Not Against Interpretation

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In my opening post, I posited that the deep pleasure of arts going is located in the meaning making process (and not solely in spectating/moment of reception). I want to use the next several posts to point to both historical and contemporary behaviors as a way to explain this concept and to engage with readers’ comments.

In Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, evolutionary anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake traces how over the course of human development “the mind increasingly became a

making-sense organ’: interrelated powers of memory, foresight, and imagination gradually developed and allowed humans to stabilize and confine the stream of life by making connections between past, present, and future, or among experiences and observations. Rather than taking the world on its own terms of significance and value (the basic survival needs, sought and recognized by instinct), people came more and more to systemize or order it and act upon it. Eventually this powerful and deep-rooted desire to make sense of the world became part of what it meant to be human—to impose sense or order and thereby give the world additional (what we now call ‘cultural’) meaning (73).

An arts experience (which I defined in my last post as the total phenomenon of arts-going, including not just the moment of reception but also the ongoing phenomenology of pre- and post spectatorship) includes by definition the opportunity to make meaning. Sometimes this reflexive cognitive process (the brain is always making meaning of everything it encounters) remains a private one, and for many this is enough to induce a sense of satisfaction. The quiet and private contemplation of an arts experience is a critical form of interpreting meaning, and it is of course a part of every receptor’s experience.

But while internal, private meaning making is the reflexive, evolutionary starting point, it is not, for many people, the ultimate destination. Pleasure in arts-going can also come from what I am calling social interpretation: audience-produced meaning making that occurs in/through public settings and mechanisms.

I want to take a moment to contextualize my use of the word “pleasure.” I don’t mean comfort or ease, but rather the deep satisfaction that comes from working something through. Working the mind is fun. Working the mind produces pleasure. Aristotle knew this when he wrote in the Poetics that “learning is most pleasant, not only to philosophers, but to others as well.” All people, he noted, delight in “learning and reasoning out what each thing is.”

It is satisfying to work at processing an opinion about the interesting things that surround us. Especially art. What can be more pleasurable for me as an audience member than experiencing a work of art not as a product with a fixed meaning but rather as a process of meaning making dependent on my participation? And how satisfying to share that process with others.

In my new book, I use the term Arts Talk to define a new modality for arts appreciation. The ruling idea of my theory of Arts Talk is simple: The pleasure inherent in the interpretative function is enhanced significantly when meaning making is made social. The Greek word for interpret (hermeneu) focuses on the role of language: how we use it to organize our sense of the world by linking words into structures of thought; how those structures express, intend, and signify other structures of thought until, at last, we have meaning that can be communicated to others.

What produces this desire to make meaning for ourselves and then to share our thoughts with others? As cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom notes in How Pleasure Works, developmental psychologists have

long marveled at how children naturally point, wave, and grunt to draw attention to interesting things in their environment. This might seem like the simplest skill until you realize that no other species does this. By some accounts, this desire to share our thoughts is responsible for much of what makes us human, including language and our sophisticated culture (151).

This does not mean that meaning making on an individual, personal level is not important or valued. As noted, the quiet and private contemplation of an arts experience is a critical form of authoring meaning, and it is of course a part of every receptor’s experience. By stressing the importance of social interpretation I am not creating a hierarchy of value about how meaning should be made. I am instead attempting to acknowledge the fact that participatory activities around the arts can also include meaning making.

Nor does my concept of Arts Talk mean that social interpretation equals telling artists what to do or how to do it. There is an ongoing conflation in the arts industry between the audience’s right to make meaning and an assumed related obligation to change what we do in response. I resist this conflation. As I will address in much more detail in a post next week, inviting our audiences to use public talk to interpret the arts does not mean that aesthetic and/or business decisions should be made based on those interpretations. We listen to others as part of our daily lives: in the home, the classroom, at work, at leisure. But we don’t automatically change who we are or what we do or how we think just because we are in conversation with others who are/do/think differently. A sincere, authentic conversation with our audiences about meaning and value is not tantamount to agreeing to change our aesthetic or industry practices. A sincere conversation about meaning and value is an end in itself.

Another important point about my usage: Arts Talk is not intended to refer only to literal talk. The term also connotes a spirit of vibrancy and engagement among and between people who share an interest in the arts. Arts Talk is a metaphor, an ethos and, ultimately, a call to arms. It is a metaphor for a way of moving through the world with art as an intimate companion. It is an ethos (a term derived from the ancient Greek word for character) promoting a set of ideals that characterize an arts-infused community. And it is a call to arms championing a move beyond the one-way delivery system (from active expert to passive consumer) that characterizes meaning making in much of the discourse around the serious arts in contemporary America.

By buying a ticket, the audience elects us to represent them as curators of an arts experience. They elect us to use our expertise to make, find, present and contextualize art.

They do not, however, elect us to prescribe or control the interpretation of its meaning.

In my next post I’ll offer some stories about the historical audience and the various ways in which pre-twentieth century spectators understood the function of meaning making as both a cultural duty and a cultural right.


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  1. Barbara says

    You are preaching to my choir!
    IMHO, we’ve simply taught people that museum-going & art appreciation requires passive viewing & listening to an expert – or gatekeeper as you say. In contemporary art settings, the assumption that the audience lacks knowledge & ability to understand the language of art coupled with an atmosphere of intimidation are more the rule than the exception.
    So, simply, but not easily, we need to demonstrate new expectations of visitors and shift the role of docent/educator/etc.- art workers as you call them – from expert/interpreter to facilitator of meaning-making. My own graduate thesis focused on adult learning & meaning making within museums, especially the use of questioning as a strategy. My research uncovered a lack of understanding of adult learning, a lack of skill in engaging in questioning, & fear of trusting the audience. These can be addressed through programs of dialogue & training. But, it also uncovered on the part of the art workers who have been in the field over 5 years a lack of belief in meaning-making & inquiry as an approach. Your book and blog might help educate them to make the shift. Labeling them as gatekeepers creates an unnecessary obstacle though.
    I’ve been applying these ideas involving both reflective & social interaction in galleries & in non-gallery talks which are sparked by art & occur at the intersection of the arts with other disciplines. Such approaches do exist in some museums, but are as yet all too rare.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks for bringing this topic to the forefront.


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