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Intent vs Interpretation – Which Vision Is Right?

I’ve participated in creative writing courses in which at least one student gets upset that their words are misinterpreted.  I can understand that, and I’ve felt that frustration before.  Writing can be a very personal thing.  You’re opening up a part of yourself and laying it bare to the scrutiny of the world.  When the world says, “I don’t get it,” it can be hard to hear.  As with other art forms, writing puts your ability to be creative and your ability to communicate ideas on display.  But a writer can also share personal opinions and perspective; he can infuse a work with his personality in a way that is definitive – he can say it.  With a drawing, the audience can critique your skill – you can draw or you can’t.  With writing, the audience can be given the power to critique your beliefs, your dreams, your hopes and fears.  As a result, if the work is misunderstood or rejected, it can feel very personal.

Generally, I have not felt the need for my work to be interpreted very precisely.  (Well, not in a long time, anyway.)  I’ve long felt that what you get out of a work of art is based in large part on who you are, on the experiences you bring with you more so than what the artist presents to you.  I can tell you a story about a girl whose pet dies, but I can’t make you feel sad.  Your feelings will be representative of your own experiences, not mine.

For me, it’s exciting when a person reads my work and gets something totally new out of it, beyond what I was attempting to express.  It’s almost as if I’ve got two works in one, the one that says what I think and the one that says what you think.  And I didn’t have to do any extra work!  My most vivid memory of this happened in a college writing class.  I had written a short story that I intended to be funny.  It was about a woman who thinks she may have accidentally killed someone at the gym.  Instead of facing the situation, she slinks out and leaves the possibly injured, possibly dead person on their own.  See, funny, right?  We had anonymously exchanged papers for critique, and I was anxious to see how my story was received.  Boy did I get a shock.  The girl who got my paper was so upset.  She was shaking, raised voice, red-in-the-face furious!  She could not believe this terrible woman would leave the gym like that, with so careless an attitude.  How could she do it?  How could she live with herself?  She hated this woman!  Hated her!

It was terribly exciting!  I was grinning from ear to ear and it was all I could do to keep myself from laughing out loud!  True, it wasn’t what I had intended, but so what?  To have created something that stirred so much passion – whatever the mode of the passion, whatever it looked like – in another person!  That is heady stuff (and way better than being perfectly understood).

P.S.  I still have that story.  The kicker is that it’s not really that good.

Here is what some other people said:

What do you think is more important, your interpretation of a work of art, or what the artist intended to represent?

Top Answer: My Interpretation!

Jacque: Art is wasted if it is not saying something to the observer.

Tom: Art is “in the eye of the beholder.”  If it wasn’t, art would be singular – a singular great piece of art, great song, or novel – there would be universal agreement.  We all can look at a rainbow and recognize it to be pretty.  Someone might find that the beauty lies in the color; someone might find that it lies in the symmetry; some might find that it lies in the perspective, framed against the sky and the landscape; for some it might stir up emotions, because it reminds them of a story that their momma once told them.  So, you can’t look at it and all see the same thing.

Rebecca: For me, I like to know what the artist intended.  I think that knowing what they wanted is insight into someone else, and art is personal to them.  So it’s neat to know what they were thinking and what they envisioned, what they wanted to achieve.  But then you can go back and look at it again.  If you know what their vantage was, what their perspective was, and you look at it with that in mind, it sometimes changes it and makes it better.  Knowing what the artist’s thoughts were, or visions, doesn’t necessarily change what my thoughts are or what I envision.  If I’m going to purchase something for my wall, I’m going to purchase what I like – their perspective won’t change how I feel about it when I look at it.

Logan: I think it’s important to get both.  I think art is supposed to convey a message from the artist, but I think it’s also important that you get your own personal message from whatever art, whatever you’re listening to.  Music can mean many things to many people and artwork can reach through to anybody.

Terri: Your own interpretation.  It’s like with poetry – I never got it.  It’s like the chicken in the red wheelbarrow – it’s supposed to stand for some deep meaning.  But I think the writer just meant it was a chicken in a wheelbarrow, that’s what I’m going with!  I think it’s whatever you want it to be.  Unless they’ve said, “this is what it meant”.  But a lot of times you either don’t know, or even if they tell you, you’re thinking, “I still don’t understand!”  Books and plays are easier, but poetry…

John: Whatever it means to you.  Because, depending on… what do you know of the artist, what period was it painted in, what time in history, what was going on during that time that might have been influencing the author one way or the other.  So, it’s hard to tell sometimes unless you’ve studied the artist.

