Art and People: Interpretation in Visual Arts

Visual Arts

The philosophy of arts looks at interpretation as a means of finding meaning in some work of art. It aims at explaining what the art is and what it is meant for. Aesthetic interpretation goes deeper to unearth the emotional or experiential understanding in a piece. Visual arts is a wide subject that requires close study to make meaning. It goes beyond talent and imagination to create a history for humanity. And artist draws something in order to tell a story and make people believe in something beyond what they can see. That is why interpretation becomes the centre of the whole field. One may create a masterpiece and put it to public viewing and criticism, but it will not make much sense if poorly understood.

The aim of interpretation

Artists may approach a piece of art from different starting points. The way a student analyses a canvas piece of art will not be the same as someone looking at it on a beach at their own pleasure. However, in both scenarios, they will look at the piece with the intention of making something out of it. The person on the beach may only look at it and marvel at its beauty, but a student will and must seek meaning in the art.

Interpreting visual arts does not differ very much from, say poetry, interpretation. In poetic art, there are two reading stances that create variations: aesthetic reading and efferent reading. Aesthetic reading is where the reader looks at the text with special attention to words themselves. They expect to define pleasure in their sounds, images, connotation and more. An efferent reader on the other hand reads for knowledge, information, or for conclusion to an argument. He/she may also be looking for direction; for instance in recipe – one reads for what they are going to carry away afterwards. In visual art, the first reader will seek for critical analysis of everything about the picture starting from the choice of the drawing ground, to the choice of ink and the setting of the painting. On the other hand, one can look at the painting for simple pleasure and nothing beyond the obvious.

In any case, anyone who admires a work of art must be able to somehow draw conclusion. It may not be precise or clearly stated, but there must be something they get out. At artist does not create his work to simply impress himself or others. There is always a hidden story behind the picture. A keen look into the work will reveal so much effect, including the tone and the mode of the work. Interpretation aims to connect the person who drew the visual document and the admirer. When someone says they admire a certain artist, it means they have found theme in their work and worked on understanding their story. It is only through interpretation that you can know why a certain painting for instance appears the way it is.

Approaches to interpretation of art

Just like evaluation, works of art present a big problem in interpretation. They are very difficult to interpret; it takes time and effort to discover what lies beneath. There are two main factors that guide interpretation efforts:


According to this factor, knowledge of the biography, historical background and other similar factors become irrelevant. The approach assumes that such things are harmful since they get in the way of true appreciation of a piece of work; they tend to substitute their recital for the main focus of the work itself. If one looks at a piece of art and does not understand it, they have to go back and read, hear or view it over and over. It is all about constant re-exposure which submerges the recipient in the work with total absorption and permeation for maximum appreciation.


In this approach, any art work should be held in its context or setting. It does not need to rely merely on the knowledge about it. Total appreciation brings out a much richer understanding of the work. Contextualists argue that all forms of arts, including painting and music should be apprehended on this basis.

There are many lovers of different forms of arts in the world. Each of them requires freedom to interpret what they see in the manner that is fit to them. This means, you don’t have to hold to either position in its pure form. Flexibility brings out more meaning since some kinds of arts will require isolationist approach while others may demand you to be contextual ( as the case in historical dramas and religious paintings). The most important thing is to be as specific about the factors as possible – going beyond the careful and repeated look into the work. Consider:

- Other works done by the same artist

- Works from other artists but in the same genre

- Relevant facts about the medium of expression.

- The history of the artistic; relevant facts about the period they lived, current and complex ideas that may have influenced their work.

- A look into the artist’s life in general.

The basics of understanding art

The first step is to look. It may be obvious that we “look” at art, but the truth is, people rarely spend five minutes in-front of a painting when they visit a gallery. Therefore, take your time to look at what is before you. Basic information like the medium, or material should set you on the right path immediately. Every artist has different approaches to their work, which makes them unique – they may have made deliberate move to choose the material.

After looking, now see! In art, looking is simply describing what is before you, while seeing entails application of meaning to it. By seeing, we can decipher symbols and interpret what is before us. Seeing will lead you to the last step; to “think”. This step now helps you bring together what you have gathered in the previous two steps in the process of interpretation. It is all about finding the right answers by putting the pieces together, with the main focus on context. In the endVisual Arts, what you gain is knowledge about the art and its application in the real life.  


1041 Words


Feb 07, 2020


3 Pages

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