Course Notes: Arthur Danto on “Surface” and “Deep” Interpretation
by Daniel A. Kaufman
Before the coronavirus turned everything upside-down, the students in my upper-division Aesthetics course and I were working through Arthur Danto’s theory of interpretation, so as eventually to bring it into tension with Susan Sontag’s take in her famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” on which I wrote in the early days of EA’s founding.
Prior to our discussion of his theory of interpretation, we discussed the theory of art that he develops in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, a theory heavily influenced by the Readymades and by works belonging to the Pop Art tradition, like Warhol’s Brillo Boxes.
Danto argued that what these art historical developments entailed was that what it is to be art or to be a particular artwork cannot be a function of any perceptible quality. This follows from the fact that for any non-artwork, one can imagine a perceptually indistinguishable twin that is an artwork (a la Duchamp’s Fountain), and with regard to any artwork, one can imagine a perceptually indistinguishable twin that is a different artwork (as illustrated by Danto’s famous “red squares” exhibition, at the beginning of Transfiguration of the Commonplace).
It is Danto’s view that what renders “mere things” artworks and what distinguishes one artwork from another are their interpretations. He refers to this process of becoming art as “transfiguration,” which is intended to be reminiscent of the transubstantiation of the host, from Catholic theology. In both cases, “interpretation” – taken somewhat generally – effects a profound metaphysical transformation, despite the lack of any literal or manifest change. This is why Danto says that the “is” of artistic identification always involves a strange logic, in that whatever it predicates is always simultaneously true and false of the thing in question: i.e. it is both true that a hunk of marble is not St. Nicodemus and that a hunk of marble is St. Nicodemus. The same strange logic, of course, also applies to the transubstantiated host, which both is and is not the body of Christ.
With this background, we can now proceed with the lecture I just recorded for my students, on Danto’s theory of interpretation. I hope readers will find it interesting
 Danto treats interpretations as “functions” that map artworks onto mere materials.
Interpretations pivot on artistic identifications, and these in turn determine which parts and properties of the object in question belong to the work of art into which interpretation transfigures it. So we could as easily characterize interpretations as functions which impose artworks onto material objects. (pp. 41-42)
 Thus, interpretations determine which artworks we find ourselves confronted with.
 Consequently, that (a) it makes sense to speak of correct/incorrect interpretations and (b) it is possible to know which is which, is crucial to the very practice of art making and art criticism.
 For it to make sense to speak of there being correct and incorrect interpretations of an artwork, there must be an actual fact of the matter as to its interpretation. In other words, the question of its interpretation must be determinate.
 If there is no actual fact of the matter as to what an artwork means/is, then it makes no sense to speak of correct or incorrect interpretations, as in those circumstances, an artwork’s interpretation would be indeterminate. The trouble is that this would also make artistic identity indeterminate, which is difficult to accept. After all, can’t we think of any number of artworks whose artistic identities are clear? For example, isn’t it clear that James Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is that novel and not some other novel? If the answer is “yes,” then that means it has a determinate artistic identity and consequently, on Danto’s view, a determinate interpretation.
 What could be the relevant fact of the matter that makes an artwork’s interpretation and identity determinate? For Danto, it is the artist’s intention. What he or she meant to say or do by way of the artwork in question.
I believe we cannot be deeply wrong if we suppose that the correct interpretation of object-as-artwork is the one which coincides most closely with the artist’s own interpretation. (p. 44)
For Danto, then, artworks are to be treated like speech acts. When someone says something, it has a determinate meaning that is governed by that speaker’s intentions. If I tell you “no” in reply to a request, that word has a determinate meaning that is goverened by my intentions: namely, it is my way of communicating my intention to refuse your request. And if you were to suggest that “no” doesn’t mean that but rather that it means that I am acceding to your request, there is a very straightforward sense in which you would be wrong, as that was not the intention behind my speech act, and it is my speech act, not yours. In other words, the speaker has authority over what he (a) intends by his utterances and thus (b), what his utterances mean and consequently (c), what utterances they actually are. Danto thinks exactly the same of artworks:
If interpretations constitute works, there are no works without them and works are misconstituted, when interpretation is wrong. And knowing the artist’s interpretation is in effect identifying what he or she has made. The interpretation is not something outside the work: work and interpretation arise together in aesthetic consciousness. As interpretation is inseparable from the work, it is inseparable from the artist if it is the artist’s work. (p. 45)
 So if we want to correctly interpret and thus, correctly identify an artwork, our account must match or come as close as possible to that of the artist. In some cases, this is easy, as the artist may still be alive and willing to tell us what he or she meant, and thus, confirm or disconfirm our interpretations. But in most cases, things aren’t this easy. The artist may be dead, or even if he or she is alive, may be unwilling to tell us what he or she meant. (David Lynch famously refuses to discuss the meaning of his films.)
 This is why art history is crucial to art criticism. For it is by way of art history – and history more generally – that we can determine what it is possible for the artist to have intended. This involves all of the things that we talked about in our discussion of Danto’s account of the constraints on intention and interpretation that he presents in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.
 In cases where we don’t know the artist’s intentions but have to attempt to reconstruct them, via an historical analysis, our interpretations are underdetermined by the relevant information. That is, more than one viable interpretation will be consistent with the evidence, but in principle, with more evidence, it could be narrowed down to a single one. This is because there is an actual fact of the matter as to what the artist intended and thus, an actual fact of the matter as to what the artwork means. It’s just that our evidence is limited in many cases.
 Danto calls interpretations over which the artist has authority and which are based in his/her actual or historically reconstructed intentions “surface interpretations.” Interpretations over which the artist has no authority and which are in no way governed by what the artist intended or could have intended, Danto calls “deep interpretations.”
[U]nderstanding what an author as agent and authority at once could have meant is central to this order of interpretation that for just this reason must be distinguished from the sort of interpretation, hermeneutic or what I shall designate deep interpretation, which I want to examine here. It is deep precisely because there is not that reference to authority which it is a conceptual feature of what we may as well term surface interpretation.
Surface interpretation undertakes to characterize the external behavior of an agent with reference to the internal representation of it presumed to be the agent’s, and the agent is in some privileged position with regard to what his representations are. With regard to his deep representations he has no privilege, hence no authority… [T]hey are cognitively external to him. (pp. 50-51)
 Deep interpretations – such as those we find in Marxist, Freudian, feminist, queer, and other revisionary, un-historical frameworks – are indeterminate, as they are unbound by any actual facts about the work or its etiology and thus, are a kind of “anything goes” fare. Indeed, Deep Interpretations may actually be overdetermined, in the sense that all and everything one might find in a work is taken as evidence for them. In this sense, they are akin to Freudian psychoanalytical evaluations, in which evidence offered against a particular psychological analysis is taken as unconscious evidence for it. Because of this overdetermination, it is difficult to know what to make of such interpretations, and it is unclear on what basis one might offer a critique of them. This is why Danto says that Deep Interpretation “leaves the world as it finds it” (p. 66) Being overdetermined and unfalsifiable, they are entirely attitudinal and thus, have no tangible effect on the artworld or the art historical landscape.
All references from Arthur Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, Chs. 2 & 3.
Categories: Course Notes