Art, Interpretation, and Understanding

Art, Interpretation, and Understanding

It is not uncommon these days to hear people say, when the subject arises, that there can be no answer to the question, “What is art?” If we begin by considering modern art, there does not seem to be any distinction between the sorts of objects that can be considered art objects and those that cannot. This is partly due to the fact that artists in the early 20th century set out to expand the public’s perception of what art can be. Is a urinal an art object? Duchamp thought so. Is a pile of newspapers in the MOMA art? Why not? Do objects become art objects by being placed in a museum? Cannot even simple everyday objects be seen as art?

And yet, is it plausible that there should be no way to differentiate art objects from others? I would like to approach this issue by first supporting the thesis that what fundamentally differentiates art objects from others is not a difference in the objects themselves, but a difference in our way of seeing them. It would follow that if we are to truly understand art, we must understand what constitutes an artistic point of view. In what follows, I will explore this thesis in an effort to lay the groundwork for answering a question that is sometimes taken to be intractable.

In the process, I will make a further attempt to set out what differentiates the project of interpreting art from that of acquiring scientific knowledge. These two components, which relate to answering the question of what kind of thing art is and how it may be differentiated from other things may be used to yield a working definition of art.  Moreover, the results of this investigation will have a bearing on the way that we view what it means to communicate, interpret and understand the world around us for ourselves and for others.

Generic considerations about the nature of art~

Consider a coffee cup. If I wish to understand it from a scientific standpoint, I will typically begin by bracketing all my feelings about it, such as whether it is pleasing to look at or whether it reminds me of a certain friend, or many other things that might occur to me but that are considered irrelevant to approaching it scientifically. Instead, I would typically focus on such things as its size, weight, chemical composition, its material components, etc.: in short, all the attributes that can be said to belong to it as an “object” that can be understood from an objective standpoint in the sense of a point of view that can be shared by others.

If I were to approach it as art, the same object that was being considered scientifically is now transformed by the simple act of looking upon it from an aesthetic standpoint, or aesthetically. I now pay attention to its colors, to its shape, whether they are pleasing or not, and whether it falls into a category of recognized artistic styles. Is it related to the Bauhaus school? Is it “modern”? Is it a “classic” style? What set of associations does it seem intended to invoke? Each style may bring about an aesthetically based response in me that would not arise from considering it from a scientifically trained point of view.

This example merely brings to our awareness the everyday experience that there is such a thing as an aesthetic or artistic point of view and that it differs from the scientific one.
But moreover, it seems that there is no obstacle to considering any object from an aesthetic standpoint if any object may be considered as art.

It seems that language, more than anything else (mistakenly) leads us into thinking that objects, by some intrinsic property they might possess, either are or not art. We are taught to refer to objects such as the Mona Lisa, or to a bronze sculpture as art; but, in truth, since we may consider any object as an art object, there does not seem to be any one property or set of properties in an object that makes it art, nor can any criterion be proposed that would prevent us from seeing an object as an art object.  If we seek for a general definition of art by examining the properties of an object in a scientific manner, there is nothing in an object can assist us in differentiating what is art from what is not art. In order to find the key to the differentiation one must look rather to the genesis of the way in which we see objects as objects as a certain kind of entity.  Understanding a way of seeing as a way of seeing, moreover, involves reflecting on the way in which we view the world interpretively as something more primary in us than either scientific method or an educated aesthetic viewpoint.

Toward a definition of Art: differentiating art from what is non-art~

In another way of speaking, the differentiation we are after will involve an awareness of an “adverbial” bias to our way of seeing and knowing.  We do not simply “see”, but see “scientifically” or experience an object “aesthetically”.  This realization suggests the conclusion that a basic part of understanding the world from a philosophically well grounded standpoint will involve an awareness of how objects stand to us once we have first become aware of ourselves as interpreting and not merely sensing observers.

To return to the main line of argumentation, we come now to an important question: what primarily differentiates the aesthetic point of view from other ways of seeing or being involved with objects around us? One might say that there are at least three basic characteristics: first, and most generally, the aesthetic standpoint can be distinguished from the scientific one by virtue of the fact that it involves, necessarily, an admittance of one’s affective responses (of the sort mentioned above) into one’s evaluation of an object as an art object. It shares this with other points of view such as when one views an object hungrily or thirstily.

