Interpretation and the “Investigative” Concept of Criticism

by Daniel A. Kaufman

**In light of my recent Course Notes on Danto’s theory of interpretation, I thought readers might be interested in my own critique of his theory.  The following paper originally appeared in Angelaki, Volume 17, Issue 1, Page 3-12, March 2012**


My subject is the popular view in (mainly Analytic) philosophy that a work of art is essentially a “bundle of meanings” and that one of the main charges of the art critic, therefore, is to interpret art (the other charge being to tell us whether an artwork is good or not). The critic, on this view, functions with respect to art much as a translator or interpreter functions with respect to language. Now, I think that there is a lot to object to in this comparison, and I will do quite a bit of objecting, over the course of our discussion. Beyond this, however, lies a deeper issue, namely the way in which this view construes our engagement with works of art as essentially investigative and conceives of the end of that engagement as being the acquisition of knowledge about those works of art; a way of thinking that I believe misconceives the role that art and art criticism play in human life.

In confronting this idea that artworks are bundles of meanings and art critics are interpreters, I will expand upon a number of ideas that have received their strongest expression in Susan Sontag’s essay, “Against Interpretation,” which has yet to receive the serious philosophical treatment that it deserves, and which retains its significance and freshness today, well beyond the specific time and place that Sontag took herself to be writing about (the American art, literature, theatre and film scene of the 1950’s). In that essay, Sontag derides the idea of artistic meaning and the interpretive model of criticism that accompanies it as “a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism” [1] and maintains that interpretation is nothing less than “the revenge of the intellect upon the world,” [2] one that ultimately “violates art.” [3]


The view that is up for discussion goes something like this: (1) artworks have “meanings,” by which is meant some kind of discoverable content; (2) the critic’s primary engagement with artworks involves “interpreting” them, by which is meant that he or she “retrieves” this content; and (3) these interpretations are either true or false of the artworks in question and are therefore, in some sense, “testable.”

Two things about this view strike me, initially, as remarkable : for one thing, there is the high level of esteem it enjoys among mainline and especially Analytic philosophers, many of whom are otherwise completely unsympathetic to one another’s views, including Monroe Beardsley, Richard Wollheim, Arthur Danto, and more recently, Robert Stecker (one really can’t imagine stranger bedfellows than Danto, the intentionalist, and the arch anti-intentionalist Beardsley); and for another, there is the fact that there are very few arguments for it in the literature.

So what reasons are there for thinking that artworks are bundles of meanings and that critics are interpreters? I will focus here on two. The first, made by Danto, is straightforward in its form: artworks are constituted by their interpretations—the very identities of works of art tied up with their meanings—so the argument is that if there are artworks—and Danto wants to say that certainly there are—then there are artistic meanings. [4] The second, identified most commonly with Beardsley, is essentially transcendental in form: the art-as-content/critic-as-interpreter model provides a fact of the matter for critics to argue about; it explains the possibility of criticism and thereby serves as a “vindication of critical rationality.” [5]

I am going to suggest, however, that what begins as two different arguments ultimately collapses into one, for the Dantoian argument, once pressed, devolves into little more than a variation on the Beardsleyan one. The desire to render criticism a rational activity is the fundamental reason why Danto is inclined towards the art-as-content/critic-as-interpreter view, and one can understand why it would be a view that would be attractive to other Analytic philosophers as well: not only does it insure them a place at the arts table, where Analytic Philosophy’s standing has always been shaky, but it also reaffirms a number of crucial, longstanding prejudices, upon which Analytic Philosophy’s identity and relevance as a subject rests. But, let’s examine the arguments we’ve enumerated a bit more closely, before taking up these more controversial points.

Danto has built his career on the idea that it is in having certain kinds of interpretations that artworks are distinguished from “mere real things”; that but for meaning something, in a certain kind of way, no perceptible or other manifest quality can account for the fact that one square-shaped red canvas is “Red Square,” a “clever bit of Moscow landscape,” and a work of art, while a perceptually identical red canvas, primed centuries ago by Giorgione, but never used, is not an artwork at all. [6] A corollary thesis maintains that we cannot see something as an artwork or see its components as components—we cannot apply what Danto calls the “‘is’ of artistic identification”—prior to having interpreted it: when confronted with two perceptually indistinguishable, rectangular-shaped, bisected paintings, for example, one can only see the bisecting lines as, respectively, the boundary between two equally opposing masses and the path of an isolated particle, if one has already interpreted the first painting as being about “Newton’s Third Law” and the second as being about “Newton’s First Law.” [7]

