By Dario Bucheli
A generally democratic environment is the new platform on which current events play themselves out. Modern society automatically assumes the autonomy of the individual and understands that every person has the right to possess and express his opinions regarding any topic of interest. It is a largely empowering condition for everyone from the richest to the poorest; but it is precisely because of this that the arts are now under much greater threat than ever before.
It is well known that there is a widespread suspicion of contemporary art. Many people are not only skeptical about it: they openly hate it. It creates strong feelings of repulsion in many viewers, who are quick to dismiss it altogether as being something of no cultural value. The greatest danger, however, is that most people fail to see the mistake in their judgement: “I don’t like it,” is not the same as “This is not art.” While art will always be a radically subjective discipline, the most common (and fatal) error is failing to recognize the proper method of interpreting art.
“It can mean whatever you want,” “It is open for interpretation,” “What do you think it means?” and similar phrases have been used so often that they have become cliché. The problem is that society thinks of these as perfectly valid statements. Even though art can be understood in as many ways as there are viewers, this does not mean that it is completely void of any intrinsic meaning. It is not an empty canvas on which the audience can project whatever it desires.
Proper artistic interpretation fundamentally consists of four main categories, or steps that are meant to be followed.
The first step is a subjective reaction. This is the most basic, visceral and raw response that the viewer has about a piece. This is truly an intuitive step in which the senses are stimulated. Memories are recalled, feelings arise and statements about preference are made during this step. Most viewers fall short of a proper artistic interpretation, because they mistake this step as the only one that matters. They fail to see that it is only the first part or a larger sequence.
The second step is the analysis of formal elements. During this step, the “formal elements” are carefully observed: the composition, proportion, use of space, color palette, hierarchy of elements, etc. It is a more critical appreciation of the aesthetic value of the artwork.
The third step is the analysis of content. It is a step in which the average viewer tends to make another grave mistake: here, the imagination is let loose. Speculation abounds, and one proposition leads to another until the original meaning is no longer in sight. However, it is necessary to control the interpretation through the knowledge of Art History—because no work of art was created in a vacuum, and historical context is crucial.
The last step is value judgment. All previous steps ultimately lead to this one. If the formal elements of the artwork correspond to what the artist was trying to communicate, it can be deemed as culturally valuable, and vice versa.
Our culture is governed by democratic principles, which give equal value to all people’s opinions. Therefore, they feel that their own interpretations of art, which override the artist’s message, are necessarily valid. While this problem is mostly due to the fact that people do not look at art long enough, hopefully these steps will clarify the proper method of artistic interpretation.