Over recent months I’ve had numerous discussions about art and interpretation. Many people suggest that art doesn’t need interpretation. As someone who began her university career in the arts before entering the field of interpretation and heritage, I find this stance puzzling . And the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by it, particularly in a museum context.
On the one hand, the issue certainly lies with people’s lack of knowledge of interpretation. Interpretation does not exist in Germany as the comprehensive discipline and practice it is in the English-speaking world . And so when I talk about interpretation, the first thing people tend to respond to is the term itself. They think of interpretation in the classic sense, as a single viewpoint or understanding, or as a particular rendition of a creative work. This isn’t a new misunderstanding, of course. Even in English, the language of origin of the discipline of interpretation, the term has caused confusion and debate. Nevertheless, in English we’ve come to an agreement which, as the discipline gained traction, has widely become accepted by others also. The consensus is that interpretation in the museum and heritage contexts means ‘x’. Discussion over. Moving on.
I generally try to explain ‘x’ along the lines of ‘giving people a foundation to engage with an exhibition’. I explain that in interpretation, a basic principle is to carefully consider visitors and their needs, in other words, to have a visitor focus, or what in German is termed Besucherorientierung. And this is where people often start to argue.
Art, I am told, cannot be ‘about visitors’. To consider visitors within an exhibition, to provide an infrastructure that responds to their needs, is to stifle art. Interpretation, it has been suggested to me, would prevent exciting concepts, leading to art exhibitions that are commonplace and boring. And so interpretation is in fact an insult to visitors, for they do not need it and are visiting to appreciate art undisturbed by such banal intrusions.
Interpreters know of course that just the opposite is true. And the experiences with the success of interpretation by whatever term it goes in Germany, as well as the evidence of visitor books and visit numbers tell us another story also. This rejection of interpretation is therefore not based on the evidence. So the question begs what else might be going on here. We can’t know the underlying motivations without further research, so I’m focussing instead on the consequences of such attitudes and this desired act of not providing interpretation.
The first consequence is that we’re sending out a subtle message: if you don’t understand art without additional aids, then probably an art museum isn’t the right place for you. It also creates two groups: those who understand art (and therefore don’t need interpretation), and those who don’t. Considering that the claim is that interpretation somehow stifles and diminishes the quality of art, there is also a message of superiority here, of a higher level of understanding and sophistication.
Not providing interpretation, in other words, not making visible the underlying (intended) concepts of the artwork or its wider context also means that the breadth and depth of its critical examination is limited to a small number of people (supposedly) ‘in the know’. It’s the ‘Authorizing Discourse’ all over again, self-referential and self-affirming. Non-experts are unlikely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the art they see, either. If you don’t even know what an artwork is meant to address, you can neither form an opinion on the validity of the concept nor on the quality of the execution. Your views can be easily dismissed (because you clearly don’t understand) or they are castrated (because they remain superficial).
Superficiality of engagement is the real tragedy for me when it comes to the refusal of interpreting art. Art is not like heritage in that sense. Art can be so abstract, so conceptual that without further explanation people truly will not manage to fully engage and respond to art. To take their reactions of dispproval as real engagement is a betrayal of them. They haven’t engaged. They are frustrated. That is not the same.
The result of all of the above is ultimately exclusion. And in a museum context I cannot find any justification for this. No matter what contemporary definition of a museum you use, one of its core elements is always a variation on education and/or engagement. If museums do not make possible either, then they are not fulfilling one of their main purposes.
Professional interpretation doesn’t get in the way of art. It doesn’t force itself on visitors, nor does it provide a one-size-fits-all solution. What it does do is widen the reach of art. It provides an infrastructure that makes it possible for more people to engage – dare I say ‘meaningfully’ – with art. If that is not in the interest of art, then the problem in my view is not with interpretation.
 Here’s a not-so-well known fact about me: I studied Comparative Literature to BA-level (I switched after what was thens till the Intermediate Exam) before I completed a Masters of Art in Creative Arts, with a focus on Interdisciplinary Arts.
 Interpretation as a comprehensive discipline doesn’t exist in Germany, but that doesn’t mean its basic principles and indeed its practices are entirely unknown. Thankfully, there is a lot of overlap, the difference being, however, that what is covered by Interpretation is split into multiple disciplines in Germany. Which also leads to what I find is a discursive jungle. It makes me appreciate the formation that’s been developed in Interpretation, even if I wish much of it were moving on more quickly than it is.
One thought on “Interpreting Art”
I once worked with a curator in Australia who saw himself as a Marxist historian & postmodernist. He refused to accept that interpretation of historic artefacts or archaeological material was valid or necessary – “the object speaks for itself”. He even fought against labels of any kind. But as you point out, it only speaks to those who can understand the language either by being part of a complicit educated elite or by being a practitioner. I was astonished that a self-confessed Marxist would take such an elitist view – he created art galleries of history museums & left beautifully designed incomprehension in his wake. Needless to say, visitor comments, evaluation, reviews and footfall ultimately meant others redesigning his galleries and introducing accessible and meaningful interpretation. I have just returned from Iceland where I really enjoyed their use of questions and guesswork and digital interpretation in the Settlement Exhibition. Inserting pale ghost like figures moving through the landscape & everyday life sounds into the site put people back into the remains of the Viking longhouse & a variety of interpretive media meant people could make sense of the site & its stories in a variety of ways. They could make choices. A good example of making archaeology accessible & comprehensible. Art is also a landscape – sometimes foreign, sometimes alien, that requires mapping if visitors are going to be
enabled to engage, reflect, critique or understand the work & its context. Despite my very high level of formal education, I was never able to study art beyond the first year of high school and I get really frustrated with art curators who all seem to assume that visitors have fine arts or art history degrees. I always have questions and want to know more especially about historical or political context and the artists’ thoughts. Interpretation is above all about giving people choices!