Danto thus reassures himself that Sontag and others who resent interpretation’s intrusion into our experience of art can’t possibly be talking about him or about the interpretations on which his entire philosophy of art depends (Danto calls them ‘surface interpretations’), since any such critique can “only…begin when the work of art is in place…” [8] “Without surface interpretations,” Danto warns, “the artworld lapses into so much ruined canvas and so many stained walls.” [9] What the anti-interpretation crowd must be talking about, he surmises, are “deep interpretations,” and if we are hazy on what distinguishes a surface interpretation from a deep one, the answer lies in the artist’s intentions: the surface interpretation of a work of art either conforms with the intention of the artist in making it or with one the artist “could have had,” Danto says, while deep interpretations are essentially hermeneutical; i.e. they are “cognitively external” to the artist and are not constrained or otherwise governed by his actual or possible intentions. [10] (Danto’s examples of deep interpretations include the sort of fare routinely served by Marxist, Psychoanalytical, Structuralist, and other such critics. [11])

I must admit to having bought into this line of thinking for quite some time, and it’s only recently that I have come to see it for the thin stuff that it is, a clarity for which I owe a great deal to Sontag. Danto tells us that but for his surface interpretations, we would have nothing more than “ruined canvases,” “stained walls,” etc., but this is obviously untrue, given that between the “ruined canvas” and “Newton’s third law,” there is a picture of a rectangle with a line through the middle, and between scores of ink-stained pages and a tale of “the sensual and vengeful barbarism that is consuming Western civilization”—to help ourselves to Sontag’s example involving A Streetcar Named Desire, which makes the same point—there is a play about “a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche du Bois.” [12] This simple and obvious fact reveals that Danto’s surface interpretations aren’t on the surface at all, but are a consequence of his applying a theory of criticism—his particular brand of “hypothetical intentionalism” (as I call it) to be precise—and thus, reside at a far “deeper” level than the level at which we experience the manifest characteristics of paintings or understand the manifest storylines and dialogue in stories, novels, and plays; that is, at the level at which we experience things as pictures of bisected rectangles or stories about brutish men and washed-up women.

Admittedly, even this manifest level of experience is, literally speaking, “interpretive,” but that’s true of all perceptual experience and language use and implies nothing special about art or its criticism. We’ve known that perception is an active rather than a passive process since the emergence of modern epistemology, in the seventeenth century, according to which the world we inhabit is part mental-construct, part “external reality” (the result of the application of cognitive “categories” to raw perceptual experience), and we’ve understood that the interpretation of utterances can only occur once a language game has already been identified (i.e. whether ‘slab’ is a noun that refers to slabs or a command that tells someone to bring a slab depends on the grammar one is employing [13]) or, if one prefers Quinean ways of speaking, a set of “analytical hypotheses” has been imposed (“…we can and do talk meaningfully and distinctively…, but only relative to our own language.” [14]).

These minimal and ubiquitous levels of interpretation are largely or even entirely unconscious and require nothing from philosophy and certainly nothing from Dantoian Intentionalism. So, while Danto would like us to believe that our capacity to experience artworks is dependent upon his interpretations, in the same way that perception and our use of ordinary language is interpretive or “theory-laden” [15] and that consequently, such interpretations are unavoidable, our discussion has revealed that the analogy is inapt, since his surface interpretations are consciously theoretical, in a way that the conceptual structures and frameworks unconsciously employed in sense experience and the understanding of ordinary language are not. This latter, minimal sense of interpretation is largely uncontroversial, and even Sontag, the most partisan of the interpretation-haters, grants it: “I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations’,” Sontag explains. Her scorn is reserved for those interpretations and theories of interpretation that are overtly theoretical and programmatic—“By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind….” [16]—and in this regard, Danto’s interpretations clearly fit the bill. After all, it is a conscious and theoretically motivated decision to insist, as Danto does, that interpretations be positively and publicly verifiable, and it is a conscious and theoretically motivated decision to identify their verifiability with facts about artist’s actual intentions and hypotheses as to what they could have intended (the latter of which are grounded in further facts about the artist’s time and place).

But what of the point about there not being any artworks without surface interpretations? Perhaps Danto was wrong to suggest that there are nothing but “ruined canvases,” if we eschew the types of interpretations that he advocates, and maybe there can be pictures of bisected rectangles and plays about roguish men and haggard women without them, but what becomes of artworks, under these circumstances? Let me suggest—and I suspect that Sontag would have agreed—that it is of no consequence whether or not there are “artworks,” in this sense of the word. If we reject Danto’s interpretations, then we reject artworks as he understands them, but inasmuch as this does not mean that we have to give up pictures, plays, sculptures, etc., or even the word ‘art’ as it is used in ordinary discourse—I don’t see how our refusal to accept “clever bits of Moscow landscape” or “Newton’s First Law” renders us unable to speak coherently of “a trip to the art museum” or of our favourite “art historian,” for example—there is no reason why the person who is against interpretation should be concerned about it. The same goes for Danto’s claim that we will not be able to see the components of artworks as components—to see the bisecting line in “Newton’s First Law,” as the path of an isolated particle, for example—since to reject the interpretation in question is to deny that the relevant component is a component.

