Art & Interpretation: Knowledge ISN’T always key to understanding.

By Melissa Canham

In a generation where we are consistently shaped by our surroundings, the space between the artist and audience, can sometimes be considered to be dominated by critical interpretations and social influences. This has become overwhelmingly apparent, to the point that we can sometimes question whether our own interpretation of a piece of work is correct. Yet, how do you define an ‘interpretation’ to be correct in the first instance?

The public display of art in galleries, broadens levels of observation and the scope of the audience; it draws together people with similar interests into a place of common understanding, exposing the opportunity for the multiplicity of interpretations. Every experience and interaction will be different, so it needs to be questioned, why the imaginative aspect of ‘art’ has become encapsulated into a set definition? There seems to be a tendency for galleries to become a place where subjective views are imposed upon you by cultural norms and mass media influences.  It does become easy to conform to what everyone else sees, especially in a generation which is heavily influenced by the media. So, we need to learn to retract away from what we know, by funnelling out other individuals’ views.

A group of students recently challenged this view, when Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom’ was shown to them in a display at the Tate Modern. Kiefer’s work is largely textural and holds an imposing physicality which is intertwined with the post-war period. The inspiration for this painting was the reformation of Mao in China, as Kiefer was addressing its need to break free from the oppressing dissidence of communism. However, the students had no prior knowledge of this subject matter, but they still managed to identify central themes in the painting, describing the piece to capture a ‘Loss of innocence, hope, once vibrant, now withered, consumed by brutality. The battle for power – nature or mankind? A flickering flame.’ The students expose Kiefer’s fascination with the uses and abuses of power, linking it to the previous brutality of the totalitarian regimes, and resonating with his claim that ‘Ruins, for me, are the beginning…With the debris, you can construct new ideas.’ Identifying Kiefer’s primary focus to be accessibility, not prior knowledge, challenging the view that context is key to interpretation.

 So it can be said, knowledge is not always crucial to interpretative understanding, particularly at a basic level. Questioning whether art has become overpowered by the intention to find an exact meaning, which isn’t necessarily required to understand a piece of art? Or calling into question the exact intentions of a particular piece and how artists place it in relation to the social context and contemporary beliefs? What happens if we challenge these boundaries? What if we interpret a piece of work differently to the person next to us and we have no context like the students studying Kiefer’s piece?

We need to learn to establish that it is fine to interpret a piece of work differently to the person next to us and it may be appropriate to reconsider the balance between knowledge and understanding.

So we, the observer, need to learn to challenge the boundaries of what we know.

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