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Where to begin with interpreting art - Theo Carnegy Tan

Written by Megan St Clair Morgan
Published date 14 March 2019

When it comes to interpreting art it can be hard to know where to start – with insight from industry expert and tutor at UAL Short Courses, Theo Carnegy Tan (who leads our Interpreting Art short course at Central Saint Martins) we’ve pieced together his best advice on the questions to ask yourself when interpreting art. Showing in practice how we can use these fundamental questions when considering how to interpret art from the likes of Picasso and Sylvie Fleury.

So where to start with interpreting art?

It can feel quite intimidating as a subject as there are multiple approaches, options and kinds of art to explore. We’ve broken this down into a snapshot of how to approach a piece of art with Theo’s underlying principles and questions – showing you, how to get started in interpreting art yourselves! Theo’s curated selection of practical approaches will help you when it comes to approaching art, especially when you’re looking toward art which is difficult or challenging in some way like abstract art.

What are the common difficulties that you may encounter when you start interpreting art?

an abstract artwork by Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell 1952 Untitled ©Joan Mitchell, Untitled

'it's too abstract’

Art moved towards abstraction at the start of the 20th century – for those not familiar with abstraction, it simply means abandoning any representational or figurative aspects altogether. It can be difficult for many of us, especially those who are new to art – because there's nothing visible or known, that we can latch onto for art interpretation.

There’s nothing in the abstract art which we can relate to the physical world – we are used to recognizing people or a sense of narrative and objects. We might be looking at a piece of abstract art, and trying to think, ‘what's actually going on there’.

An abstract artwork by Sol Lewitt
Sol Lewitt Cubic Modual Wall Structure black 1966 ©Sol LeWitt, Modular Structure

‘I can't relate to it’

Often we have an expectation with art, that it should relate to us on some emotional level – this applies to abstraction also, as abstract artworks are less likely to include narrative, figuration or scenes so, they're less likely in some cases to be emotionally stimulating.

Many people feel this is can also become a challenge, as art becomes something of a cryptic exercise, an exercise in decoding rather than something that you enjoy. But Theo notes “I would like to argue that that process of art interpretation has to be – we come to enjoy the experience”. With works like Sol LeWitt’s Modular Structure, where you could almost see it as a piece of furniture for sale in IKEA – we can find it hard to relate to certain kinds of art. We might simply say that, it's just weird.

a lobster telephone artwork by Salvador Dail

‘It's too weird’

On the topic of weird – we sometimes just don't really understand what's going on. We don't know ‘what the point is’. Many students from the Art Interpretation Short Course ask Theo ‘Why was this made?’ one of the things we find is that, we feel like art seems to want to confuse us by avoiding sense altogether leaving us feeling a little perplexed… Theo’s top tip: “We have to accept if we're going to improve our art interpretation approaches – that art, isn't always there to accommodate us.”

Art can be quite confrontational, that can be directly, or it can be through the way that it avoids sense. When we look toward the work of Salvador Dali, that belongs to the movement of surrealism, which as a movement deliberately, avoids straightforward, logical sense. We must develop a tolerance for ambiguity when it comes to interpreting art and wanting to be able to know how to interpret art across the spectrum. Weirdness is something we will come across in our many encounters with art, but something we must deal with.

What questions should I ask when interpreting art?

Theo’s broken down his techniques into six key practical questions – which will be helpful in a number of situations especially if you're confronted with artwork you find challenging or were having difficulty interpreting.

How is this artwork similar or different to others I have seen?

Keeping it simple – the use of comparison, it’s key to build mental reference points to other works of art, so that when you begin interpreting a piece of art you can compare and contrast to other artworks you know. In putting an artwork into a network of other artworks, comparison can be really useful tool for building an art interpretation.

Does this artwork try to make a comment on a certain subject?

In answering this question we’re trying to determine what is the angle of the artwork, and what comment is it making? This question might not be relevant for certain artworks, abstract art for example. Though we may also augment that comment to be something else, does this artwork have a certain angle? Does it have a certain, mood to it?  When we think about this question broadly, it can be used for abstract art too.

What about the way the artwork is made creates that comment?

Theo suggests you tackle this question alongside the previous one – as it allows you to begin to make interpretations by analyzing certain formal aspects of the art work. ‘Formal aspects’, literally is what's in the work – What is it about the work itself which gives a sense of feeling (be that anger or frustration for example)? Look toward the colors that have been used, the composition, the way in which the paint has been applied to the canvas. By finding a formal quality, it helps us to justify or to give evidence to this comment, angle or mood that we see.

