*There will be a second set of notes that will be posted tomorrow.
Gender and sexual preference—together with nationality, ethnicity, politics and religion—all seem to have some impact on the meaning of art. Does art bear a message in the way language does?
John Dewey claimed that art was the best way to understand a culture. He thought you needed to learn how to understand the language of art from a different society, but then it offers up a meaning. However, art’s language is not literal.
Both the expression and cognitive theories of art hold that art communicates: it can communicate feelings and emotions, or thoughts and ideas. Interpretation is important because it helps explain how art does this. Art acquires meaning in part from its context.
Expression theory: Tolstoy
The expression theory holds that art communicates something in the realm of feelings and emotions. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist (1828-1910), advocated this view in his famous essay, “What is Art?” Tolstoy believed an artist’s chief job is to express and communicate emotions to an audience.
The expression theory works well for certain artists or art styles, notably abstract expressionism, which seems to be all about expressing feelings.
Freud and sublimation
Another theorist who saw art as expression was the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. He described certain biological based desires—conscious and unconscious—that allegedly develop in all humans along predictable paths. Freud saw art as a form of sublimation, a gratification that substitutes of the actual satisfaction of our biological given desires.
Foucault and Las Meninas
Expression theories often emphasize the individual artist’s desires and emotions. But the role of the artist is downplayed by more recent proponents of the so-called ‘death of the author’ view, like French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Foucault criticized what he called ‘the author-function---he thought that we become too locked into the search for correct interpretations by deferring to what ‘the author intended’.
An illustration of Foucault’s views comes from his 196 book, Les Mots et Les Choses (The Order of Things), where he discussed a very famous painting by Velasquez, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour). Foucault narrated an engaging tour through this painting, which he called ‘a representation of representation’. Foucault interpreted the work not in terms of what was meant by its ‘author’, the artist, but as an exemplifying the view of its time period. Foucault labelled this as sort of cultural viewpoint an episteme. Las Meninas typifies the early modern episteme, which placed a new focus on self-consciousness and on the perceiver’s role in viewing the world.
Cognitive theories: pragmatism
The pragmatist defined knowledge as more than a matter of espousing propositions and truths. Dewey defined knowledge as instrumental and explained this by saying that it ‘is instrumental to the enrichment of immediate experience through the control over action that it exercises’. He emphasized art’s role in enabling people to perceive, manipulate, or otherwise grapple with reality. Dewey argued that art can be a source of knowledge just as much as science.
Interpretation as explanation
Many people, who have theorized about how to interpret art, whether using expression or cognitive theories, share the fundamental idea that art is a branch of meaningful human activity through which people with minds can communicate. To explain this, art theories draw on philosophy, and also on the human sciences.
To interpret is to offer a rational construal that explains the meaning of an artwork. Some interpretations work better than others. Finally, Interpretations help explain art art—not so as to tell the audience what to think.
Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford U Press: New York, 2001.