Course Notes: Arthur Danto on “Surface” and “Deep” Interpretation

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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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

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[1] 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)

[2]  Thus, interpretations determine which artworks we find ourselves  confronted with.

[3]  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.

[4]  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.

[5]  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.

[6]  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)

[7]  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.)

[8] 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.

[9]  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.

[10]  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)

[11]  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.

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All references from Arthur Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, Chs. 2 & 3.

http://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-philosophical-disenfranchisement-of-art/9780231132275

39 comments

  1. i’ve always been unimpressed and in some kind of disagreement with Danto on this matter, going back as far as the 80s and 90s when first I encountered his work on the subject. I think there is an actual contradiction in Danto. I remember attending a lecture by him in Portland Oregon, of all places in 1991 or ’92 in which his last sentence was “I like it all,” meaning, I presume that his approach yields to a generous pluralism of artistic taste. I think that is the good part of Danto. Yet, I can’t help but feel – and fear – that this conclusion is not created by his thesis and stands in some sense against that same thesis.

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    1. This has nothing to do with taste or with value, more generally, so I don’t think it in any way contradicts what Danto said in that regard.

      There certainly are difficulties with the theory — as there always are — but in my view, it is overwhelmingly, by far, the best theory the discipline has offered. Ultimately, I wind up being an anti-theorist, so in that respect, I reject it, but among the theories, it is the best.

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      1. Well you have the virtue of consistency. You have said on other subjects that you’re skeptical of there being real things and and of itself, (this certainly comes up in discussions with Spencer and Gressis) which I take to mean that interpretation is key, that is, what things are depends a great deal on names and reception, if I understand you correctly. I think the commonality is a kind of anti-realism.

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  2. Danto’s view is perfectly logical and perfectly false. Flannery O’Connor admits to being taken by surprise by a turn in her own story. Did Dostoevsky work everything out in a determinate way? I think not. Tolstoy started with a dim view of ‘Anna’ in Anna Karenina – adultary and abandoning her child was reprehesible but as she became real to him other facets of her character began to engage. Does Picasso know what ‘Guernica’ means other than the banal ‘horror of war’. A work is changed by its interpretations and great art spawns a muiltitude. Please read ‘Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote” by Borges.

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    1. Uh, that story from Borges is one of Danto’s main inspirations in Transfiguration. He uses it to advance his theory.

      Danto is one of the greats. While I think ultimately he is wrong, it will take a lot more than this to demonstrate it.

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  3. I’ve only read one of Danto’s books, but I liked it. It’s good to give some due and explication to authorial intention and all that since the “death of the author” can be overplayed or at least simplistically interpreted. But all the same, I like Pater reading Mona Lisa as a vampire. I’m also much more sympathetic to the Lynch sentiment of letting interpretive flowers bloom. Still, not anything goes. Eraserhead is not about the joys of fatherhood or the Neolithic Revolution. If you can make claim for either, go for it, but it’s a steep climb and depends on the skill of the interpreter.

    Not sure about the [11], the last takeaway. Maybe not Freudian, but all the other frameworks aren’t strictly unhistorical. All those frameworks can result in simplistic and misleading interpretations, but that’s a different question from whether or not they appeal to the conditions leading to the artwork. The creator’s intentions aren’t the only history to take into account. Their intentions are themselves shaped by historical currents in ways they might not immediately grasp and yet can be gleaned and interpreted under frameworks they don’t adhere to. For instance, someone can make a film under a strictly Marxist framework, but maybe *you* read it in a critical light and you get a broader sense of where the intentions come from and what that means in the broader context of movies, society, etc. Maybe if we consider all the arguments, your interpretation turns out to be the more perspicuous way of describing the movie. Is the director’s intention the end goal here and yours hopelessly underdetermined? In most cases, these historical currents are as underdetermined as the intentions we’re trying to suss out. Sometimes we have to assume one to figure out the other.

