Interpreting Art: Reflecting, Wondering, and Responding

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Interpreting Art: Reflecting, Wondering, and Responding Terry Barrett (2003). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 262 pages. 47 b/w illustrations, 24 color plates. ISBN 0-7674-1648-1.

Interpreting Art is Barrett's most recent book, preceded by Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary (1994); Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images (2000); and Talking About Student Art (1997). Perhaps more directly in Interpreting Art than in his previous books, Barrett encourages the construction of interpretations that build upon the viewer's careful analysis of characteristics and symbolic references within and outside works of art. He wants the viewer to actively ask questions in the process of analyzing a work of art, toward the goal of producing plausible meanings. Toward this end, he infuses each chapter with references to his principles of interpretation that are summarized and clarified in the final chapter. Readers familiar with Barrett's previous books will no doubt find overlaps and parallels. Such connections and overlaps are to be expected if one reads this book within the context of the author's larger project of assisting viewers, teachers, and students to develop skills to appreciate and effectively embrace art criticism and the interpretation of works of art and visual culture.

In the Introduction, Barrett offers, "The ultimate purpose of the book is to help you look at art and other phenomena with a sense of wonder and curiosity and then to satisfy your curiosity with informed interpretive thinking about what you perceive" (p. xv). This statement embodies the tone of the text. Barrett encourages readers to become curious viewers of works of art, images, visual culture, and artifacts and not settle for instant responses to what they see. He suggests that through interpretation we not only learn about objects but also about the people who interpret them. For example, he offers the destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001 to illustrate the consequences of interpretation, in this case a disputed interpretation of the Holy Qur'an. In Chapter 1, Barrett examines the process of interpreting several works of art by the same artist, René Magritte. Chapter 2 explores issues surrounding the interpretation of a single work of art, Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Chapter 3 takes on religiously, sexually, ideologically, and racially controversial art, topics that frequently surface in art criticism and art education courses that encourage the investigation of contemporary works. The author takes up the challenging task of interpreting and appreciating abstract painting in Chapter 4. Having already declared in the Introduction that the book has a Western bias, in Chapter 5 Barrett examines how a viewer might go about interpreting works of art that are "old or foreign" (p. 111) by focusing on works by Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and Johannes Vermeer, and the Temple Dharna Vihara in Ranakpur. Chapter 6 centers on the relationship between medium and meaning as typified through the photographs of Sally Mann. Chapter 7 is perhaps the most diverse, as it offers various interpretations of visual art and culture, in the form of book excerpts and a short story about an Edward Hopper painting, an interpretation of Rain, a dance by Bebe Miller, and examples of interpretations of comics, "bad words," television commercials, Disney, buildings, tableware, and a Rolling Stone magazine cover. Barrett summarizes a set of principles for interpretation in Chapter 8 that also appear at various points throughout the book, among which include: "Artworks are always about something"; "Meanings of artworks are not limited to what their artists intended them to mean"; and "Some interpretations are better than others" (p. 198). The text builds a complex but clear set of examples of how these principles of interpretation work in coordination with each other.

Many readers of this review may already be using this book with their own students in art education, museum education, or similar courses. …


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