If Danto’s interpretations are not necessary for there to be artworks, in the sense of paintings, sculptures, plays, etc., or for us to be able to experience things as paintings, sculptures, plays, etc., then is there anything that renders them superior to the so-called “deep” interpretations, such that Danto can plausibly claim them immune from Sontag’s critique and continue to insist on their centrality to the critical enterprise (and thereby lend support to the idea that the critic is an interpreter)? It is clear that Danto believes that the superiority of “surface” interpretations rests on the fact that they are testable, while “deep” interpretations are not: the artist’s actual or “possible” intentions serve as an “authority” that tells us which “surface” interpretations are correct and which are not, but in the case of “deep” interpretations, the artist “has no privilege, hence no authority” over the interpretation of his or her work, which means that the question of correctness cannot arise or at least, cannot be settled. [17]

Now let me suggest that Danto’s claims regarding the testability of his surface interpretations are, at a minimum, exaggerated: the actual intentions of artists are rarely available—either because the artists are dead or because they are disinclined to tell people how to experience their works or what to make of them—and barring access to the actual intentions, to treat speculations as to what an artist “could and couldn’t have intended” as evidence that one interpretation is true and another false strikes me as quite weak. After all, aside from the few obvious varieties of impossibility, like historical impossibility—e.g. Cervantes couldn’t have intended to set Don Quixote in the “land of Carmen,” to use one of Danto’s famous “twins-cases,” since Carmen hadn’t been written yet [18]—what could be the basis on which one could claim that an artist could or couldn’t have had a certain intention?

The sketchiness of these claims of “possible” and “impossible” intentions and the even sketchier quality of the alleged evidence for them is revealed in Danto’s discussion of an imagined case involving a pair of blue ties, produced by Picasso and Cezanne. The blueness is applied to the ties in the manner of post-painterly Colour Field Painting, and Danto discusses how it is “more possible” to conceive of Picasso of having had the relevant post-painterly intentions—and thus, of his tie being interpretable and an artwork—than it is to conceive similarly of Cezanne, about whom Danto says “It is not clear that [he] could even have framed the intention to make the artwork this way, since the concept through which the intention could have been formed was not such as to allow its formation at that point…” [19] It is mystifying as to why Danto thinks anyone should believe this. For one thing, why should we believe that the only way a relevant intention could be formed is the way Danto alleges, i.e. through the conscious representation of the concept of post-painterliness? And for another, what are to make of all the examples—numerous examples, in fact—of artists who were far more “ahead of their time” than Cezanne would have been, had he anticipated Colour Field Painting? Has Danto forgotten the sixteenth century’s El Greco, whom Enrst Gombrich described as “incredibly modern”? [20] Or even more potently, the Faiyum Mummy Portraits, from Coptic Egypt, which would appear to anticipate the techniques and effects of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism? (The “Portrait of a Man” is particularly striking in this regard. [21]) Far from providing evidence for the truth or falsity of interpretations, appeals to what it’s possible and impossible for someone, somewhere, sometime to have intended are wanting for evidence in their own right.

It would seem, then, that there really is nothing significant that distinguishes the “surface” interpretations that Danto says are so crucial to art and to the critical enterprise from the so-called “deep” interpretations, which are allegedly dispensable and about which we are supposed to be suspicious, which means that the distinction fails to immunise Danto’s theory of interpretation from the criticisms of Sontag and others on the anti-interpretation side. But I am less interested in Danto’s failure to make this distinction than I am in his appeal to testability, in attempting to do so, for he makes it quite clear that this is what is really important to him: that our engagement with artworks should be construed in a way that will render the fruit of that engagement testable and thus, something that people can be right and wrong about. “Even if we knew which objects were up for artistic interpretation, how could we determine which interpretation is correct?” Danto asks, in comparing the problems he is addressing to those raised by Quine, in the context of translation, “for not even Quine would wish to say that anything goes.” Later, he laments the fact that “[m]odern critical theory appears to subscribe to a theory of endless interpretation, almost as though the work were… [a] mirror in which each of us sees something different…, and where the question of the correct mirror image can make no sense.” [22] Lurking beneath Danto’s “straightforward” argument for interpretation, then, is a partially formed version of what looks a lot like a transcendental one: i.e. Danto wants us to conceive of art as interpretable, because he believes that interpretations are testable, and if interpretations are testable, then art is something we can be right or wrong about. I say “partially formed,” because Danto never completes the thought: that is, he never goes on to say “and unless art is something we can be right or wrong about, art-making is pointless, art criticism is impossible or otherwise problematic…,” or some other such thing that would render his desire that there be critical rights and wrongs comprehensible.

