Interpreting Art

Only Connect…Art and The Spectator

Extract:

“…Last summer I was waiting at a graduation ceremony, minding my own business when a colleague in comparative literature sitting next to me decided to enliven the event by going onto the attack. When, she asked, are art historians going to start interpreting?  My first thought was that this was like being asked when I had stopped beating my wife, so I replied rather weakly that I did not know art historians had ever given it up — interpreting, that is.  It was hot, we were both tired, and a brighter reply; the esprit de l’escalier, came to me later:  Show me an art historian, I should have said, who has not interpreted, and I will know how to answer your question, for then I will know which discourse we are in, or which trip we are on.  I recall this story, not, or not only, to tease my friend, but principally to illustrate a problem I discern in contemporary polemics.  It seems to me that art historians need all the criticism we can get, and that we deserve much of what we do get, and indeed more, but that much of what passes now for criticism, or poses as disciplinary self-criticism, is nothing of the kind.  It is intellectual parochialism, and frequently self-serving.  Groups will now decide what shall count — as interpretation, for example, as narrowness, or as innovation — and will decide what, to their satisfaction, is now discredited, old hat, or just boring.  Nobody seems to be saying that these statements require demonstration, and too few remember that this, too, shall pass…”

“…Every interpretation is an hypothesis, and this is salutary to be reminded of the irony with which Tristram Shandy defines the device: “It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you see, hear, read, or understand. This is of great use… “‘.

 “…And sometimes, again, I feel that the pejorative [which means a disparaging word] is summoned to dispose of a tiresome restraint, indeed a discipline, which might spoil the fun of interpreting — a worry which, empirically, I have found unnecessary…”

Extract taken from ‘Introduction’, Only Connect…Art and The Spectator in The Italian Renaissance, by John Shearman, published by Princeton University Press, copyright 1992. 
REFERENCE:
Shearman, J., (1992), ‘A Shared Space’, Only Connect…Art and The Spectator in The Italian Renaissance, published by Princeton University Press, Chapter 2, p.60.
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