SchoolArts Room

Open to Interpretation

By Nancy Walkup , posted on Mar 8, 2019

Do you find that your students are open to interpretation? Open to being art critics about their own and other works of art? When initially introduced to art criticism, some may associate negative connotations with the word “criticism.” Art criticism, in practice, though, generally is positive and focuses on interpretation. In the simplest of terms, to interpret a work of art is to explain the meaning of it. Meaningful interpretations require defensible, supportive reasons for the judgment, far beyond simple likes or dislikes.


Careful thought must be given to interpreting cultural images. These pictured here were painted on the side of a trading post in Albuquerque.

Interpretation of the meaning of individual works of art is of foremost concern in contemporary art criticism. InPractical Art Criticism, published in 1993, art educator Edmund Feldman developed a sequential approach to art criticism based on description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment or evaluation that is still used today.

Renowned author, artist, art educator, and Professor Emeritus from The Ohio State University Terry Barrettbases his approach to art criticism on the four activities of describing, interpreting, judging, and theorizing about art. Barrett suggests that, though all four overlap, “Interpretation is the most important activity of criticism, and probably the most complex.” 

Barrett’s most recent book, CRITS: A Student Manual, is a practical guide to help art and design students benefit from studio critiques. Though CRITS is intended primarily for art and design students, his Principles of Interpretation included below offer many concepts to inspire meaningful discussions with your students. Barrett’s Talking about Student Art, published by SchoolArts’ parent company, Davis Publications, is another invaluable resource for focusing on interpretation.

The value of including art interpretation in your curriculum is also supported in the National Visual Art Standards in the Artistic Processes of Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning; and Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work. The anchor standards, enduring understandings, and essential questions available for these processes can help you plan meaningful art criticism experiences for your students. By engaging in the process of art criticism, your students can become open to interpretation.

Many thanks for contributing to SchoolArts Magazine this month go to co-editor Frank Juarez. Frank, who wears many hats (art teacher, artist, photographer, gallery owner) is the head of the art department at Sheboygan North High School in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Terry Barrett’s Principles of Interpretation

  • Artworks are always about something.
  • SUBJECT MATTER + MEDIUM + FORM + CONTEXTS = MEANINGS
  • To interpret a work of art is to understand it in language.
  • Feelings are guides to interpretation.
  •  The critical activities of describing, analyzing, interpreting, judging, and theorizing about works of art are interrelated and interdependent.
  • Artworks attract multiple interpretations and it is not the goal of interpretation to arrive at single, grand, unified, composite interpretations.
  • Some interpretations are better than others.
  • There is a range of interpretations any artwork will allow.
  • Meanings of artworks are not limited to what their artists meant them to be about. Interpretations are not so much right, but are more or less reasonable, convincing, informative, and enlightening.
  • Good interpretations of art tell more about the artwork than they tell about the interpreter. The objects of interpretations are artworks, not artists.
  • All works of art are in part about the world in which they emerged.
  • All works of art are in part about other art.
  • Good interpretations have coherence, correspondence, and completeness.
  • Interpreting art is an endeavor that is both individual and communal.
  • The admissibility of an interpretation is determined by a community of interpreters and the community is self-correcting.
  • Good interpretations invite us to see for ourselves and continue on our own.

Terry Barrett, CRITS: A Student Manual, (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 105-106.