The end of the year is a time to reflect.
As I look back over the year, the things I’ve read and the discussions I’ve had, it’s given me pause to think about my own biases, assumptions and weaknesses. How do these shape my work and my approach to interpretation?
First, some context: my academic background is in the sciences. My subject choices at school became increasingly sciencey as the years progressed. Of course, to choose science was also to reject other options. In my case I think it’s just as telling to consider the path not chosen as the one that was. Was I drawn to the sciences or repelled by the arts? Perhaps a bit of both.
I dropped art fairly early on in high school – mainly because I lacked any real creative skill or talent in the visual sense. I was, however, fairly skilled at writing and this was my creative outlet. For as long as English lessons focused on the mechanics of grammar or the creativity of free writing, I enjoyed it and did well. But that all stopped when English ceased being about creation and started being about criticism. Frankly, it got all opaque and impenetrable to me. We were now supposed to deconstruct the intent of another author, find metaphors in poetry and hidden meanings in literary text. I just didn’t get it! If an author wanted to say something, why didn’t they just say it? I struggled writing essays with minimum word counts when I felt I had said all that I could meaningfully say in half that.
By contrast, school science was an oasis of sense and logic – there were rules; you learned them; you applied them. As you grasped the rules you started to see the patterns in them. Chemistry in particular made perfect intuitive sense to me. Inevitably, I was drawn to the certainty of the sciences rather than take my chances on the humanities, where so much of your grade seemed to be down to teacher judgement or sheer luck.
While age and maturity mean I now have a renewed appreciation for the arts and humanities, I’m still stumped by things like poetry. Every now and again I duck into literature, but I worry that there is some grand metaphor that I’m completely oblivious to, and that I’m really only seeing the tip of the iceberg. In short, sometimes the arts can make me feel pretty darn stupid.
So what does that mean for my approach to interpretation?
I think it means I’m particularly wary of anything that does not make its intent explicit – anything that expects me to “make my own meaning” with minimal support. Make my own meaning with what? How? How do I know that I haven’t got completely the wrong end of the stick? While I might critique it once I know it, I still want to know what the ‘official’ answer is supposed to be.
I’m aware some people are polar opposites. They love the freedom to make their own meaning and can find interpretive tools (that I find essential) a distraction or even an intrusion. Perhaps they grasp something intuitively in the art or literature in the same way I did in chemical equations. Perhaps they have confidence in their own interpretations in a way that I don’t. Perhaps their brains are just wired differently. I don’t know. I do know when I meet such people though, as they tend to find interpretation “shouty”, overbearing, or dumbing down. I’ll call such people “meaning makers”, to distinguish from people like me who are probably more “meaning readers”.
Being a meaning reader must influence my approach to interpretation. To my mind I’m putting clarity before confusion. But is that how a meaning maker would see it?
In any case, how can we accommodate both in the same experiences? How do we not shout at the meaning makers, while still providing enough context to ensure the meaning readers don’t end up feeling like they’ve missed the point?
Are you a meaning maker or a meaning reader? What does it mean for your approach to interpretation and exhibitions?
NB: This article first appeared on the Interactivate blog http://reganforrest.com on December 27, 2012.