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Open to interpretation.

This past summer when I was in Arizona, I visited a petroglyph site near Sedona. At the site, a tree-sheltered rock face was covered with carved symbols such as spirals, birds, animals, and humanlike figures. The Ranger on duty told us about possible meanings of the petroglyphs and I noticed how careful he was to state that their exact meanings and purpose could not be known. He presented different interpretations of specific images and explained how he drew his opinions from his readings and discussions with others deeply interested in such sites. I thought his discourse was both thoughtful and respectful, everything we could ask for in any interpretation of art.

I was reminded of this the next day, at a workshop at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, when I was a co-presenter. Our intention was to form mentor/protege teams of art education students, introduce them to working in and with the art museum, and provide them with strategies for responding to and interpreting works of art. Many of them were at first uncertain about their abilities to "read" artworks, but they quickly came to realize that they could learn much by looking closely at a work of art and responding to it, thoughtfully and respectfully, on a personal level.

We asked students to find a work of art in the museum based on one of the following randomly assigned questions and write a response:

* Find a work of art that speaks to you on an intellectual level. What is it saying?

* Find a work of art that speaks to you on an emotional level. What is it saying?

* Find a work of art that reminds you of an event from your childhood. What about this artwork connects you to that event?

* Find a work of art that provokes you to think about an event or circumstance in a new way. How has your thinking changed?

Students shared their responses and listened respectfully to those of their classmates. It was especially remarkable to hear different interpretations of the same artworks.

Author Terry Barrett, in his book, Talking about Student Art, posits that interpretation is the critical activity of deciphering what an artwork might be about. He states that interpretation necessarily includes descriptions of the work of art; however, descriptions should lead to interpretation, and interpretive questions should be backed by descriptive evidence. In the simplest terms, the viewer can be guided by three questions: What do I see? What is the artwork about? How do I know?

May you and your students be open to interpretation.


Barrett, Terry. Talking about Student Art. Davis Publications, Inc., 1997.

Questions to Consider about Artistic Intention and Interpretation:

* Can we know an artist's intent? Ever? Always? Do some artists work intuitively, drawing on the subconscious, and even intentionally block specific intent?

* Is the artist's intent, when available, always relevant to the meaning of the artwork?

* Can an artist mean to express one thing, but then express more than that, or something different from that?

* Should an artist's stated intent be the final arbiter when determining the accuracy of an interpretation?

* As a teacher, what are your beliefs about artistic intent? Are you consistent or contradictory when you teach about artistic intention, art-making, and art interpretation?

Nancy Walkup, Editor
COPYRIGHT 2007 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Editor's Comments; expressing an art
Author:Walkup, Nancy
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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