretations more like a development than a change.

It is important to note that new interpretations do not create the new meaning, they only come closer to the meaning that is always there in the work. If there is a need to evaluate, disregard or improve the previous interpretation this is because something new has been discovered, something that was previously missed. Unlike Nehamas, Barthes suggests that the meaning is made by the reader thus supporting the above-mentioned ‘aspectual theory’ in view of which there would be many simultaneously equally plausible, equally valid readings.[6] Nehamas resists this idea claiming that “the later interpretation does not…, create that meaning: it finds a meaning which, from its own point of view, has always been there.”[7] Nehamas agrees with Barthes that the author is not the authority in the matter of the meaning but he does not assign this authority to the reader either. The author is not dead just because the reader is alive. The interpretation is an interplay between those two, both of whom are discovering the meaning and neither, to use Leonard Cohen’s words commands it nor conquers it.[8]

If the purpose of interpretation is to uncover one single meaning (however complex and multilayered it might be) then it seems justifiable to claim that there is only one ‘right’ interpretation of an artwork. Nehamas does agree with the idea of “a single ideal interpretation”[9] but he questions whether this interpretation could ever be reached. Here, he seems to agree with Stanley Cornold’s view that “the very nature of literature” [10] – and this could apply to art in general – is imperfect communication and unavoidable misunderstanding. Nehamas writes that ideal interpretation “would account for all of the text’s features” but “we can never reach it since it is unlikely we can even understand what it is to speak of ‘all the features’ of anything.”[11] Perhaps we could think of the act of interpretation akin to the act of translation which is always slightly removed from the original. As such, interpretations are descriptions, not duplications.[12] No reading is “identical to the [text] itself,”[13] argues J. Hills Miller, and because no reading will be able to recover the meaning of the work, no interpretation will be complete. The process of interpreting, thus, has no ending, unless we loose interest in the work.[14] And while this lost interest could be a result of giving up, it could also be a result of us intuiting that we have come as close to the meaning as we could.

As he advocates an idea of “a better interpretation,”[15] Nehamas also suggests that interpretations can be subjected to a quality evaluation. But the question is what makes one reading better than the other and who is the authority, the ‘true judge’ in this matter? To evaluate one interpretation as better than the other is, according to Nehamas, to accept that “one interpretation [is] answering more questions about a text than another one […] thus being closer to that hypothetical ideal which would answer all question.”[16] But how do we evaluate the validity of these answers? Or even the validity of the questions? Given that there is no scientific proof in this matter, we seem to only fall into a tyranny of one interpretation over the other. Of course, as a way of resistance, we are left with a freedom to challenge any given theory with further questions and answers and if they are accepted as “rational and justified”[17] (but, again, who decides?) we will be able to shift the interpretation into the new direction.

It was, no doubt, easier to reach an agreement once the interpretations were sought in the authorial intentions, when we were referring to the author as a keeper of the work’s meaning. But critical monism, accepts Barthes move away from the authority of the author. According to this view, the author does not own the meaning of the work; the work has a life and the agency of its own. Many artists have, indeed, spoken about their works having a life of their own and heading in the unexpected directions. Robert Bresson refers to it as inspiration; he says: “When you do not know what you are doing and what you are doing is the best – that is inspiration.”[18] But even if we agree that artworks exceed their author’s intention, we do not need to disregard this intention altogether. Whichever direction the artwork ends up taking, it has nevertheless originated, began its journey in the author’s head (and/or heart). This is why it still seems plausible and necessary to begin our quest for the meaning with the author. Foucault asks “what matters who’s talking?”[19] and to an extent he is right – what matters more is what is being said – but our experience also suggests that what is being said is to an extent affected by who is saying. The same sentence will have a different meaning depending on who is saying it and in what circumstances. It is the speaker and the context that animates a sentence, gives it a particular flavour. It could be, of course, that the sentence comes to mean something that the author did not intend it to mean. “In the history of painting one can sometimes find strange prophecies. Prophecies that were not intended as such by the painter,”[20] writes John Berger.