It is unclear why Danto fails to take this final step… Likely, it is because he genuinely believes not only that his “hypothetical Intentionalism” can work, but that the interpretations it yields really are “necessary,” in the manner he describes, but it might also be because at some level, perhaps even subconsciously, he realizes that the theory he is advancing is little more than a mask for a number of largely Analytic prejudices as to what count as “serious” intellectual endeavours and what do not and he is trying to hide that fact. Regardless, he does not go on to finish the point, and speculation as to peoples’ possible motives—as I’ve already indicated—is something I am somewhat loathe to do. Fortunately, if we really want a bald statement of this kind of motivation for the art-as-content/critic-as-interpreter view—a naked admission of these sorts of prejudices—we can easily find one, in Monroe Beardsley’s The Possibility of Criticism.

From the very first paragraph, Beardsley associates what he is doing with what Kant did in the first Critique: Kant maintains that that the categories of the understanding are necessary for the possibility of empirical and a priori knowledge, and Beardsley argues that artistic meaningfulness, interpretability, and critical principles are necessary for the possibility of critical understanding. “Just as [Kant] asked How is science possible? How is mathematics possible? and so forth,” Beardsley explains, “so I am asking, in my way, How is criticism possible?” [23] But, the comparison of his project with Kant’s really isn’t apt (a fact that he admits just one sentence after having made it), and in reading Beardsley, we come to realize that what I have called a transcendental argument is transcendental in form only; i.e. in the sense that it literally takes the form of “F is necessary for the possibility of P.” In substance, the argument is anything but transcendental and in fact, is not really an argument at all, but merely, as I have already indicated, the expression of a number of deep-seated prejudices; prejudices that are typical of those working in mainline (mostly Analytic) philosophy.

In the case of the first Critique, the character of the scientific and mathematical enterprises and of ordinary experience, the possibility of which Kant’s appeal to the categories is supposed to explain, was widely agreed upon, so the sole issue was whether the apparatus of the categories is sufficient to do the job. (It was only because so many philosophers were convinced that it is not sufficient that attempts subsequently were made to reconceive mathematical statements as analytic and to “naturalise” epistemology.) But the situation with respect to criticism is nothing like this. Indeed, it is precisely the nature of the critical enterprise that is at issue. The Sontagian view that artworks do not have meanings is part of a larger anti-interpretative outlook that denies that the critical engagement with artworks is one that yields “understanding,” in the epistemic sense of the word, so the anti-interpretation crowd is hardly going to be convinced, when Beardsley and Danto argue that but for the art-as-content/critic-as-interpreter view of things, the practice of criticism stands without grounds. Beardsley acknowledges this, admitting that for him the issue really is one of criticism’s standing as a “legitimate” activity—“In my argument, the legitimacy of criticism is not a premise but a conclusion,” he writes, “therefore the presuppositions of criticism themselves stand in need of independent success” [24]—and like Danto, he is distressed at the thought that our engagements with works of art might be of a kind in which being correct is simply not the point. Indeed, he makes it quite clear that criticism’s being anything other than an investigative endeavour, in the manner that the sciences are, would be calamitous, something to be avoided at all cost: “If there were no principles involved in criticism, I do not see how it could be kept from collapsing into something purely intuitive and impressionistic,” he writes. “No doubt that sometimes happens, but it does not need to.” [25]

Sontag describes the view we have been discussing as one in which “art…becomes problematic, in need of defense,” [26] and it would appear that her instincts have been confirmed, for it looks like the sole basis for the view that art is content and criticism is interpretation is the thought that unless there is something in artworks for critics to be right and wrong about—and unless what critics are doing is primarily about being right rather than wrong about works of art—criticism and perhaps even art-making itself, are not worthy of respect. For Danto, Beardsley, and the rest, then, the very legitimacy of the arts and their criticism depends entirely on whether or not they contribute to the task of producing justified true beliefs, and consequently, on whether artists and critics can be placed alongside scientists as partners in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, Richard Wollheim, who coined the expression “criticism as retrieval,” goes so far as to compare criticism to archaeology: “[A]rchaeology provides many of the metaphors in which retrieval is best thought about, [and] is simultaneously an investigation into past reality and an exploitation of present resources.” [27] And though Wollheim’s view may seem to be more open than Danto’s or Beardsley’s to interpretations that diverge from what an artist intended or “could have” intended (in Danto’s sense of possibility) [28] and thus less beholden to the idea of criticism as a quasi-scientific enterprise, this impression is misleading. Such interpretations are permitted only when there is some unavoidable impediment to retrieval (typically either the possession of too little factual information about the work of art and artist or too great of a distance between the culture and sensibility of the artist and that of the critic), and Wollheim makes it clear not only that they are inferior, but that, in an important sense, they are no longer about the actual work, but rather, about an imaginary substitute. “Some of the great art of the past is accessible to us, some is not. When it is accessible, we should, surely, wish to retrieve it. But when it is not, or when it is retrievable only to an inadequate degree, we may be wise to settle for a counterpart.” [29]

