Making art is both an emotionally soulful and painfully personal experience. After deciding what form your art will assume, your thoughts and emotions will combine to produce what will inevitably be considered as your style, and their continuous outpour will contribute to the completion of your masterpiece that may or may not be slightly governed by limitations, depending on whose eyes the work was made for. There is already a degree of pressure at this point because these eyes not only look and judge the work, they also interpret, criticize, and ultimately possess the work. These eyes are the root of every artist’s anxiety and insecurity, for with them lies the utmost fear any artist has with regards to her/his work—the fear of being misunderstood. And to be misunderstood would mean two things: (a) being wrongly or imperfectly interpreted and (b) not being sympathetically appreciated. Let us first tackle the former.
To be misunderstood is to be wrongly or imperfectly interpreted. It is an instance when one’s audience fails to capture the intent of the artist with the work. To understand the context of the audience’s interpretation, we must first look into the need for interpretation. Susan Sontag, in her essay, Against Interpretation, carefully suggests:
“To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.”(Sontag, 1966, p.4)
She further writes:
“The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded…The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.”(Sontag, 1966, p.3)
People interpret because they desire to understand the art. And I would like to suggest that this desire to understand stems from the desire to possess and make it one’s own. This is because, beyond entertainment and luxury, people consume art for its emotional value—the very distinct quality that makes the audience feel something upon beholding it. Adorno and Horkheimer once theorized a “Culture Industry” wherein popular culture leads to and promotes conformity because, as the works of art are transformed into easily reproduced commodities, they are standardized with the same templates and formulas that eventually contribute to their predictability. And with this culture industry of conformity that manifests itself in our society today, there is a greater desire to personalize art. With this movement of personalization, the tendency for interpretation is to look beyond what everyone else is seeing in order to make one’s experience and understanding seem unique. This tendency is what brings forth misinterpretation. In order for a viewer to consider an artwork as one’s own, the viewer will attempt to alter and eventually transform it in accordance to one’s own preference, which is usually, if not always, very far from what the artist intended. But do not get me wrong, my intent is not to invalidate one’s own experience with art, but merely to emphasize that such urge to personalize the experience leads to more avenues for over reading, misreading, and ultimate confusion of a work.
In contrast to the points on individualism and personalization, I would also like to put forward the fact that we currently live in an era of collective opinion. Notice, for example, a short film going viral on the internet. At first glance, a viewer may have her/his own experience with the film. S/he might find it despicable or a waste of time. However, after scrolling through comments by other viewers, s/he might find that the majority were very much captivated by the film because of multiple reasons. The said viewer will, in turn, develop a bias towards the collective opinion and s/he will now try to find reasons why the film is good, despite not liking it in the first place. Conformity to collective opinions lead to the perishing of individuality. We live in an era where the minority is condemned and “cancelled”, while the majority decides the fate of an art work, and eventually, the artist. Because of this collective opinion, the artist will end up trying to explain oneself or to make the art explicit of its meaning, to avoid misinterpretation and even “cancellation” as an artist. The sad fact is that this collective opinion often comes forth from viewing the art only at its surface level. It is basically seeing art and judging it instantly without dwelling further on any of its elements, its historical context, and its significance as an art work.
“We live in an era of ordinary criticism…A more concrete way to put the charge is to say that in recent film studies interpreters have paid scarcely any attention to form and style.”(Bordwell, 1989, p.260-261)
Because of standardization, we have been taught about what to look at and how to look at art. We look at the same things and give the same types of interpretation, only in various forms, over and over again. This leads us to the second definition of misunderstanding, which is to not be sympathetically appreciated. This is an incomplete understanding and underestimation of the work of art. We are unable to go beyond our basic understanding of art because we are conditioned to interpret them based on only specific structures. There is a lack of in depth studying to fill a criticism sufficient to cover the entirety of what the art is all about. In line with this, the study of form and style should not be bypassed. Maybe people need to understand more the elements of a work of art. As Kael puts it, “criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination” (Kael, 1994, p.231). Beyond interpretation, the viewer must aim towards a full criticism, which is a skillful work of art in itself. A while ago, Sontag’s definition of understanding art is to interpret it. But beyond this, I think that to understand art is to be able to challenge it.
Overall, interpretations should not just be about putting meanings based on certain principles or emotions. It should also be about questioning the very existence of that work of art. In understanding the context of art or why the work is made, the viewer will be able to connect with the artist and get a glimpse of the artist’s intention. Of course, the viewer may choose to either accept or reject this intention, but the important matter is that the experience of both the artist and viewer will be intertwined in such a way that there can be a discourse.
Proper discourse can only occur when one tries to open oneself up to the world of the other. Interpretation can become an avenue for the viewer to open herself/himself up to the art form, experience it for what it is, and be one with that world for a moment. This way, interpretation’s purpose is further expanded into one that leads to discovery of many things beyond emotions and associations. In this process, maybe one can discover that interpretation can be a reflection of oppression, either of the artist or the viewer. When the viewer becomes more open, the art will be experienced for its entirety. There is lesser risk of it being under appreciated and underestimated. The fullness of the experience of it encompasses different worlds intertwined, triggering conversations. This way, the context of the art may not be limited to the artist’s purpose. Viewers may be able to provide contexts on their own based on their personal experiences with society, for example.
With all these possibilities for different ways of experiencing art, maybe the eventual misunderstanding of the artist’s work is not something to be fearful of because, ideally, it will create a platform for discourse. Whatever emotions and associations were triggered by the art, whether intended by the artist or not, will lead to discussions about issues that matter, things to be talked about, and risks at hand. With discourse comes action that is fueled by passion rooted from the same passion used to create the art work, itself. And with proper and sufficient action comes resolution. It is a very ideal process, but not completely impossible. And at the end of the day, in all sense of the word, maybe art is meant to be misunderstood after all.
- Bordwell, D. (1989). Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Harvard University Press.
- Kael, P. (1994). I Lost It at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954-1965. Marion Boyars Publishers.
- Misunderstood [Def. 1, 2]. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/misunderstood
- Sontag, S. (1966). Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.