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  4. From Art and Meaning: “George Dickie, founder of the institutional theory of art, insists that there are counterinstances to my first claim [that works of art are always about something], offering nonobjective paintings as his example. It would be extremely interesting to consider what nonobjective paintings Dickie could have had in mind…Robert Rauschenberg’s all-white painting was about the shadows and the changes of light which transiently registered on its surface, and in that sense about the real world.” In the same way 4’33” is about everyday sounds, I guess? We end up with every meditation on any object becoming an art work – with the viewer as the artist. We can agree I hope that works never seen by another are still art. Landscape appears 7 times in Transfiguration, and when analysed, it is precisely in terms of any human figures, and how they might interact with the title.

    And, as others have pointed out, although some music is “about something”, it seems to that most will be either better understood in a semiotic framework (allusions, quotation), a mathematical framework (eg relationships within a piece), or as pure sensation.

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  5. I hope your students appreciate how much work it takes to present them a summary like this: synoptic, rigorous, orderly.

    Given my sensibilities, I’m having trouble accepting the following ideas, which, by your lights, are Danto’s:

    (1) “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.”

    (2) “After all, can’t we think of any number of artworks whose artistic identities are clear?”

    Problem is, I can’t quite put my finger on what about them strikes me as misguided. So what I’m about to say will be inchoate and perhaps confused.

    (1) I wonder if this kind of principle — the possibility of correctness and incorrectness requires facts of the matter — while appropriate in contexts where coming to justified true beliefs about a subject matter is the goal, is nonetheless not appropriate in contexts where something like appreciation is the goal. Should the “correct” (or “incorrect”) in artwork interpretation mean the same thing as the “correct” in belief forming? Facts (or what we think are facts) provide the measure of the correctness of belief, but should they provide the measure of the correctness of interpretation? I understand that Danto thinks interpretation is a metaphysical act. But for precisely that reason, perhaps, we should be wary of assimilating it to more familiar cases of ordinary, empirical belief formation.

    (2) Perhaps my discomfort with the thought embodied in this question is a function of the way it’s articulated, so this might not be a substantive response. But it seems to me that something’s identity can be clear to us without its having, or our knowing, its exhaustive identity conditions. If I successfully retrieve your coffee mug from the other room, we’d say, I think, that it was clear to me which coffee mug was yours. Was it required that your coffee mug be fully determinate in order for me to grab it? Can’t it be clear to me and to you and to anyone else that we just heard a performance of Chopin’s second nocturne, without its being fully determinate?

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  6. From the way you pitch it interpretation plays a fundamental role in what Danto is trying to set out. Which is fine if you are an art critic, or even some particular audience member invested in ‘knowing’ what’s going on. Possibly even artists themselves fall under this description, to the extent that they ARE trying to do specific things intentionally. Unfortunately this is not the whole of the story, nor in my experience the major part of it. And not only that, what counts as art is never going to be captured in some theory, or described comprehensively.

    ‘Art’ is about as family resemblance a term as you can get. What makes one thing art in one circumstance is not what makes other things art in other circumstances. Nor, it must be said, is art specifically or necessarily an object that would come under scrutiny in any required sense for interpretive possibility. Sometimes the art is stuck inside a person’s head, so to speak, and the objects, if any, that result from it are something else entirely. Still ‘art’ for those who need objects to fulfill that role, but NOT the art that gave it birth. And this is not a ‘metaphysical transformation’ but two separate things. Family resemblances do not hang on metaphysical transformations.

    Sometimes the art is the process, which exists alone for the maker/artist and never enters the world FOR other people. That is, the art is bound up in a personal exploration, and it cannot be surgically removed or in any way be made available to an audience. Whatever the audience gets from such things is NOT what the maker has. It is not shared, nor is it visible enough to be subject to interpretation. The artist themselves does not need to ‘know’ specifically what is going on but sometimes discovers it as the process unfolds. Sometimes art simply happens, and the ‘artist’ is merely the medium through which it became manifest. Sometimes it is a collaboration where the materials inform the process more than the human delivering them. Sometimes there is no physical evidence of what happened, that the art is a personal mental exercise and never enters the common world. How the outside world looks on these events is fundamentally closed off from the actual process itself.

