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Interpreting Art

by Dan Garro 11 months ago in art
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Interpreting Life

“She composes her own poem with the elements of the poem before her. She participates in the performance by refashioning it in her own way…[she is an] active [interpreter] of the spectacle offered to [her].”

– Ranciere

The more time one spends contemplating the meaning of a given work of art and/or the best approach (or theory) for interpreting artistic creations, the more one begins to recognize the close connection between our practice of interpreting artworks and the variegated ways our powers of interpretation are (routinely) employed in practical life.

We interpret our world because we are driven by a need to understand ourselves in the world—to create and posit meaning. We interpret not only to comprehend ourselves in the present, the moment, but also to comprehend, and thus interpret, the present as it relates to the past and to the (unknown) future. In an important sense the act or practice of interpretation is never final or settled, but entails an ongoing, open process of interpretation and re-interpretation.

The human being’s ability to interpret, to posit meaning and understand itself and the world it inhabits, makes it unique and makes its world unique because it is only accessible to other human beings (or persons). The human being’s power of interpretation makes it possible and likely that the human world consists of many worlds that are varied to the extent that the interpretations posited by persons vary.

Nevertheless, these worlds are (potentially) accessible to any person and are (more or less) linked by interconnected and interrelated historical and causal factors. This restricted accessibility is due to language and the complex (forms or methods of) communication that make it possible for persons to say, report, and/or explain how they interpret their perceptions and what they find significant and meaningful.

The Emancipated Spectator

“Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation.”

– Ranciere

In an interesting essay on the spectator, Jacques Ranciere defines what it is to be an active interpreter. The emancipation (or freedom) of the spectator begins once we are willing to admit the activity of the spectator.

Ranciere argues that the spectator is far from an ignoramus passively accepting what unfolds before her, but is, in fact, engaged in the activity of interpreting the events she perceives.

“The spectator also acts….She participates in the performance by refashioning it in her own way.”

– Ranciere

When the spectator refashions the performance, she interprets it in a way that’s unique to her, that accounts for her unique life and her set of experiences, and that defines meaning and significance in her own terms. In other words, she asserts her power as an active interpreter of the spectacle offered to her.

“It is the power each of them has to translate what she perceives in her own way, to link it to the unique intellectual adventure that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other.”

– Ranciere

The emancipation of the spectator is the recognition of the spectator’s (and, indeed, each person’s) interpretive prowess that is employed whether she is active in contemplating and interpreting some artistic creation (e.g., a painting or a poem) or simply any spectacle life offers her (e.g., a given relationship or a specific action).

Ranciere thinks the emancipation of the spectator occurs when we realize that all persons are spectators who actively interpret their own lives.

We are all similar because we are active interpreters, even though such interpretation entails the transformation of a perception into our own unique experience. We are similar, then, because each person translates or interprets what she perceives in terms of her own unique perspective or point of view. It is the power to interpret what we experience in some unique, personal way that makes us all the same.

“But in a theatre, in front of a performance, just as in a museum, school or street, there are only ever individuals plotting their own paths in the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them.”

– Ranciere

Interpretation is essential because in our attempts to understand, comprehend, and translate the spectacle offered to us we develop a unique perspective or point of view—our own “intellectual adventure” that makes us the person we are.

Nonetheless, all persons share a common (cultural) bond because of our powers of interpretation and our general drive (and need) to understand ourselves, the world around us, and to be understood by others. Whatever interpretation we posit will therefore be accessible to, and only to other persons because it will be dependent on the methods or practices by which we express and identify what is meaningful (or what has meaning), namely: on what is say-able, reportable, and, in general, on language and the significant and significative.

Ranciere’s argument for the emancipation of the spectator suggests that being a spectator involves actively interpreting whatever one perceives, and thus we are all spectators or active interpreters in some significant sense.

Whether we are engaged in some creative act, appreciating some artwork, or even contemplating our own life experiences and perceptions, we are spectators insofar as each one of us has the power to interpret and translate his perceptions in his own unique way.

We are, in short, meaning makers trying to make sense of our world, ourselves, and the people and objects in it.

Thanks for reading.

Please see my author's page for additional work or check out these related essays: Belief as a Noble Risk; Philosophy Teaches Us; Living Underground; The Habit of Living; and Perspective.


About the author

Dan Garro

Philosopher/Educator/Writer/Podcast Host & Producer

I'm a philosophy professor, avid reader, I love writing, and I co-host/produce The Existential Stoic Podcast.

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