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.