    By focusing on ‘interpretation’ Danto divides the world in a reasonable internal/external way but pretends it is connected back together through some form of mediation. I would say that this again points to the ancient Greek myth of Procrustes and the difference between a thing AS a measure and that ‘same’ thing being subject to measurement. They are not translatable because they have roles that are incommensurable. To be measured is one thing, but to BE the measure is not itself understood by being measured. We understand what a measure is by USING it as a measure. When we confuse these roles it is only by appearance that we are dealing with the ‘same’ thing. It is a tragic mistake. There is an internal view that has what one does as a motivating force, as the measure for things or simply the still point of how we navigate the world, and an outside view that takes what it can see and turns it into something requiring interpretation or justification, often to disfiguring and brutal consequences.

    As someone who has made a living from art, taught art, and tried to make sense of where the arts sector has gone wrong in declaring its value to the world, it only seems that Danto has too simple a view of what he is discussing. What he says seems to address art in specifically contemporary times, from what I gather. He is talking to people making sense of art in today’s world. But a question is whether it explains anything like the same phenomena throughout history. Humans have danced as long as there have been human beings, because this is part of what it means to be human, that we express ourselves in this way. The same for other ‘artistic’ expressions. And each has been part of the human experience, in often different societal roles.

    The difficulty with Danto’s take is that for him there is some artist somewhere and an audience somewhere else, and the divide between the two needs to be explained. But throughout history and even in some contemporary societies art is what we do TOGETHER. When we dance it isn’t an artist performing for an audience but an activity the community itself engages in. There is no audience because the activity is participatory. There is no interpretation because it is the community itself manifesting itself. The fundamental divide between artist and audience is a modern phenomenon and explains only so much. In a community defined by an artistic tradition the members themselves belong to that art equally. Some with different roles, sure, but it is one activity expressing the community as a whole. To dance as one does in such a society is to be human in that particular way.

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  7. Addendum: In case it isn’t obvious, I take clarity to be a pragmatic notion. Whether something is clear is decided by considering whether intersubjective coordination is smooth.

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  8. Addendum 2: I’m also fully aware that I begin by suggesting caution in drawing analogies between ordinary contexts and less-than-ordinary contexts and end by suggesting an analogy between ordinary and less-than-ordinary contexts. Like I said, I’m struggling to figure out what’s bothering me.

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  9. This focusses a lot on meaning and intention (what was it that the artist wanted to express?).

    It’s not at all clear to me how this could be applied to medieval art. People already knew the meaning of the descent from the cross. People also knew what the artist was doing: illustrating a scene from the bible. It was much more about how the artist did things – his or her skill – and about the effect of the result on the public, than about what was done or expressed.

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  10. I find it interesting that some of the comments deal largely with literature, or what might be called ‘literary works of art.’ (Notably, two of Monroe Beardsley’s main texts were written with Professor of English William K. Wimsatt.)

    AS much as I love literature (and my own degree is in English), I’ve always found this rather odd. The status of a literary text as a work of Art is actually quite questionable, since it shares nothing sensuous with either visual or musical work, and this precludes any immediate ‘aesthetic’ (‘from the Greek: aisthetikos “of or for perception by the senses, perceptive”‘ https://www.etymonline.com/word/aesthetic). The strongest argument for literature as an art form was made by Hegel, who insisted that its dependence on language appealed to the Spirit directly; but he also said that the evolution of science and philosophy had effectively ended the Age of Poetry and brought us into the Age of Prose, wherein whatever the Spirit wished to experience and articulate it could now do so directly, rather than through, say, metaphor.

