Over the years I have come to believe that the most important thing I do as an art educator is to involve people in the interpretation of art. This article is based on and furthers a set of principles I wrote to guide people in interpretive endeavors in a chapter on interpretation in Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary (1994a) and then in an article for art teachers (1994b). I began this investigation of interpretation in years prior when attempting to discover and articulate how photographic images mean (1977, 1986,1990,1997a), and then broadened my thinking and writing to include criticism of art (1989, 1992) and images in popular visual culture (1991).
My thoughts on interpretation are very much influenced by the writings of aestheticians, art critics, literary theorists, art and photography historians, and art educators concerned with meaning in art. Although my research on art interpretation draws heavily upon the thinking of scholars, equally importantly, it is informed and tempered by years of multi-faceted experiences in interpretive thinking and teaching. I am able to build and test interpretive theory in practice by serving, for many years now, as an Art Critic-in-Education) in which capacity I engage children and adults in schools and community centers2 in talk about art. The artifacts we examine are usually modern or contemporary,3 and sometimes controversial (Barrett and Rab, 1990). We also examine the art that the students themselves make, and these occasions are the subject of Talking About Student Art (19976) a book that derives from an active interest in conducting, studying, and improving studio critiques for college art students, especially by increasing attention paid to interpretation of their work.4 I am able to test ideas on teaching interpretation with populations of adults and children and museum educators in art museums.5 Solitary interpretive experiences include writing and editing art criticism for regional publications and occasionally curating an art exhibition. So, these are principles that work in practice. This is the set published in 1994:
Artworks have "aboutness" and demand interpretation. Responsible interpretations present the artwork in its best rather than in its weakest light.
Interpretations are arguments.
Interpretations are persuasive.
No single interpretation is exhaustive of the meaning of an artwork and there can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork.
Some interpretations are better than others.
Interpretations imply a world-view.
Good interpretations of art tell more about the artwork than they tell about the interpreter.
Interpretations are not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.
Good interpretations have coherence, correspondence, and inclusiveness.
Feelings are guides to interpretations.
An interpretation of an artwork need not match the artist's intent for the artwork.
The objects of interpretations are artworks, not artists.
All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.
All art is in part about other art.
Interpretation is ultimately a communal endeavor and the
community is eventually self-corrective.
Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and to continue on our own.
These principles are meant to account for both contemporary and historical works, to guide art critical and art historical interpretation. I've formulated the principles for art educators of all types to use with learners of all ages. The set of principles is eclectic, and some of the principles are drawn from theories that resist one another. The principles are meant to be complementary and not contradictory. The set is meant to be comprehensive but not exhaustive. Their number can be expanded or contracted. The principles and positions they assume purposely avoid extreme positions on contested topics of interpretation. …