How important do you think it is to the artist that you interpret their work the way they intended?

Jacque: The artist is there to depict; the person, whether listening to it, or looking at it is there to interpret.

Tom: Depends on how evolved the artist is.  If he is a fully evolved person, and he’s not relying on the feelings of others, it’s immaterial to him how other people interpret it.  In other words, if he or she is self-secure and they have given the art out of necessity – they created the art because they had to, because the art was in them.  With a true artist, the art’s in him; I’m not talking about the dabbler.  Mozart had to compose – he had to.  There’s no choice with the true artist.  So, that’s his obligation.  Now, a less evolved person is going to want.  They’re going to be opinionated, and the art is about them.  And when the art is about them, they want their interpretation to reign supreme, where the evolved artist will listen to another’s interpretation and say, “Well, you may be right.”

Gloria: If you’re dressing up to impress other people, please other people, you dress a certain way.  If you are dressing up to please yourself, you might dress a totally different way.  Same thing with the artist – it depends on what their motivation is.  They may not even be true to themselves.  They may be doing it for money, for commercial  use, or mass pleasure (in these cases, the artist would be more concerned about the audiences’ interpretation or reception, rather than his own vision).

Donna: It depends on what they’re trying to express.  Are they trying to express a message?  Is there a value to the message they’re trying to express?

Lynn: No, they would be offended if I don’t see what they intended.

Terri: It just depends.  Why did they create it in the first place?  Did they create it for people to analyze it and get this meaning?  Or did they just feel the need to create it?  Some people have a puffed-up view of themselves and some want the recognition for what they’ve done.

John: I’m thinking more like with a book or a filmmaker – is your aim to entertain or is your aim to challenge?  Are you just writing a story that’s going to be entertaining or funny – your sole purpose is, “I’m going to write this comedy because I want people to laugh,” and there’s nothing else to it?  Or, “I want to make a movie that’s really going to challenge people and is going to make them think about whatever this particular issue is…it’s going to challenge what they think and what they believe, and expand their horizons.”

Rebecca:  I think that’s individual.  I think probably one artist would say, “As long as people are enjoying it, that’s the pleasure in it.”  And I think some would say, “It’s very personal to me, therefore I want it to be very personal to the viewers.”


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jacque M #

    Theoretically if the artist is primarily motivated by the observers interpretation of the art, Picasso would have only produced one of his wacked out paintings. Forgive me if you are a fan, but my 3 1/2 year old grandaughter has some art on my refrigerator that has more artistic value than some of his interpretations. My opinion only.

    May 28, 2011
  2. I love this question- it is one I have played with myself but seldom when I’m actually working. Perhaps I should put that in quotation marks, because painting for me is play. I have often been astonished by the reaction of a viewer to a piece I have done… Once I created a piece from the deepest pit of despair I have ever fallen into. I didn’t even want to frame it, but my friends insisted I include it in a show. To my amazement, that piece drew everyone in the room, and all of the comments were positive. They felt the power of raw emotion, I guess, and liked it.

    Generally I am not attempting to elicit a response or convey an emotion. You said it well- you are struck by awe by something you see. That is how it is for me. Something strikes me, and I respond with my brush. I disagree with Tolstoy…. although, yes, Picasso was painting with his arrogant brain and not his heart, which is why our children’s art touches us more deeply. In my opinion….

    June 23, 2011
    • I think there’s something about emotion that, when we feel it deeply, it cannot help but be conveyed by whichever medium we use. A post by atomsofthought particularly struck me as having been written in irritation or slight anger, though I couldn’t put my finger on why I thought so. But the feelings were conveyed through the words non the less. It’s like magic.

      That’s one thing that I do agree with Tolstoy – we feel, we re-create the feeling in our work, then the audience feels. What I don’t agree with is art only being valid if the audience feels exactly what the artist feels. Your work created out of despair is a great example of this. I don’t think it matters what they felt, but that they felt.

      Like I said, I haven’t figured out what it is that makes that raw emotion so evident, but it is. It’s almost as though you really did put a bit of your soul into the work and the people are seeing that. You’re right, this is a fun question!

      June 24, 2011

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