What can this artwork tell me about the society of its age?

This is an important factor – this can be applied to pretty much every single artwork that you will encounter, this is the contextual approach. It doesn't ask you to think about the artwork as it is but requires you to connect the artwork to external practice and contexts. When looking at an abstract artwork, it can often leave you struggling to understand the work itself – it can help to think what kind of society would have produced this abstract work?

Do ideas about art at this time explain the way this painting looks?

It’s important to put into context the historical conditions which play a part in the production of an artwork. This question will give you an idea of what's going on in regards to art at a certain time in history and should offer an insight into the creatives choices made. This again, requires you to think about accepted ideals of art, because if we can establish what a certain tradition was in historical contexts, it may give us insight into whether it was or was not, an accepted art practice in its time…

Does this artwork attempt to break with established ideas of its time?

Every era comes with strong ideals and movements within art, if we look back to the 17th or 18th century, we think about traditional classical painting say. Even if we don't know much about that time in history, upon some research you can find out quite quickly if the artwork you’re interpreting looks like it is the product of the dominant ideas about art at the time it was produced…

Examples of artwork where you can put these questions to the test

Using three differing artworks Theo walks us through in practice how using these questions can help you feel confident in your knowledge of how to interpret art from differing points in history.

an artwork by Franz Francken
Franz Francken, Collectors Cabinet, 1672

Franz Francken, Collectors Cabinet, 1672

Taking us back to the 1600’s, there’s lots to interpret in this painting – Theo notes:

“We have the presence of coins, perhaps an illusion to money, perhaps the historical coins. And we can, we have what looks like to be a collection of certain papers. They don't have stamps or metals above that. We have a globe. We're thinking, who would these kinds of possessions belong to at the time? We can imagine that it's probably someone who was wealthy or well-traveled. We can make an assumption about whether travel was common at this time, what travel was used for. If you were to go further we may think about colonial exports at this time in history, a theme of exploration, adventure and wealth, that is implied by the globe… I would also look at the art within this painting, possibly representative of certain culture – who can we imagine are the owners of these objects or people who are amassing such objects…If we're going to read historically, we can certainly use this to make assumptions about the culture and the society of the time.”

an abstract painting by Picasso
Picasso, Le Terrero, 1909

Picasso, Le Terrero, 1909

A cubist painting, with much less to identify than the previous painting – Theo notes:

“We can just about make out some text at the bottom. If you look very close, you can see the outline of a bottle and perhaps see part of an instrument, yet none of these things are complete. If we're going around a painting, looking for clues and trying to follow those clues as to what the painting is about, we're looking at the painting in the wrong way…We can assume that the way the work has been made is something which is perhaps more important to look at than the subject itself… The fact that this painting is so different, and that it rejects that kind of straightforward curation is already very important. If we ask what is this work about, what is it doing? We could say that this is a word, which is an experiment in the way that we read objects in a painting, it's an experiment in how those objects can be represented, in a way which doesn’t necessarily have to be as they appear realistically… Why would it be this way...We're thinking about how the artist interpreted them? What does that tell us about the artist's approach? Perhaps this is an artist who is trying to show us a new way of perceiving these objects. And if it is a new way, it certainly seems like quite a radical one. We could perhaps read that as a kind of statement in itself, as breaking away from the traditional…”

a gold shopping trolley artwork by Sylvie Fleury
Sylvie Fleury, Serie 75A/K (Be Late), 2000

Sylvie Fleury, Serie 75A/K (Be Late), 2000

This contemporary example, to many it’s too familiar – it’s a shopping trolley, we’ve all seen one. How can we think of this as a work of art? Why are we seeing it as work of art?

“The fact that we have this everyday object, which we're now looking at as an artwork, but moved from the everyday into the gallery is already very significant. This gives an insight into the intentions of the artist, maybe this is trying to show us how everyday objects could be presented as X, not supposed to be a radical gesture…Or for example, we might, if we were asking questions about the society that might've produced this work, alike to how in the first painting by Franz Francken, we looked at how it showed the culture and time it was from… This may be more mundane, though it is still something which tells us about the society that it comes from… In 2000, we know that we’re living in a society of mass consumption, consumer democracy, a global capital. The artist is latching on to this element of her contemporary world and bringing that into her art…It may be a work about consumer culture, or a work about consumption itself… We want to work out what the artist angle is, which acts as a way to build it up from looking at the object itself, thinking about where that object comes from, why that is presented as art and what the artist intends by presenting that object.”

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