The Art of Interpretation | Lessons from Reception Theory
"For me, art really starts with acceptance, self trust. Wherever you come to with art, it's perfect. You don't have to come with anything. What you bring to something is the art. That's where it's found. It's found within you."
– Jeff Koons
Two people journey through a gallery to meet before the same artwork. Shocked, the first person recoils while the other, eyes wide, is moved to their core. Whose interpretation is ‘correct’?
While you might believe the answer lies with the work of art or artist’s intention, reception theorists disagree. For them, interpretation is alchemy. It sparks between text and viewer, is cut by cultural, historical, personal and physical contexts, and is never static nor simple.
This approach was developed by Hans Robert Juass, Roland Barthes and later, Stuart Hall. Barthes announced the death of the author and the birth of the reader. Juass saw interpretation as suspended along a ‘horizon of expectations’ plotted by culture, while Hall focused on reception that runs against the grain.
To think about art from a reception perspective tells a riveting story, just look to the Impressionists. An affront to the Academy, Claude Monet and his art world outlaws exhibited their landscapes to derisive responses. The now canonical 'Impression, Sunrise' (1872) for example, was ridiculed with one critic balking;
“What does this painting represent? Impression! Impression, I knew it. I was also thinking, since I’m impressed, there must be some impression in there.”
Claude Monet 'Impression, Sunrise'
'Impression, Sunrise' is no longer emblematic of rebellion. Rather, stripped of the venom it once carried, Impressionist art now evokes Parisian romance, the shifting of light and painting en plein air. How we talk about, understand and see Monet’s masterpieces has completely transformed.
With this in mind, let’s reassess our relationship to art. Rather than flailing around for the ‘correct’ interpretation, we may perhaps be better off trusting our gut. Like an unfinished sentence, art implores the viewer - laden with their own experiences, tastes, contexts and internal fabric - to answer back.
Returning to our polarised gallery goers, it appears we asked the wrong question. Rather than “which interpretation is correct” the better question may be “what does this work say to me?”. From here, a cornucopia of possibilities surface. The boundary between us and the work ripples as we inject ourselves, our culture and one another into its story. This is where the art happens - between you and the work.