No argument is given for this radical view of the arts and their criticism and one has to wonder whether anyone, aside from a handful of philosophers, really thinks of criticism as being the same sort of endeavour as science or as being subject to the same criteria of success and failure. There is, of course, the fact that “critics carry on disputes with each other,” as Beardsley observes, but to take this, as he does, as a “prima facie case” for the art-as-speech-act/criticism-as-interpretation view is to beg all of the relevant questions, since it assumes that these disputes should be construed as “arguments,” in the logical sense, when they could just as well be construed as the sorts of fights that occur among partisans. Certainly, given the rhetorical, polemical, often ferocious nature of the critical literature and of so much of the finest of it (think Greenberg, Mencken, Sontag, Trilling, Wilson, etc.), the latter would be a more natural conclusion to draw then the former.

Throughout “Against Interpretation,” Sontag describes the view we have been discussing here as a form of wish-fulfilment: the interpreter seeks to turn the work of art into something other than it is, for the purpose of satisfying the interpreter’s interests, rather than for any reason having to do with the artwork itself or the role that it plays in the lives of audiences. “It is,” she says, “to turn the world into this world…,” for the purpose, primarily, of rendering it familiar, “manageable, comfortable.” Sontag traces this inclination back to late antiquity; to a time in which “the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the ‘realistic’ view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment” and in which ancient texts could no longer be taken on their face value, but were simultaneously thought as being “too precious to repudiate.” To interpret them, then, then, was to preserve them, albeit in an altered form, so as to be acceptable to “modern” demands.

Danto accuses “deep interpreters” of something like this: In speculating as to why meanings should be hidden in works, as the deep interpreters suggest, Danto observes that “if there were direct communication the interpreters would suffer technological unemployment.” The theory of deep interpretation, then, exists solely to make the deep interpreter relevant; it is a kind of jobs-program for deep interpreters, one that allows them to “claim semantical monopoly over crucial urgent messages that only they can make out.” [30] In making this point, of course, Danto betrays somewhat of a lack of self-awareness, for precisely the same thing can be said about his own interpretations and about those favoured by Beardsley and the rest of the criticism-as-retrieval gang. Indeed, precisely this has been said, on at least two occasions: by Sontag, whom Danto has read but, as we have seen, never really confronts, satisfying himself, instead, with parsings about “deep” and “surface” interpretations, and by Beardsley himself, who (to his credit) openly admits that his commitment to the art-as-content/critic-as-interpreter view is as much a matter of loyalty to philosophical analysis, as it is a matter of fidelity to the actual practice of criticism. If criticism is not a quasi-scientific, knowledge-producing enterprise, with principles along the lines of the scientific method, Beardsley explains, then while a philosophy of criticism might still be possible, in a technical sense, “it would hardly form a…significant body of thought.” Best to construe it as a form of scientific inquiry, then, for “where…there are principles to be elicited and tested, there is always good philosophical work to be done…” [31]


In closing, I must acknowledge that our discussion, here, has been entirely negative: I have not said one word about what criticism is, only about what it isn’t; or more precisely, about how others have failed to demonstrate that it is what they say it is. But allow me to make two brief points in the constructive direction, with an eye towards getting a handle on what some of what our engagement with works of art might really be about. These points are notable, if only for their distance from the typical mainline philosophical and Analytic view of the subject:

(A) We do not typically reject an account or treatment of a work of art, solely on the grounds that it is not true. For that matter, we don’t typically accept or even offer an account or treatment of a work of art, solely on the grounds that it is true. Instead, what would appear to be determinative, with respect to whether we offer a certain account or treatment of a work of art and whether or not it is accepted is whether it is significant and useful to us, once we’ve returned from the world of the artist, to our ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) lives. In this sense, artists and critics are, as Joseph Margolis has described them, “teachers,” [32] but not in the narrow, cramped “knowing-that” sense described by Beardsley, Danto, and the rest, but rather, in the “knowing-how” sense of helping us in becoming more perceptive, more thoughtful and more aware of ourselves, of others, and of the world.