    However in most writings on literature as art (including that of Beardsley and Wimsatt) it is simply a given that we all agree, not only that literature is an art form, but the kind of art form it is. Authorial intention only matters in a way Beardsley and Danto can debate it, if a literary text is or has a meaning as an Art-construct available for response or contemplation, much the way Guernica or the Wreck of the Hope have, or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

    But a literary text, as a construct of language, has available to it all the possible uses, with their possible significations, as any construct of language, as well as all the possible limitations to these. A good short story has more in common with a well written essay than with any sonata. A good description may evoke an image for the reader, but this is not the same as contemplating an image; Heidegger’s description of Van Gogh’s painting of a peasant’s shoes is actually beautifully written and evocative, but it is not itself Van Gogh’s painting, and isn’t meant to be. ‘But Heidegger wasn’t writing a literary text’ – well, of course he was! One problem is trying to isolate the various genres of writing in such a way as to grant certain genres special status. That can’t be done. And even simply among the avowedly fictive texts, we have clever, sometimes profound, writing that shows us this – Heinrich Heine, Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, Moby Dick, Finnegan’s Wake – actually the list of genre-bending texts of real interest is almost longer than the list of more conventional texts. What divides the fictional from the philosophical? Would the theory of evolution have had less of an impact if Darwin had been less of a writer? Maybe!

    Sterne’s Shandy, with its marbled page, its seemingly randomly inserted dedication, and so on – reminds us that the hard-copy of a written text can have its plastic elements, no doubt. But these are really intended as sensuous contextualization, effectively semiotic commentary on the nature of the text itself; this as true for the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages as for the recent compilation of the Watchmen illustrated novel. If the text isn’t of interest, no clever formatting will make it so. Then the formatting itself becomes a visual work of art and that is very possible; but the text itself remains dead on the page.

    A literary text is composed of words, structured first via syntax and grammar, and then elaborating through many and various interpretational strategies into a semantics, and into global significations, including the implicit or assumed. The ultimate goal is not communication of a message so much as elicitation of a response. (When I call 911 to report a house on fire, while there is information transmittal concerning a house on fire, I am also surely seeking a response to that information; otherwise I needn’t have called.) So even if we are only speaking of fictive literary texts, the first order of business is determining what would be the proper response to it. It could be political or religious or it could simply be a good laugh or a sigh of regret. It’s a thought, an argument, a hypothesis, – or so much nonsense just to discover how good well-written nonsense can sound. Or it may offer us experiences we’ve never had before, evoking possible responses we’ve never considered before. It is, ultimately, one might say, a mode of living. We cook and eat, we write and read. Even in our sleeping we dream language.

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  11. I can”t think of anything that is more indeterminate than meaning. I can say “no” and mean yes; the meaning of a written sentence can change depending on the time of day or the time of year, the culture, century, the audience, the memory of the author. It is no different with works of art. The only thing determinate about meaning is that it is fundamentally indeterminate.

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  12. How do you select a “meaning” in order to see if it is determinate? It already has to have the meaning that you’ve determined for it. The only way to talk about meanings at all is to assume that people will agree with the meanings that you’ve already ascribed to the words you are using. This is necessarily circular, so there is no way that it can be determinate.

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    1. I have no idea what you are asking.

      Look, this isn’t complicated. If you ask me to do something, and I say “No,” it means that I will not accede to your request. If you then say that in fact, I *have* acceded to it, by saying “No,” you are obviously, demonstrably incorrect.

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      1. So how can you say that meanings are determinate? If meanings only exist in our imaginations they are indeterminate.

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          1. I don’t see how you could determinately produce something that isn’t an entity. For one, how can you tell it is determinate? What evidence would demonstrate this?

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          2. “[4] 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.”
            Interpretations are meanings. There is no fact of the matter. There is no way of discerning what is the fact of the matter because meanings exist in our imaginations. We can say that interpretations are correct or incorrect, but that’s a matter of opinion. There is no way of proving that an interpretation is correct or incorrect.

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          3. I don’t see any basis for the distinction between superficial and deep interpretation in Danto’s sense. Artists are about creating works of art, not about interpreting what they did. The work of art speaks for itself. Once it is created its interpretation is up for grabs. The idea that what the artist thought he meant when he created it is somehow has objective significance is ridiculous. Artists are known for their art, not for their interpretations of their art.