Secondly, what is to be considered as art must be something that can be presented as art.  This presentation, in turn, functions as an invitation to view the object as art.  In the case of something like a pile of stones, something that is not made but only found in nature, the act of making may be nothing more than a “dubbing” or a pronouncement like “behold: this is art” that leads to the consideration of the object as an art object.

But, thirdly, the aesthetic viewpoint can be further differentiated according to a particular interpretive viewpoint that may arise in connection with it. I would like to propose that the aesthetic point of view is unique in that it admits (though it does not necessitate) an interpretive standpoint that does not arise in connection with other points of view or ways of being involved with things.  It will be the aim of what follows to describe this interpretive standpoint.  In doing so, a better sense of just what aesthetic seeing is will be brought to light.

Art and the sciences

Since the act of interpreting seems to have something in common with the scientific viewpoint and since, moreover, it was said that there was something unique about interpretation within the aesthetic viewpoint, it will be important to distinguish aesthetic interpretation as an aesthetic way of seeing from a scientific mode of seeing and interpreting, which has the aim of arriving at scientific knowledge.                  

An initial distinction has already been alluded to above.  Certainly, what modern scientific methodology sets apart as relevant data are the relevant objective facts, which can usually be circumscribed within the scope of quantifiable data (witness modern psychology).  The aesthetic standpoint, by contrast, seems to require a different apparatus, including one’s subjective reaction to the art object; and, at times, some concern with the intention of the artist or author in creating his artwork may play an important role.  Neither of these concerns are allowed to arise as legitimate kinds of data within a purely scientific standpoint.


This type of scientific viewpoint may be labeled the modern empirical-scientific standpoint, so as to distinguish it from a further kind of “scientific” standpoint that might be called the classical epistemic-scientific standpoint.  This latter point of view is one that was developed at what is often considered to be the infancy of western culture.  It is the kind of epistemic standpoint that Plato and Aristotle developed according to which anything, whether it be a goose, a rosebud, or even such things as justice and love, can be made accessible to the understanding through a process of classification and division.  The foundation and guiding principle of this classification and division is ultimately the goal of defining each thing in such a way that it can be distinguished from all other things.  This way of conceptualizing what it means to know or understand something is so deeply ingrained in our very way of discussing those terms that it is difficult to conceive of another way of understanding them that does not lead into it at some point.  Since understanding is usually held to be a matter of both relating one thing to other things and of telling them apart, we seem to be led inexorably into the whirlpool of episteme when we wish to discuss “understanding” and “knowledge”.

Aesthetic interpretation, especially if it involves an effort toward systematic interpretation, may find itself unavoidably drawn into this whirlpool, and with mixed results.  On the one hand, it allows for a systematic treatment of the affective elements (for example, the reader’s response to a novel) that the interpretation of art must accept and which the empirical-scientific standpoint cannot admit.  It accomplishes this by treating such elements as concepts that may be related to other concepts (for example, the reader’s response to various elements in the text).  A certain unity of meaning is, moreover, held to emerge from a blending of such elements with others that may be taken to be more or less the facts of what is presented.  For example, if one sets out to interpret Picasso’s Guernica, not only the figures presented and their historical context will be relevant to grasping a sense of the painting, but also a reflection upon the way in which one is affected by the way in which they are presented, and not only this, but perhaps some attempt to divine what Picasso must have intended in that presentation may be relevant to its interpretation.

An Image from Picasso’s Guernica

On the other hand, there is that within the aesthetic standpoint, something within affectivity itself that resists conceptualization, and to that extent resists the epistemic model of understanding.  Indeed, if the epistemic model is taken to be the only model for understanding, then there is that in art that cannot be understood.  This aspect of art, its affective element, has a greater importance for its interpretation than might at first be recognized.  One could not get very far in understanding Guernica without first grasping, at a very basic affective level, such things as shock, horror, and revulsion; nor could one truly comprehend Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog” without first being able to relate to emotions such as the desire, desperation, and long sought fulfillment that make up the elements of his story of fin amor.  A good writer or artist may even be judged, as was the case with Tolstoy and others, to be a master of his art precisely because he understood such emotions and was able to make his audience feel them and weave them together into experiences perhaps hitherto unknown as such to his reader.