(B) It is fascinating to observe how many of the finest critics conceive of what they are doing as essentially creative, rather than expository; that is, they view themselves as being on the artist’s side of the activity, rather than on the other side of it, and thereby reject the kind of critical model that characterises food, movie, theatre, and other forms of “criticism,” which are regular fare in the popular media and whose primary purpose is to aid the public in being more efficient consumers of entertainment. In this vein, Mencken described the true critic’s motive as “not the motive of the pedagogue, but…of the artist. It is simply a desire for self-expression,” [33] and Wilson maintained that “Literary criticism is a department of literature, and when I read literary critics I read them as literature; the others I can’t read at all.” [34] (Mencken contrasts this with the interpretive task of “mere reviewing,” which he thinks “however conscientiously and competently it is done, is plainly a much inferior activity.” [35]) As for what makes an instance of critical engagement worthwhile, the relevant test is not the quasi-scientific one imagined by the Dantos and Beardsleys of the world, but rather is the same conception of value that we bring to bear on artmaking itself: “If the critic…produces a piece of writing that shows sound structure, and brilliant color…, and persuasive ideas, and civilized manners, and the charm of an uncommon personality in free function, then he has given something to the world that is worth having…” As for the task of discovering what is “true” and “false” of works of art, treated as the objects of a quasi-scientific form of investigation, Mencken suggests that we “leave the exact truth to professors of aesthetics, who can no more determine it than [the critic] can, and will infallibly make it idiotic.” [36]

There is much, much more to say, of course. My intent, here, has been to offer just a taste of where we might go in the philosophy of criticism, once we let go of the stale, self-serving treatments that have defined the discipline in the mainline and Analytic tradition for so long. One of the things I see in the two points just described is an emerging picture, in which art and criticism stand in relation to one another, in a way akin to that in which the members of an improvisational musical or dance ensemble stand with respect to one another; an idea alluded to by Margolis, when he notes the sense of ‘interpretation’ in music and dance, in which the interpretive act is one of completing the artwork in question. [37] Now, I would want to be careful as to how far I went here: the point is not that there is one artwork that requires completion (which seems to be what Margolis is getting at), but rather that the artist simply begins the process of art-making; a process which then is taken up by others, who produce their own improvisations off of what the artist has done, much in the way that one player in a band might riff off of a line laid by another player. The idea, then, is that our critical engagements with works of art bring into existence extended, collaborative works, of which the initial artwork is only a first move; something for subsequent artists, audiences, and critics to “riff” off of; an organic, improvisational structure that has the potential to span whole peoples and civilizations, over the course of generations.


[1] Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1964), in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1966), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 7.

[3] Ibid., p. 10.

[4] Arthur Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 39-43.

[5] Monroe Beardsley, The Possibility of Criticism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), p. 39.

[6] Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 1-4.

[7] Ibid., pp. 120-121. The example—and the point about applying the ‘is’ of artistic identification—first appears in Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 61, No. 19 (1964), pp. 571-584.

[8] Arthur Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, pp. 44-45.

[9] Ibid., p. 67.

[10] Ibid., pp. 51-55.

[11] Ibid., pp. 56-60.

[12] Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” p. 9.

[13] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §§7-22.

[14] W. V. Quine, “Ontological Relativity,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 48.

[15] Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, pp. 124-125.

[16] Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” p. 5.

[17] Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, pp. 50-51.

[18] Although even this strikes me as unclear, since it is not obvious that for the description “the land of Carmen” to refer to Spain, there must have been a Carmen.

[19] Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p. 46. [Emphasis in the original. My brackets.]

[20] E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 16th Edition (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 373.


[22] Ibid., p. 44 [emphasis in the original].

[23] Beardsley, The Possibility of Criticism, pp. 9-10.

[24] Ibid., p. 10.

[25] Ibid., p. 14.

[26] Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” p. 4.

[27] Richard Wollheim, Art and Its Objects (1968) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 201.

[28] Ibid., pp. 202-204.

[29] Ibid., p. 204.

[30] Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, p. 55.

[31] Beardsley, The Possibility of Criticism, p. 11.

[32] Joseph Margolis, The Language of Art and Art Criticism (Detroit: MI, Wayne State University Press, 1965), p. 67.

[33] H.L. Mencken, “The Critic’s Motive” (1921), reprinted in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920-1970, ed. Gilbert A. Harrison (New York: Liveright, 1972), p. 3.

[34] Henry Brandon, “A Conversation with Edmund Wilson” (1959), reprinted in The Uncollected Edmund Wilson, Janet Groth and David Castronovo, eds. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1995), p. 364.

[35] Mencken, “The Critic’s Motive,” p. 5.

[36] Ibid., p. 9.

[37] Margolis, The Language of Art and Art Criticism, pp. 72-76.






10 responses to “Interpretation and the “Investigative” Concept of Criticism”

  1. Animal Symbolicum

    Holy shit. This addresses exactly those concerns I had about Danto’s Idea #4 in your previous post. Thank you!

