Editor's Letter: Interpretation

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Apr 1, 2019

Do you find that your students are open to interpretation? Are they 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, is generally positive and focuses on interpretation.

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

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 likes or dislikes.

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

Terry Barrett, renowned author, artist, art educator, and professor emeritus from Ohio State University, bases 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.” His Principles of Interpretation, included in the sidebar to the right, offer many concepts to inspire meaningful discussions with your students.

The value of including art interpretation in your curriculum is also supported by 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 experiences for your students. By engaging in the process of art criticism, your students can become open to interpretation.

Many thanks for contributing to this issue 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, and a contributing editor for SchoolArts.  

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