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Intended versus Discerned Meaning

As docents, we have the privilege and responsibility of teaching viewers how to “read” works of art, and then urging them to construct their own meanings. But, how often have you heard the complaint, “How do we know if our interpretation is really what the artist intended? Aren’t we reading an awful lot into it?”

Such protests are related to issues of “visual literacy” — the process of reading, interpreting, and constructing meaning from works of art. In fact, they go to the very crux of the matter— do viewers have a valid role in establishing the meaning of a work of art?

Personally, I can only reply with a resounding “Yes!” A classroom teacher in a recent recertification workshop may have expressed it best when she good-naturedly said, “Just try and stop us!” Works of art are, inevitably, the repositories for our individual interpretations.

But, what about the artist’s intentions? While knowing an artist’s intention can offer insights, it is neither essential, nor is it necessarily reliable. Consider the phenomenon known as “intentional fallacy.” Artists will intend what they do not achieve, and will not intend what they do achieve. A work of art, therefore, never fully duplicates an artist’s intention; it always varies — falling short in some respects and surpassing it in others.

What is significant for this discussion of intent and interpretation is that meaning is a variable, and that an artist’s intention is but one way to consider an art work; while personal interpretation is another. Let’s apply this concept to a more familiar example . . . that of a house. A house can be considered an architect’s creative expression, but it can also be thought of as shelter, a social hub, an investment, a status symbol, and so on.

In his essay entitled, “On the Manner of Addressing Clouds,” in History of Form ill Art, Thomas MacEvilley grapples with the form/content problem in aesthetics and criticism. MacEvilley developed thirteen overlapping categories of content or meaning expressed in art, which he sees as analogous to the poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens (see the shaded box). In this poem, the blackbird itself does not change from verse to verse, though the meaning of the blackbird does. Like MacEvilley’s categories, the poem illustrates that meaning is based on personal interpretation, and is discerned in context and shaped by experience.

A list of MacEvilley’s categories, with very abbreviated explanations follows. ( I encourage you to read his essay in order to gain a full understanding of his thoughts.) Docents, as well as viewers, may be surprised to discover that meaning sometimes resides where we least expect it.

1) Representation. The parts of a work of art that refer to the “real” world through resemblance.

2) Verbal Supplements from the Artist. Tides of works, published statements, or interviews with the artist.

3) Genre or Medium. Implicit in an artist’s choice of genre or media is a wide range of social, political, and cultural attitudes, e.g. the use of some media have been considered reactionary or gender-specific during certain times in history.

4) Material. Similarly, an artist’s choice of materials links him or her with sociopolitical attitudes, e.g. steel and plastic have very different associations than does marble.

5) Size and Scale. An object intended for private devotion would have a different size, scale, and meaning than one intended for a more public arena, such as a city plaza.

6) Temporal Duration. Objects made to endure virtually unchanged for many centuries mean something very different than the earthworks of the 1970’s in which the alterations caused by nature over time were important parts of the works’ meaning.

7) Context. Under what conditions a work is displayed (home, museum, city park, etc.) has a dramatic impact upon its meaning.

8) Relationship to Art History. How the work acknowledges or reacts to previous styles and movements.

9) The Object’s Own History. This includes such things as the commercial use or manipulation of images, such as the Mona Lisa or Grant Wood’s American Gothic. These things become part of the meaning of the work.

10) Iconography. The symbolic aspects of the work.

11) Formal Properties. Use of design elements and principles.

12) Attitudinal Gestures. Wit, irony, parody, etc. which relate to the artist’s intentions.

13) Physiological Responses Provoked in the Viewer. The kinds of physical responses caused by viewing the work.

How can we use these categories to help viewers have more meaningful encounters with works of art? In our art center, we often use a worksheet made up of questions related to each category. If you prefer a more conversational, less activity-oriented approach, try raising questions related the categories.

For example, you might employ a string of questions, such as: What people, places, and things do you observe in this painting that resemble those found in the “real” world? Does the title give you any clues as to what concepts the artist is working with? Let me read you a brief statement by the artist to see if it helps us understand what s/he is trying to communicate. How would your reaction to this piece change if it were a sculpture rather than a painting? If this piece was created using metallic markers rather than egg tempera, what different associations would you make? How would the meaning of this work change for you if it were tiny enough to fit in the palm of your hand? Look at the other works in this gallery. Why do you think they were chosen to hang together? What do they say about each other?

Should your museum allow you to carry discreet notes while you tour, simply make a list of the categories for quick reference. Fortunately, committing the thirteen categories to memory is also fairly easy to accomplish. Once you have worked with them a few times, this kind of content inventory will become second nature. You will begin to feel as though you have not adequately explored a work of art until you have investigated all thirteen categories and the relationships among them! Why not challenge yourself, or your visitors, to expand this list of categories.

“When the blackbird flew out of sight. It marked the edge Of one of many circles.”

Thirteen Ways or Looking at a Blackbird By Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,The only moving thingWas the eye of the blackbird. O thin men of Haddam,Why do you imagine golden birds?Do you not see how the blackbirdWalks around the feetOf the women about you?
I was of three minds,Like a treeIn which there are three blackbirds. I know noble accentsAnd lucid, inescapable rhythms;But 1 know, too,That the blackbird is involvedIn what I know.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.It was a small part of the pantomime. When the blackbird flew out of sight,It marked the edgeOf one of many circles.
A man and a womanAre one.A man and a woman and a blackbirdAre one. At sight of blackbirds theFlying in a green light,Even the bawds of euphonyWould cry out sharply.
I do not know which to prefer,The beauty of inflectionsOr the beauty of innuendoes,The blackbird whistlingOr just after. He rode over ConnecticutIn a glass coach.Once, a fear pierced him,In that he mistookThe shadow of his equipageFor blackbirds.
Icicles filled the long windowWith barbaric glass.The shadow of the blackbirdCrossed it, to and fro.Traced in the shadowAn indecipherable cause. The river is moving.The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.It was snowingAnd it was going to snow.The blackbird sat In the cedar-limbs.

Betsy Gough-DiJulio is Director of Education for the Virginia Beach Center for the Arts, in Virginia Beach, VA, and is a frequent contributor to The Docent Educator.

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “Intended versus Discerned Meaning,” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Spring 1995): 12-13.

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