Agreeing with the view that a sentence has little, if any meaning in and of itself, Jonathan Culler notes that “the meaning of a sentence, … [is] the series of developments to which it gives rise.”[21] This affirms Nehamas’ view that interpretations can change over time as the new knowledge develops. But unlike Culler who also believes that the sentence has no intrinsic meaning, “an essence, present at the moment of its production and lying behind it as a truth to be recovered,” Nehamas does propagate an idea of recovery, or better to say discovery. As such, he gives some weight to the author’s original intention and proposes that we place the text in a context and consider it as someone’s production. We should, he notes, consider author’s intentional choice of particular symbols. “To interpret a text is to place it in a context, and this is to construe it as someone’s production, directed at certain purpose… At least the choice of symbol system is an intentional act, and to appeal to intention is to appeal to a particular explanation on why a text, or one of its features, is as it is.”[22] This “particular explanation” might only be a spring-board from which to start, a beginning from which we will eventually sharply move, but it is nevertheless an important element to consider and address.

While our enquiry should begin with the work’s historical author (the one that has consciously intended a particular meaning) what we might end up discovering is the postulated author, “a character who may not coincide with the actual writer’s self-understanding.”[23] We might discover that the work is about something that the historical author did not envision it to be. It might seem that this attitude, i.e. the idea that work’s meaning belongs to the future allows for anachronism but Nehamas does put a methodological constraint on this view. It is important, as he explains, that “the postulated author be historically plausible; the principle is that a text does not mean what its writer could not, historically, have meant by it.”[24] In conclusion, “what a writer takes a text to mean is relevant but not a telling evidence;”[25] his/her intention and the way they have chosen to design the work will tell us something about it and about how we should approach the reading but we do not need to (nor should we) rely on it completely, and are allowed to move away from the author’s conscious intention if this is “rational and justified.”[26]

Further question is, whether there could be cases when further knowledge and analysis only cloud our understanding and remove us further from the meaning of the work, just like an explanation destroys a joke? Perhaps, there are works of art that are best understood initially, with mind innocent from any subsequent information. What the best approach is will depend on the nature of the work and its design, and here, again, we might be best to consider the author’s original intention. How did he or she wanted this work experienced? This reference to the way the work is intended to be received became particularly significant in the twentieth century when both modernism and postmodernism became interested in the psychology of reception. Artists of these periods started including this interest in their works, some wanting their recipients unburdened from theories and focused on the work’s formal qualities,[27] and others wishing to engage their recipients’ minds, thus, resisting the emotional manipulation of an artwork. The former created works that were putting emphasis on the initial, intuitive reception while the later wished for the very opposite. The later, as was explained by the conceptual artist Sol Le Witt created works that were “made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions,”[28] and were as such durational. These conceptual works explored theories and offered them to their recipients to assist their unpacking of the work’s meaning. In this later cases, the more you knew, the closer to the meaning you got.

While there are many artists that are interested in this durational reception and, thus, in the evolution of interpretations that Nehamas’ proposes, there are certainly also those that wish to shift the focus away from cerebral to the corporeal and immediate reception of the work. “Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love,”[29] said Claude Monet famously. And Federico Fellini spoke to this too when he said: “I don’t like the idea of ‘understanding’ a film. I don’t believe that rational understanding is an essential element in the reception of any work of art. Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn’t. If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it.”[30] The works of this kind wish to refuse reason and resist the intellectual tyranny. To “refuse to fix meaning is,” writes Barthes, “to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law.” [31] But while Barthes speaks of interpretative unfixity as liberating, Susan Sontag goes a step further calling for a refusal of interpretation altogether – a complete pull back from the very need to analyse. In her seminal essay Against Interpretation, she defines interpretation as “the revenge of the intellectual upon art,”[32] and goes on to say that “to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’.”[33] In her other essay, On Style, she argues that “art is an experience; it’s not just about something but is something.”[34] As such, art is adequate by itself, on its own, as it is. Sometimes, art is just about looking, listening, feeling.

