Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Which Interpretation? Aesthetic Evaluation in the Gallery-museum


What follows is a guest post by Jennifer A. McMahon.

Have you ever found yourself patiently listening to a range of interpretations of an artwork, wondering whether there was some objective way to negotiate the plethora of sometimes idiosyncratic and whimsical responses? Regarding this question, it is interesting to compare the typical objective of a community-based-book-club to the way gallery visitors talk about the art they see. A reader seeks to make sense of a novel in terms relative to their own life experiences. If a reader finds by referencing expert authority that their experience is far removed from what the author had in mind, the value they place on the work might be diminished rather than prompt them to any new experience of it (unless they were reading it as part of a course on which they were to be assessed). With visual art, the situation until recently was quite different. The gallery visitor might ask what a work meant and establish this by reading art historians and art critics. But recently, the gallery has become an analogue of the local book club. The gallery program officers seek to provide experiences for their visitors and by definition this means, finding the means whereby the visitor can make sense of a work relative to their own life experiences. Today it can seem downright fascistic to ask for the view of an expert!

I have spent some time interviewing artists about the meaning of their work (Olafur Eliasson, pp. 155-175other artists, pp. 404-422; and in my 2013 book). All of the artists I interviewed were successful on the global scene, representing their respective countries at prestigious international fairs and collected by important mainstream galleries and museums around the world. In answer to a question about the meaning of their work, they answered that they were happy for people to interpret their work as they liked. Yet in answer to a question about examples of people getting them wrong, all had an example. So interpretations that were deemed apt could be quite broad but nonetheless there was a ball park, outside of which interpretations were wrong. This was reassuring as unless there is a way to get something wrong, arguably there is no way to get it right either. If there is no basis by which to judge a response more apt than another, a work would be a meaningless set of marks or mounds, and as such, arbitrary and pointless; a bit like the cracks on a crumbling wall – sometimes a springboard to reverie but not something to actually ascribe meaning to.

You could simply ask the author or artist what they meant by their work. Now while this can be relevant, if their stated intentions were at odds with what you could see in the work, you would feel inclined to ignore what they said. An example from film appreciation might bring the point home. Imagine a film maker who defends the inclusion of a detailed rape scene on the grounds that it is empowering for women when the viewer can see that the plot of the film would have been served as well by referring to the rape rather than depicting it. In this case, we would probably ignore the film maker’s stated intention and trust our own judgment based on our experience of the work itself.

But experiences of art can vary between people. What kind of background experiences a person has had will influence what they see in the work, and whether they think the artist’s stated intention is sincere and evident in the work. So for example, when a woman raised in a misogynist community watches a rape scene, there may even be a pleasure in having preconceived notions about a women’s status reinforced, even when those preconceptions actually work against her interests. Recalibrating our mindset to attitudes that can withstand scrutiny, requires engaging with a range of perspectives and cultural experiences; not only being shaped by enculturation (by our own communities) but acculturation (being able to see the merit in the values and perceptions of other cultures). The processes by which what we consider right or apt is continually evolving are demonstrated in the essays in a collection I recently edited.

In the collection I edited for Routledge in 2018, Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment: Pleasure, Reflection, and Accountability, the essays discuss examples of fashion, visual art, literature, poetry, film, dance, and other more ceremonial cultural artifacts. The way we respond to these objects can be seen to be shaped by our community’s attitudes to them. Each chapter argues for either the way this process takes hold, or the theory implied by such processes. The difference between pluralism and relativism is an underlying theme; as is the way subjectivism, by the cultural constraints which shape it, represents an objective basis to such engagement when cultural constraints themselves evolve within the space of reasons. And this requires the kind of giving and asking for reasons that is prompted by challenges to “common sense”.

While cultures which allow this kind of exchange are forever in a state of transformation, the chapters explain how aesthetic pursuits engage head on with these very processes. We are shaped by, not the artworks in isolation, but the artworks in a context of meaning and significance ascribed by the community from which we absorb our worldview and the terms with which we think and communicate. The authors who either demonstrate this, or provide the theoretical basis for it, are Mohan Matthen, Cynthia Freeland, Bence Nanay, Jennifer A. McMahon, Keith Lehrer, Garrett Cullity, Paul Guyer, Nancy Sherman, Ivan Gaskell, Elizabeth Burns-Coleman, Robert Sinnerbrink and Jane Kneller.

This view is supported by its explanatory power. To demonstrate this, we undertook a philosophical intervention in an art gallery-museum. Consider that currently staff at art galleries and museums are directed by their Boards to actively seek ways to increase the visitor base. In many cases, art galleries no longer rely on targeting those people with some interest and knowledge of art history. Instead, they set up their exhibits in such a way so as not to intimidate or suggest any particular background knowledge or experience is required. Increasingly gallery-museums make use of online tools to entertain and create memorable “experiences”. Hash-tagging to the relevant gallery/museum can be encouraged for example and used by galleries to match people to upcoming shows based on the images they have taken from previous visits to the gallery/museum that they have posted to their own social media sites. Exhibition policy is to create experiences which engage us personally; rather than exhibit a work in such a way as to most accurately present the historical context and relevant intentions (if known or plausibly inferred) of the artist. For example, the theme might be life and death, which jumbles together contemporary work with art from various historical periods, inviting the viewer to privilege their own impressions over and above anything presented by art historians or art critics. Visitors to such exhibitions might make an online collage of details of works that they like, oblivious to the original point of each work.

