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You Think “Tomato” and I Think “Potato”: Subjectivity and Interpretation

“A word means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” — Humpty Dumpty to Alice

As an educator working in ail museums, I often introduced young people to art. Of the many tours I conducted, I recall one most clearly. It involved a group of third graders and a larger-than-life-sized portrait.

The portrait was of a handsome, middle-aged woman. The painting hung in the museum’s entrance hall, a cavernous space, about three feet off the floor. The image of this woman stood over six feet tall, making her a most imposing figure, who looked down, imperiously, upon all who approached. The subject of this painting had lived during the 19th century, a person of obvious wealth and status. Her posture was erect; her bearing regal. She wore an elaborate, white dress and an abundance of jewelry.

Among the possessions adorning her, one may have been cherished above others—a large cameo brooch. It appeared to be the focal point of the painting. Everything called attention to it. Her arms were as lines, leading your eyes to it. Her pearl necklaces encircled it. Even the light seemed to shine most brilliantly upon it.

To demonstrate to the students how artists direct our attention to certain areas of their paintings using lines, shapes, lighting and other devices, I decided to employ a game. I had the youngsters approach the painting with their backs turned toward it. The children enjoyed the silliness of walking backwards and some laughed out loud. As they quieted down, I told them I would count to three, have them turn quickly, look at the painting, and name the first thing they saw.

“One, two, three, what do you see?” I said as I, too, spun around to look at this commanding woman and her magnificent brooch. A split second later I heard their chorus of voices. “Her feet, her feet!” My immediate reaction was one of confusion. Then I dropped down to their eye level. Indeed, it was true; the first thing they saw was her feet.

I learned an important lesson that day— one should not presume uniformity of thought. We all approach things from our own vantage point. We are all different, and our dissimilarities can run the gamut—from our physical relationship to what we’re viewing to differences in personal or cultural patterns of thinking. The cumulative effect of our many differences can be great and can have profound effects upon how we view, interpret, and construct meaning from what we see.

To further illustrate this point, imagine four people examining an old chair. Each would see the chair from a different physical perspective by virtue of where they stood in relation to it. In addition, each might consider the chair from a different mental vantage point, reflecting personal interests and concerns. Person #1 might wonder about the chair’s comfort; person #2 could compare this chair’s design to others; person #3 might think about the chair’s origin and history; and person #4 might contemplate the chair’s materials and construction.

Everything is experienced and interpreted subjectively, regardless of how objective, precise, exact, or quantifiable it may seem. “Time,” which is about as objective, precise, exact, and quantifiable as you can get, is a prime example. One hour is always and precisely 60 minutes, or 3,600 seconds. Yet, while every one hour segment of time is exactly like the other, an hour spent in a dentist’s chair is experienced very differently from an hour spent watching an engrossing movie.

Another common interpretive experience is language. In his text Communications: The Transfer of Meaning, author Don Fabun illustrates language’s subjective qualities by asking us to consider such words as “patriotism,” “virtue,” and “morality” and their many and varied interpretations. He points out that meanings change with speakers, regions, contexts, cultures, and times. Mr. Fabun continues by stating that “many of our problems in communication arise because we forget to remember that individual experiences are never identical.”

Just as with words, symbols and images are interpreted differently. One might see a simple “+” shape as the intersection of two lines, or perhaps streets. It might also be thought of as an addition sign in mathematics, or the crosshairs in a gun’s sight. People from China might see it as a symbol representing the number ten. Some Native American people might know this shape to mark the center of the universe. Still others may find it evocative of a cruciform shape, the Christian religion’s symbol of worldly suffering and promise of salvation.

The interpretative nature of experience does not end there. It is followed by subjective response and reaction. If, for example, you perceived the shape as the crosshairs of a gun’s sight, your response to that image will be interpreted through your association with guns. Your response might range from “power” to “persecution,” depending on whether you identify with the hunter or the hunted. Guns may instinctively intrigue or frighten you. They may serve as symbols of protection and individual freedom or as metaphors for violence and mayhem.

With so many perceptual and emotional responses applicable to just one shape, imagine the accommodations one must allow for when looking at something as visually and emotionally complex as a work of art, a cultural artifact, a scientific specimen, or an object of historic significance. (Animals, too, can evoke a wide range of responses. Just say the words “spotted owl” in my part of the country and watch the range of responses you will get.)

In the realm of art, for instance, subjectivity explains why “experts” will express widely differing views about the same works, and why one artist’s work can be alternatively praised and scorned by successive generations. After all, a work’s ability to survive such reinterpretation, and to thrive beyond its original context or culture, is an essential factor in achieving its status as “Art.”

Even when intention is well documented or known, it need not fix meaning or limit interpretations. Most African sculptures, for instance, were created with specific cultural or religious purposes. Yet, this fact has not constrained our ability to appreciate them in ways totally unrelated, or even opposed, to their creators’ intentions. For that matter, the mere act of placing most any work of art or artifact in a museum gallery changes its intention and, arguably, its meaning and significance.

The phenomenon of subjective interpretation explains how historians can have differing views of historical figures, events, and time periods, and how scientists can support alternate or conflicting theories. And, it explains why the visitors you tour may construct differing interpretations. As educators, our responsibility is not to pre-determine interpretations, but to help visitors learn how to construct their own “reasoned” interpretations through exposure to authentic objects, a heightened level of awareness, access to information, and the application of logic and sensitivity.

As you consider the topic of visual literacy as examined within this issue, and as you attempt to find and extract specific meaning from objects in your collection, be sure to make allowances for subjectivity. Just because you have heard an answer, or have developed your own answer, does not mean you know all the answers possible. This can be a lesson hard learned … but once learned (as I discovered while touring those third graders), it is not easily forgotten.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “You Think ‘Tomato’ and I think ‘Potato’: Subjectivity and Interpretation,” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Spring 1995): 2-3.

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