  2. I have the strange feeling that Danto etc. are having a discussion that has become meaningless since, let’s say, Duchamp. Duchamp proved once and for all that an object is art when the “art system” – curators of expositions, galleries, artists, art historians, art magazines, art critics etc., but also the public – accepts that it’s art.

    There’s way too much focus on the object and its relation with the art critic. This ignores the fact that the art critic is not an independent actor, but part of a dynamic system in which he tries to find his (or her) place. It also ignores the fact that art itself is part of an art system. Art is a sociological phenomenon, and I’m not sure analytical philosophers are good sociologists.

  3. Danto’s entire work in this area is inspired by Duchamp, so I don’t see how it can have become meaningless since Duchamp. It’s where he gets his “twins cases” from and these provide the foundation for all of his arguments.

    As for your other point, what you are describing is the Institutional Theory of art, which, for a number of reasons that I can go into if you like, is the *least* plausible theory of art that has been offered.

  4. I understand Danto is inspired by Duchamp – it’s hard to ignore Duchamp – but I doubt his conclusions are correct.

    I agree that a purely sociological interpretation of art has its limitations, but I also think sociological analyses can’t be ignored when discussing much of what is commonly called “modern art”. What would modern art be without galleries, curators, art magazines, without the mythical place New York and Paris have in the imagination etc.?

  5. Dan

    Your concerns here are basically with what philosophers have claimed. You say you used to accept Danto’s view but were persuaded that it was mistaken. You note other philosopher’s views which you also think are mistaken. And you suggest the outlines of a positive (non-philosophical?) alternative view of art and criticism: “The idea, then, is that our critical engagements with works of art bring into existence extended, collaborative works, of which the initial artwork is only a first move; something for subsequent artists, audiences, and critics to “riff” off of…”

    This, of course, leaves open the question of what counts as ‘art’ and who gets to say so. Does this matter?

    Obviously, the word ‘art’ and its cognates are used in different ways. But basically it is a term which conveniently (or inconveniently) groups together and implicitly assigns a “special” status to a wide range of disparate activities/objects, contemporary and historical (that is, the term generally has a positive connotation). For me the most interesting questions relate to how we judge or value specific kinds of activity (call them “artistic” if you like) and respond to the specific products of these activities.

  6. davidlduffy

    Through the magic of Google Scholar, I can find an interesting citation of this paper by Nannicelli (2017), who is discussing moral criticism of art. His argument, obviously, is that we have to have some kind of reasonable interpretation of an art work to say if the artist was morally blameworthy or praiseworthy in the production of the work. Now, deep interpretations may lead to moral blame eg feminist or Marxian critiques, but the average man on the street will only agree to sanction a piece if there is evidence of a naughty shallow interpretation. Nannicelli suggests this only has to be reasonably plausible (“hypothetical intentionalism”) – it will be an artistic failing of the artist if an obnoxious interpretation is easy, even if not intended. Failed satire is one example of the latter. The kerfuffle around the Australian photographer Bill Henson might be another.

  7. I think when it is done well the movement outlined in your conclusion carries us forward in ways that can be positive, “that the artist simply begins the process of art-making; a process which then is taken up by others, who produce their own improvisations off of what the artist has done, much in the way that one player in a band might riff off of a line laid by another player. The idea, then, is that our critical engagements with works of art bring into existence extended, collaborative works, of which the initial artwork is only a first move; something for subsequent artists, audiences, and critics to “riff” off of; an organic, improvisational structure that has the potential to span whole peoples and civilizations, over the course of generations.” All this is very fine, and worth getting behind when it isn’t a violation of what it is riffing off of. But interpretation doesn’t itself seem foreign to what you are saying. That is, it can be an organic ‘riff’ on the art in question, especially when it is being offered as ‘literary’ in its own right.

    The question of why interpretation, or “riffing”, can take away from, or violate the thing it interprets, rather than add to or extend it positively, has been an issue we see addressed in cross-cultural and other sorts of cases of appropriation. It is an issue because people feel an ownership of certain practices that goes beyond contingent happenstance as something more fundamental to their identity. Our entitlement to that ownership is its own question. But if we are willing to concede that in some sense people belong to a culture and that that culture belongs to them in any meaningful way, how to untangle what others have a right to ‘interpret’ and so make their own, or how they can do this without offense, are difficult things to untangle. I, personally, don’t have a good answer. Each case seems different enough that I can’t suggest an answer that solves it in specific cases much less across the board…..