Yalta: the setting for Chekhov’s, “The Lady with the Dog”.

It is not that the epistemic approach fails, so much as the fact that its success depends upon what cannot revealed by pure episteme alone.  In this respect, its projected definitions of love, loss, etc. fall short in a crucial respect.  It even seems quite reasonable to say that inasmuch as a definition for such terms fails to invoke the essential affective qualities, the kind of approach to knowledge classical episteme involves leads away from its essential attributes.  Hence, art comes to have what appears to be a doxastic, open-endedness with respect to the extent to which the interpretation of it can be said to be conclusive.

On the other hand, inasmuch as art can be said to reveal, of itself, what is essential to such inner experiences, it may be said to get nearer to what is essential to them than a purely conceptual approach can reveal.  Herein may be seen certain limitations of both Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to knowledge.  More than this, the present discussion can be linked to contemporary debates on the nature of consciousness that affirm it to be something inaccessible from a purely scientific standpoint.  Thomas Nagel’s “What’s it like to be a bat” and David Chalmer’s discussion of zombies are two prominent examples.  According to these lines of argument, the qualitative aspects of our inner experiences  are said to be inaccessible from an empirical-scientific standpoint precisely because that qualitative aspect in some ways resists objectification.  More precisely, it falls short of being able to answer the question of “what it is like” to have such experiences as smelling a rose or hearing a pleasant melody.

It seems that this epistemic failure is due not only to the fact, that there is that in art which resists objectification.  The empirical-scientific approach fails to a certain degree, due to the fact that (as was explained above) even within the conceptual sphere, such affects cannot be made into conceptual objects as Plato’s Forms and their Aristotelian descendants may be said to have been.  It seems rather that what is essential to them must be invoked within the subject and experienced on a bodily level in some way by art itself and in those who would understand art-to the extent that it can be “understood”.

Finally, to the extent that aesthetic interpretation, properly understood, uniquely involves an attempt to “understand” in terms of affectivity (inasmuch as it must involve an interpretive standpoint which acknowledges the fundamental role of the affective side of art), we may be said to have arrived at an aspect of the interpretation of art that sets it apart not only from purely “scientific” perspectives, but differentiates it from other ways of grasping or “understanding” something.

This critique of an over-reliance on the empirical-scientific point of view that has become so second nature to us in our age may be summed up by saying that we lack access, from that point of view, to what is revealed by a properly aesthetic point of view.  But, moreover, it may be seen that these two viewpoints represent two distinct aspects of human experience.  In what follows, the idea will be explored that art has a unique role in bringing together these two aspects of human experience, and subsequently, in teaching us what it means to be human in the fullest sense: a sense that projects toward overcoming alienation from oneself and from humanity by reunifying these two sides of our experience.


The harmonious composition of the aesthetic and epistemic that arises when we feel we have “understood” a work of art may be termed “interpretation”.  As was said above, because the purely aesthetic is that which resists a purely epistemic approach to “understanding” or grasping a work of art, interpretation will have an element of doxastic open-endedness.  Thus, for example, if one reads Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” one cannot be said to have grasped the “meaning” of the story fully by simply arranging its plot in the proper order; nor could one do so by understanding all the words Tolstoy uses on a literal level; nor would even a full understanding of all the historical facts relevant to the story suffice.  It is, rather, something that surpasses all these that eludes the epistemic approach and provides art with its field of openness that is essential to its being art.  This field of openness, moreover, can only be grasped from an aesthetic viewpoint, and cannot be contemplated or accessed from a purely epistemic or scientific point of view.

This description of interpretation may be seen to have a certain allegiance to a Kantian approach to what occurs when one attempts to understand, in some sense, what is presented in the field of aesthetics.  Although it does not have any pretentions toward a transcendental viewpoint, it might be said to provide a foundation for a way to look at art as something that transcends the self.  Rationalists have traditionally attempted to transcend the self on a purely conceptual basis.  But part of the difficulty with this approach is that it does not allow the self (for example, the archetypal, isolated Cartesian self) to get beyond its own concepts.  Art provides for a fuller transcendence of the self by introducing a form of communication that requires an “understanding” of its terms to take hold on an affective, as well as an intellectual level.