In the world obsessed with the need to know, is art’s contribution not precisely in its capacity to free us from the cerebral? Furthermore, isn’t the impulse to make art – to express oneself through sounds, movement, or images – a result of reaching the limit of words, facts, theories? Is art not something we resort to when words and knowledge fail us? Is art not suggesting that there is a greater truth in what is unspeakable, unreachable by the intellect? As Donald Davidson puts it, if we would be clear about the meaning, the truth, the fact, we would not use metaphors in the first place (and art is nothing but a form of a metaphor).[35] “A picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture,”[36] says Davidson.

In conclusion, Nehamas is no doubt right to claim that evolving interpretations and the continuous analysis of works of art are available to us, and that the search for the work’s true meaning and the ‘right’ interpretation is a way to approach the reception of the works of art. But it is only one of the ways. The bigger question than whether one interpretation is better than the other is whether interpretations themselves are always necessary when it comes to art. This, as I have suggested will depend on what the nature of the artwork is, how it was designed, which brings us back to the authorial intention and away from the absolute authority of the reader, suggested by Barthes.

[TEXT: Ira Ferris, November 2016]


[1] “Before most works of art, as with trees, we can see and assess only a section of the whole: the roots are invisible.” John Berger, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, London, New York: Verso, 2015, p12.

[2] Peter Jones in Alexander Nehamas, “The Postulated Author: Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Autumn, 1981), p144.

[3] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text. Washington: Fontana Press, 1977, p3.

[4] Nehamas, p142.

[5] Nehamas, p144.

[6] This is not to say that he thinks that all the readings are plausible and valid

[7] Nehamas, p143.

[8] “Poetry comes from the place that no one commands and no one conquers.” Youtube video: Leonard Cohen’s speech at the Oct 21, 2011 Prince of Asturias Awards. Uploaded Oct 25, 2011.

[9] Nehamas, p144.

[10] Nehamas, p134.

[11] Nehamas, p144.

[12] “Readings, interpretations, do not re-create or duplicate a text’s meaning, they describe it.” Nehamas, p143.

[13] Miller quoted in Nehamas, p143.

[14] “…there is no reason to think that we shall ever abandon this construction, except perhaps that our interest may one day be exhausted.” Nehamas, 147.

[15] Nehamas, p141.

[16] Nehamas. p144.

[17] Nehamas. p144.

[18] Brainy Quote webpage,

[19] Nehamas. p136

[20] John Berger, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, London, New York: Verso, 2015, p35.

[21] “…the meaning of a sentence, … is not a form or an essence, present at the moment of its production and lying behind it as a truth to be recovered, but the series of developments to which it gives rise.” Jonathan Culler quoted in Nehamas, p136.

[22] Nehamas, p144.

[23] Nehamas, p147

[24] Nehamas, p145

[25] Nehamas, p147

[26] Nehamas. p144.

[27] Clement Greenberg’s insistence on formalism and opticality, a stance that art should be experienced solely through ‘visual stimuli’ and in a disinterested manner. Greenberg heralded the painting that one “can travel through only with the eye.” Clement Greenberg, “Modernist painting” (1961), Chapter 1 in Modern art and modernism: a critical anthology, edited by F. Frascina, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, p8.

[28] Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no.10 (June 1967): 79.

[29] Brainy Quote webpage,

[30] Philip Gillett, Movie Greats: A Critical Study of Classic Cinema, Bloomsbury Academic, 2008.

[31] “… by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning to the text…, [literature] liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law.” Barthes, p3.

[32] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and other essays, New York: Dell, 1966, Kindle location 151.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Sontag, Kindle location 380.

[35] Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 1, Special Issue on Metaphor (Autumn, 1978), p 44–45.

[36] Davidson, p45.


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