    I keep bringing up Procrustes, but this is entirely what that ancient Greek myth sought to illuminate. And when you say the following you are giving a textbook example of Procrustean machinations: “Throughout “Against Interpretation,” Sontag describes the view we have been discussing here as a form of wish-fulfilment: the interpreter seeks to turn the work of art into something other than it is, for the purpose of satisfying the interpreter’s interests, rather than for any reason having to do with the artwork itself or the role that it plays in the lives of audiences. “It is,” she says, “to turn the world into this world…,” for the purpose, primarily, of rendering it familiar, “manageable, comfortable.” Sontag traces this inclination back to late antiquity; to a time in which “the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the ‘realistic’ view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment” and in which ancient texts could no longer be taken on their face value, but were simultaneously thought as being “too precious to repudiate.” To interpret them, then, then, was to preserve them, albeit in an altered form, so as to be acceptable to “modern” demands.”

    Interpretation may be necessary from the outside, as an outsider’s only insight into the interior of things, but it never penetrates very far, because it doesn’t specifically *belong*. It is only from the inside that things belong, so any act of interpreting always happens at a distance. It is the manifestation of not-belonging. It is alien. And it makes independent realities known in these alien terms. From the outside the best we can sometimes do is to disfigure things enough that they fit our Procrustean beds…..

    But these days we are somewhat cosmopolitan in feeling we don’t not belong in places that would otherwise seem foreign to our experience. So things get complicated quickly. Who said life in the modern world would be easy? Or coherent? Instead of inhabiting a culture in whole cloth we drape ourselves piecemeal from this source and from that. ‘Belonging’ doesn’t mean what it once meant. It is far more common that we riff on each other, and often that this is accepted in the fast pace it is delivered rather than the slow creep of culture-wide adjustment to new realities.

    All of which is to say that the issue is confusing. Danto wants the world to stay simple and manageable, so he is doomed before he even sets out his thesis. He is definitely leading with his biases, making space for the critic only in an analytically justified sort of way. The critic, in his mind, obviously occupies some form of righteous commentator that fails to see the Procrustean dilemma for the potential abomination it is. To keep the critic in business every artist will get strapped down and sawed off or stretched out accordingly. And Danto’s ‘true/false’ obsessed critic will only do this at a conceptual distance from the more positive cosmopolitan style free-sharing that your conclusion aims at. Danto is rightly skewered….

  8. I am generally inclined *not* to engage in moral criticism of artworks.

  9. Charles Justice

    Here is an example of what you might be talking about. Someone writes the story of Adam and Eve, it gets picked up by the compiler and editor of the Hebrew Bible . It becomes an important theme in Christianity via Augustine, then an important theme of medieval and renaissance painting, then in poetry – Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, then in philosophy: Bailey, Voltaire, and in Christianity: Luther and Calvin, then in science: Darwin, Huxley. There was something about the idea of the first humans as a couple that seems to resonate over the ages. Some of those interpretations seem, in retrospect to be both false and destructive – eg. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and Calvin’s of our essential depravity. Others, such as Durer’s painting and Milton’s poem seem to be more beautiful and transcendent. Interpretation is universal and universally pervasive, but some subjects and some works of art seem to point to something deeper and broader and some don’t, eg. Trump’s gilded interior decorations. Possibly the really great works of art point to something greater – more inexhaustible in the sense of generating meaning, and more universal, in the sense of being significant in many ways for more people. A nice piece of graffiti may have a lot of significance for the people of a certain neighbourhood but mean nothing to anyone outside that neighbourhood. A great piece of art, like Bach’s B Minor Mass can have a profound religious meaning, even to atheists. There is a profound difference between great music and the music of super-mario video games, and a Rembrandt versus a paint-by-numbers. There is some basic reason for this difference. What is it? Is it simply that one kind is created by high status artists and the other by low status artists? Or is there something significant and universal about great art that enriches our experience? I vote for the latter.

  10. davidlduffy

    The non-representative painters are usually said to be aspiring to the condition of music ie in the terminology of Jakobson, the aesthetic function can be autonomous from the referential function, and that the aesthetic is “intrinsically, inalienably” ambiguous with respect to any associated semantic content. But, when musicians are presented with, say, Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, where the pieces are named after paintings – eg Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle or the Promenade between each piece – then interpretation of the music as the composer intended seems unavoidable for the performer’s interpretation:

    …The composer draws attention to the two notes (E-natural and A-natural) that form augmented seconds in his original version of a B-flat double harmonic scale. These two notes constantly appear on the beat and create harsh dissonances in the depiction of Samuel Goldenberg. The unpleasant impression that Samuel Goldenberg produces on listeners is aggravated by the constant alternation of the natural IVth step of the scale with the augmented IVth , as well as the alternation of the VIIth natural step with the VII harmonic one. This alternation reveals Samuel Goldenberg’s manipulative personality and discloses his will to win the argument at any cost…

    I don’t know anything much about the technical details here, but that is the point often made about music – either you have studied, or you will rely on a critical apparatus to point things out to you,