Consider the process of creating a work of art.  If one were to set out to create a love story like Chekhov’s “Lady with a dog”, one would ordinarily have to combine epistemic elements that provide a basic sense of the facts upon which the story is based with elements that call up the affective side of what it means to fall passionately in love.  This may be called a form of communication.  Communicating on such a level requires a shared inner experience if it is to be effective.  It requires communication not only on a conceptual level that invokes a certain intended response in the reader on an affective level.

Thus, one may imagine a model, from the standpoint of the speaker, writer, or artist that begins with his own affective experiences, gets packaged in language that is epistemically accessible (or readily understood on a conceptual level), and, if understood properly, is interpreted in the appropriate way by being “understood” on both an aesthetic and epistemic level.  In this way, art may be said to perform the unique function of bridging a gap between self and other that occurs on an aesthetic level.  In this way, art may also be said to hold out the promise of enabling the self to transcend itself.  A successful case may be said to arise when one feels oneself to have interpreted properly not only what the artist intended to communicate, but also, inasmuch as the story is open to many interpreters, to something that applies to humanity in general and may be said to characterize what it means to fall passionately in love as a human experience.

And yet, there seems to be that in art which surpasses, or transcends even the intention of the artist.  This can occur in a number of ways.  For example, the artist may work without any explicit intention; or again, the meaning of a work of art may shift over time according to the standpoint of its interpreters; or, in general, the artist may not be aware of the full implications of their work.  In such cases, interpretation is no longer tied to intention in any straightforward way.  In such cases one may look for an “intention” that transcends the artist and may be said to belong to the artwork itself as something that it communicates.  But this type of “communication”, which is no longer interpersonal, reaches a level where it might be said to be transpersonal: i.e. to transcend the intention of the artist and to signify in such a way that its meaning transcends (although it does not absolutely exceed) the level of communication between persons.  In this way it attains the status of a symbol.

Moreover, as a symbol, the meaning of a work of art is always in some way relative to an interpreter inasmuch as its perceived meaning may be grounded in many different contexts.  I would like to call this capacity of a work of art to belong to many different contexts its meta-contextuality.  Any artwork may be said to have this quality inasmuch as it is looked upon as a symbol, with a concomitant implication of meta-contextuality.

The perceived meta-contextual quality of a work of art comes close to being at the core of what makes it truly a work of art.  The only thing lacking to such a characterization is that it does not exclude the possibility of meta-contextuality on a purely conceptual basis.  Some highly rationalistic conceptions of religion seem to come close to fitting this criterion.  What is needed as an addition to this characterization to make it fit the conceptual area that art occupies more precisely is the further differentiation that art necessarily involves the aesthetic, non-epistemic side of human experience.

Some final thoughts toward a definition of art~

As was said at the beginning of this section, art involves a form of communication in which the epistemic aspects of language are used to communicate non-epistemic, aesthetic ones.  It is the epistemic aspects of language that may be said to present us with regular examples of words being associated with referents.  According to an epistemic point of view, of which Quine, for example, might approve, such associations would be communicated with a minimal degree of vagueness.  But in the aesthetic realm, the ideal of pure referentiality and removal of all vagueness is impossible due to the privacy (i.e. the non-objective quality) of aesthetic intentions when they arise. Thus, inasmuch as a work of art may be said to necessarily involve such aesthetic intentions, art my be said to be essentially something that may be viewed as a meta-contextual symbol, which has the capacity to communicate to us, in a sense, not only on a conceptual level, but also on an aesthetic one.

This capacity, moreover, has the potential to educate us about the aesthetic aspects of what makes us human.  Inasmuch as its proper interpretation must involve a harmonizing of the epistemic and aesthetic, it will involve some attempt to harmonize both of these aspects of human experience, and thus assist us in discovering a complete, harmonious vision of what it means to be human.