Appreciation Follows Interpretation
Imagine you are strolling down in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, and you come across one of the most famous paintings known to man, the Last Supper. You can’t help but marvel at the mastery of good old Leonardo. You think about Leonardo da Vinci, a genius in portraying human emotion. As you are going through each individual brush stroke, absorbing the painting, you hear an art historian exclaim to his students, “Well, don’t try and think too hard about what this scene means. You may make the mistake of not liking this painting, and that is a crime. Just feel and appreciate the painting.” What he just said was not only confusing and weird, but outright evil.
You may wonder how a seemingly harmless statement qualifies as evil. Fret not, we shall dissect this notion. We see that there are three entities present in this situation, the Art piece, the Artist, and your interpretation of the art piece. Our historian was attacking the process of interpretation and propagating the notion that plain appreciation is more important than interpretation. So, to understand the process of “interpretation” of art, and its importance, we will first need to define ‘art’. Art, according to Russian-American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, is defined as, ”selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical values.” What this statement means, is that an artist is trying to convey parts of reality, according to what he values. Victor Hugo may show you, “the troubles of the little man”, Dostoyevsky may show you, “the evil of human nature” in the manner which they see fit. The artist’s view of the world forms what is considered to be the abstraction. It is the theoretical message portrayed by the artist. The ‘as they see fit’ part, makes the style.
Understanding the term "style" is simple. When you were ‘absorbing’ art, or as the layperson might say, when you were reading art, you were analysing the style and the abstraction. The style is what determines the degree of the expertise of the art piece. How is the meaning conveyed? Can the artist construct a crystal clear plot? These are the questions pertaining to style. Now, here is the interesting part.
When you think about it simply, the abstraction is nothing but the message that the artist is conveying. What does this artist show through this? If I look at the world through the eyes of the artist- what do I see? These are questions pertaining to the abstraction. So when one says I like this art piece, one implies that he likes the abstraction as well as the style, i.e. the notion conveyed and the manner in which the thing is conveyed. So simply put, the style is the outermost layer a connoisseur of art interacts with. The painting, the colours, the strokes, the drawing itself make up the style. So one might wonder, what is the utility of this jargonish word, “abstraction”?
The abstraction is the place where the subjective art experience comes into picture. In order to truly like the work of an artist, his hard work, and his expertise, it is necessary to understand the abstraction, and view the world through the artist’s eyes. And since one may not like another person’s view of life, one might say, “It is an excellent piece, but I do not like it.” Here the word ‘excellent’ is an adjective referring to the style, and describing Leonardo da Vinci’s enormous skill in painting, whereas the term ‘like’ refers to the harmony of da Vinci’s values, with that of the observer. Since da Vinci’s values may be enormously different from that of the observer, the meaning of the painting or the art piece may not appeal to him, but the style of the art piece, the sheer skill of Leonardo, will make the vilest of people marvel at human creativity.
So, why does the historian’s statement reek of evil? Simply put, it robs someone of the joy of travelling to the artist’s world. It robs the observer of even the attempt, and it does so in the name of human fallibility, as one might be mistaken in understanding the painting (i.e the abstraction), and thinking the values shown are different, may not like the painting. It seeks the false virtue of an art piece being good, simply on the basis of style, while the abstraction and the meaning of the painting are rendered useless. Since the historian values appreciation of the painting without thinking, he appreciates only the style, only part of the painting, leaving out what makes sentences sentences, what makes an art piece the literary or visual medium for the portrayal, or, what makes a novel a classic,-it’s meaning. In order to truly appreciate the painting, one should feel harmony with the values expressed in it, and the skill of the artist in expressing those values.
But yes. This system too, has its present limitations. Owing to our current limited understanding of certain auditory pathways of the human body, and how artistic mediums such as music influence those, we do not really know whether one can really interpret what a certain musical piece or concerto is. Of Course, one always has upward notes, happy and ecstatic music, but with piano concertos or musical pieces lacking lyrics not even heavy musical theorists can explain what it means, i.e., what the abstraction of this musical piece is. And yes, even though this current system has its limitations, it works efficiently on other visual art forms, even architecture. Nihilists and Postmodernists may claim that all of reason is human vanity, but that is no valid criticism of the proposed process of interpretation.
Prolonged appreciation will follow interpretation. If one does not know what a particular thing is, one may say he likes it, but that statement will have no philosophical backing. When one makes a reasonable hypothesis about a piece, and in the case of art, when one interprets it, it gives rise to extended appreciation, one that lasts for prolonged periods of time, since it sits in line with the observer’s value-judgements. Interpretation is what makes people swear by the name of Shakespeare, for his values reflect the reader’s world view too.
Doesn’t that mean they appreciate him too? In fact, they go beyond the writing style, they truly understand him. Their understanding of the abstraction behind it may be mistaken, but human fallibility is not a valid constraint on the pursuit of excellence. True appreciation needs interpretation.