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          4. It’s an interesting dialectical strategy to claim that one does not see something another person has done. Not much one can say about that. If you are disinclined to actually engage the arguments then that;s your prerogative. Don’t expect others to have much to say about it though … or to have much interest.

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          1. I mean observable facts. Things that everyone can agree on. This window is made of glass. I am typing this on a laptop. Interpretations are not like this. When a work of art is created it’s interpretation is up for grabs. In my opinion there is no such thing as an objective interpretation of a work of art. It is subjective and a matter of opinion.

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          2. I think this is obviously, demonstrably false. And I don’t think you believe it either.

            Presumably, if I told you the paragraph you wrote here is about a happy chicken, named Francis, who lives on the moon, you’d say “No it isn’t,” and of course, you’d be right. Similarly if someone said that Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” is meant to convey a lighthearted romp through England’s beautiful countryside, they would be wrong, and demonstrably so.

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  13. An interpretation of a work of art is very different from your interpretation of something I’ve just said. What I just said refers to an event or thing or concept. When an artist creates a story it has a richness of meaning that transcends the storyline, but that in turn means that it can be interpreted in countless different ways. Augustine interpreted the story of adam and eve as the story of original sin. The original author may have meant the tale to be about emphasizing the importance of the Sabbath and dissing the Babylonian origin myth. Once it was written down its interpretation is up for grabs precisely because of its richness and artistic merit.

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    1. My comment already takes this into account. I gave an example of a demonstrably false interpretation of a novel. If you are going to continue to ignore the actual arguments and examples of your interlocutors, I’m going to drop out of the conversation.

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      1. My point is that it is easy to be wrong about what a simple statement is about, not so easy about a work of art. Perhaps A Clockwork Orange is about a light romp in the English Countryside from the point of view some post-apocalyptic reader. Once a work of art is produced it transcends what any one person can say about it. . A work of art isn’t just a representation, It spills over its boundaries.

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      2. I am taking you seriously. I sometimes am selective in what I respond to. My objection is to the idea that interpretations of art can be objectively true. When you give the example of a wrong interpretation of what I just wrote, I don’t think that is pertinent, because the subject is about interpreting works of art not simple statements. Obviously we can be right or wrong about what we say. But a work of art is different, because it is not just a representation. I can agree that A Clockwork Orange is not about a light romp in the English Countryside. But is it a story about the misuse of Beethoven’s ninth? Or about totalitarianism and operant conditioning , or gang psychology? We can say that, roughly, certain interpretations of a work of art are off base, while other interpretations seem more pertinent. It is not an objective thing because the work of art always transcends itself. Who cares about what Melville thought he was doing in writing Moby Dick. The story transcends it’s plot, characters, and environment in a way that cannot be determined. That’s what great works are: they cannot be tied down because they lead us in unexpected directions.

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      3. Sorry you feel this way. I think that this is a serious argument. You are saying that an interpretation of a work of art can be objectively true. I am saying that a work of art is not like a simple statement, that some simple procedure could determine whether it is true or false. The whole point of art is that it transcends itself. It’s a creation that has its own life, so to speak. Once it is out there, what it means is not something we can know determinately. Art points us beyond the actual in ways we cannot anticipate. This can lead to very strange interpretations. But I don’t see how they can be ruled out of hand a priori. An educated guess might rule out certain interpretations, but I don’t think that you can know that objectively, the way that you can know this window is made of glass.

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  14. I know that I am pushing my luck here. I believe what I am saying is a serious argument that challenges your thesis that art interpretation can be objective. I’ll restate my argument: A work of art is like a living thing, it transcends itself. It will escape whatever categories and descriptions that we invent for it. We cannot anticipate what it will or should mean. In that sense it cannot have an objective interpretation.

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    1. It’s not my thesis. It’s Danto’s. And you are not pushing any luck. This is an open forum, and your views are welcome. That I may not have anything more to say on the matter or that I disagree doesn’t change that.

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