However, it might be objected that such gallery-museum policies neglect a crucial aspect of human psychology. The difference between a work which is meaningful and a work which has little impact on us, is that the former rewards our incorrigible meaning-making impulse. This impulse entails finding a basis upon which to judge one interpretation more apt than another. The way we engage with artworks when we engage with them as artworks nicely demonstrates the way our subjective responses are shaped by the communities from which we draw our terms of reference; and this entails the particular mode of critical engagement that is employed.

A research project I lead brought together a group of philosophers at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney Australia to demonstrate the relation between responses to art and the community from which the relevant terms of reference were acquired. Each philosopher was asked to select a work from the collection and respond to it from their own philosophical perspective. The various commentaries demonstrate the way that the particular communities of philosophers within which each philosopher has developed their particular philosophical expertise has shaped their subjective response to the work under discussion. The results are published in a special issue edition of Curator: the Museum Journal 62/1 (January 2019). The issue is called a Philosophical Intervention. The point is that while each person might consider their own response subjective, the way their conceptual repertoire has developed is beholden to the particular philosophical communities with their particular topics, themes and history of authors with whom they engage. But in addition, they reveal the critical mode of engagement that their philosophical communities employ; whether they focus on analyzing the mechanics of perception, explaining historical conceptions of art, revealing the value of contemporary art, or expressing skepticism regarding objectivity, and so on. As such, you can see the community at work in the individual philosopher’s response. You can also see how the philosopher grounds her response in the space of reasons, even when those reasons are communicated through metaphor, analogy and prior example.


Cover of “Philosophical Intervention”, Special Issue of Curator: The Museum Journal.

My introductory essay in the Curator focuses upon the difference between a work which prompts reflection and one which shapes attitude with various strategies of persuasion without argument, which might have been called “rhetoric” in the old money. When is art “rhetoric”, and when is it “poetry”, we might ask? When does it simply flatter unexamined attitudes, or the group think, with wish fulfillment etc., or persuade through imagery without critical reflection, as opposed to engaging reflection which leads to insight? Arguably, if the audience is made to feel that the very proof of the position promoted is in the art itself, then we are allowing ourselves to be swayed by rhetoric. Some artists inadvertently promote this view when they claim that their art is performative: that is, the art by itself brings about a changed perspective in the audience like the way a marriage celebrant changes the married status of two people just by pronouncement under the right conditions. The problem with attributing this power to art is that it amounts to taking on unexamined and undefended attitudes, ones which might under more reflective and less emotive conditions have been judged unwise.

On the other hand, art can prompt us to reflect. And in order to contribute to our conceptual stock, our experience of art might require a jolt out of our comfort zones. The way we are engaged with art for it to be engaged with as poetry, often involves challenges or difficult material. For the Curator issue, the commentators were all asked to respond as philosophers; and their responses all demonstrate that what they engaged with was art as poetry in this sense, not rhetoric.


Speakers and audience assemble for the Philosophical Intervention Symposium at the AGNSW on July 15, 2017 in front of Ai Weiwei, Forever 2003 (© Ai Weiwei). Photo: © (More color figures can be viewed here.)

The commentators were Paul Guyer, Cynthia Freeland, David Macarthur, Robert Sinnerbrink, Michael Newall and Mohan Matthen. Included in this Curator special issue titled “Philosophical Intervention” is a theoretical article on the philosophy of art criticism by Joseph Kassman-Tod. He demonstrates that there is no answer marked in stone somewhere that is waiting to be unearthed where interpretations of art are concerned. If norms and conventions found an ultimate resting place, then so would culture generally: it would stop evolving. At the same time, interpretations are not free floating; they are object centered not mere day-dreaming. Kassman-Tod nicely interweaves the various pushes and pulls on interpretation, showing that the objective basis of interpretation is within the constraints of communicative practice itself.

The research published in Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment: Pleasure, Reflection, and Accountability, and the issue on a Philosophical Intervention in Curator: The Museum Journal, provides the theoretical basis for treating the space of reasons, and the various modes in which they can be exchanged, as the basis for objectivity in aesthetic matters. In addition, the issue of Curator actually demonstrates a sociology of practical reason: the role of the community, in this case the particular philosophical community of each philosopher, in shaping the terms with which we think and communicate, and the methods deemed most apt to enhance the communicability of our reasoning, particularly when the reasons are practical ones.

Notes on the Contributor
Jennifer A. McMahon is Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of AdelaideShe has published four edited collections, two books, numerous chapters in anthologies as well as reference articles, and journal articles on beauty, the sublime, imagination and Kant’s aesthetics. She is interested in the role of imagination and its products in how we live.

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