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ArtLex Art Dictionary




iinterpret and interpretation - Interpretation is a stage in the work of art criticism following the describing and analyzing of an artwork, in which one identifies the work's expressive qualities, or the meaning, or the mood, or idea communicated to the viewer.

A work of art can be very complicated and may be interpreted in different ways by different people. In art criticism, one's interpretation of a work is personal, based upon the the information one has gathered from the work. In art history, interpretation identifies the influences of time and place on the artist: images of the same subject, created at different times or in different locations may have little in common. Their differences reflect the contrasting personal and cultural traditions and values of each artist.

Closely related words used at the college level are "hermeneutic" and "hermeneutics," words that have come to us from the Greek word for "interpret." Hermeneutic is an adjective meaning interpretive or explanatory. Hermeneutics is the study of and methodology of interpretation — of the ways of discovering meanings. As a science of textual interpretation, it was originated by Fredrich Schliermacher (1768-1834), a German theologian and philologist, who attempted to develop a systematic method of interpretation to resolve disputes over religious texts. His biographer, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), another German, and a neo-Kantian philosopher of history, extended the idea to history and the human sciences, suggesting that hermaneutics provided a methodological foundation for the cultural sciences that is distinct from the methodological foundation of the natural sciences. Since that time, hermeneutics has been understood as the theory of interpretation in general.

In the hermeneutic method one uses an interpretation of a given piece of "text" (which could be any act or product of an act) to help understand the whole of which it is a part. Interpretation proceeds in what Dilthey called a "hermeneutic circle," using current understanding of the whole to decipher a part, and current understanding of a part to decipher the whole, working back and forth until a coherent interpretation emerges. Applying this cycle systematically so that all of a "text" makes sense adds great rigor to an interpretation. It forces an interpreter to be systematic while staying within a consistent "inner" logic.

Schliermacher and Dilthey are sometimes regarded as "romanticist" hermeneuticians because they were attentive to the role of the "author's" intentions, viewing them as affecting the meaning of the text. Both saw a need to project oneself imaginatively into the world of others to get a feeling for their motives or intentions. Later in their lives both men placed more emphasis on the use of the social and historical context rather than authorial intention in understanding the meaning of an act or other text-like activity. The usual interpretation today, following Wittgenstein's criticism of the notion of a private language, is that the author of an act or utterance does not have privileged access to its meaning and must rely on the responses of others to clarify it. One not uncommonly intends to act in a certain way, for example, but finds that others respond as though it meant (was aimed to accomplish) something different. Contemporary debate about the role of "original intent" in the meaning of the US constitution shows that this issue has not gone away.




Also see bias, elements of art, principles of design, and stereotype.





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