Interpreting Art by Terry Barrett: Chapter 8 by Jeanne Beck

It has been a wonderful experience for me — and I hope for those of you who joined in — to read this book slowly over a period of months and intersperse digesting its meaty contents with other readings about art and artists. I find myself awed by Barrett’s ability to gather mountains of information and then distill it into a comprehensive — and interesting — survey of art interpretation. Barrett’s writing style is clear and approachable, his examples are varied and intriguing, the amount of information and diverse insights and opinions he presents gently open the reader to approaching art more thoughtfully, with objectivity and careful attention.

At the beginning of this final chapter, Barrett presents us with a list of guiding principles for interpreting a work of art. Since the entire remainder of the chapter is an expansion on these points,I’ll list them:

Artworks are always about something.

Subject matter+Medium +Form +Content = Meaning.

To interpret a work of art is to understand it in language.

Feelings are guides to interpretation.

The critical activities of describing, analyzing, interpreting, judging, and theorizing about works of art are interrelated and interdependent.

Artworks attract multiple interpretations and it is not the goal of interpretation to arrive at single, grand, unified, composite interpretations.

There is a range of interpretations any artwork will allow.

Meanings of artworks are not limited to what their artists intended them to mean.

Interpretations are not so much right, but are more or less reasonable, convincing, informative and enlightening.

Interpretations imply a worldview.

Good interpretations tell more about the artwork than they tell about the interpreter.

The objects of interpretation are artworks, not artists.

All art is in part about the world in which it emerged.

All art is in part about other art.

Good interpretations have coherence, correspondence and inclusiveness.

Interpreting art is an endeavor that is both individual and communal.

Some interpretations are better than others.

The admissibility of an interpretation is ultimately determined by a community of interpreters and the community is self-correcting.

Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and continue on our own.

Barrett admits that were we to apply all these principles each time we begin the process of interpreting a work of art, we’d find it exhausting, so he encourages us to select those that are most pertinent to a work and utilize them as tools for greater appreciation and understanding of it.

Barrett’s book offers the reader an opportunity to engage in a deeper relationship with artistic works, to go beyond the superficial stance of “liking” or “disliking” and begin an ongoing process of observation and information gathering that can help one to become more informed about almost any work of art.

Barrett closes the book by agreeing with Karen Edis Barzman, an art historian, that we must not accept the observations or interpretations of others as our final authority on any given work of art, but engage in an ongoing dialogue and continue to produce interpretations of our own. The final sentence in the book is a quote from Barzman: “We produce meaning — we produce meaning — and the meaning we produce is partial, contingent, and cannot be universalized.”

Thank you for this opportunity to share my chapter summaries of this book over the past eight months. I would not have learned as much from reading the book if I had not made the commitment to try and create a synopsis of each chapter. A yeoman’s task, for sure, but one that has increased my appreciation for what an exceptional writer and scholar Mr. Barrett is and how fortunate we are to have his books as a resource in developing our own interpretation skills.

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5 Responses to “Interpreting Art by Terry Barrett: Chapter 8 by Jeanne Beck”


  1. 1 heronpress April 5, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Thanks for introducing me to this book!

  2. 2 June January 17, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Keep us in touch about the Critique Handbook, Jane. I’ve been wondering whether it’s as good as Barrett, or differs in (what) ways, and whether it should be added to the SAQA recommended reading list. So let us know.

  3. 3 Jane Davila January 17, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Jeanne:
    I’m so glad you took on this project – I’ve learned tremendously from it!

    This quote sums it up:
    “Barrett’s book offers the reader an opportunity to engage in a deeper relationship with artistic works, to go beyond the superficial stance of “liking” or “disliking” and begin an ongoing process of observation and information gathering that can help one to become more informed about almost any work of art.”

    Thank you Jeanne!

    Yesterday I received a book I ordered based on someone’s recommendation called The Critique Handbook and a quick skim-through reveals that it should help further this ongoing observation and information-gathering process.

  4. 4 eileen doughty January 13, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Thanks for taking us along on this very enjoyable trip through the book.

    My favorite from the list above (a difficult choice) is “Meanings of artworks are not limited to what their artists intended them to mean.” I found this to be very empowering, that I could have valid interpretations of work that don’t have to agree with the artist’s intent. Given that my interpretations “are more or less reasonable, convincing, informative and enlightening.”

    Some years ago I took a semester class at the Corcoran in Washington DC, a foundation class specifically geared toward quilt artists, taught by Pat Autenrieth. She gave us snippets from this book to read. It bears up well with each re-reading.

  5. 5 june January 13, 2008 at 9:34 am

    Jeanne,

    Many thanks for this summary and for listing Barrett’s conclusions. The one item that I like the very best is:

    “Interpretations are not so much right, but are more or less reasonable, convincing, informative and enlightening.”

    What a grand adventure you have had. It would be fun to re-engage, in a year or so, with someone else taking the lead and see what new things would emerge from a close reading of Barrett. I for one saw many new ideas emerge from your reading of him. And this was true when I was _re-reading_ the book, parts for the 3rd time, as you were posting about it.

    In that sense, Barrett has summarized his approach to art, and my approach to his Interpretation: “We must not accept the observations or interpretations of others as our final authority on any given work of art, but engage in an ongoing dialogue and continue to produce interpretations of our own.”


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