INTERPRETATION AND MEANING

The interpretation of paintings is problematic. One spectator sees the painting as one thing another will see it as something else. How can we be certain that we have correctly grasped the content of the painting?

In Painting as an Art, Wollheim, interprets pictures primarily on the basis of his experience of them: on the basis of what he see, feels, and thinks. The experience, he argues, should give an appropriate insight into the fulfilled aims and intentions of the artist. But he acknowledges that, even if he has the right sensitivity and information his interpretations are open to revision.

I see two parts to Wollheim's account of meaning. The first I identify with 'understanding' the picture in the sense that grasping the meaning of a painting is to come to understand the fulfilled intentions of the artist. This seems to be the 'given' and is not open to interpretation. In, what I consider, the second part of the book Wollheim interprets paintings in terms of psychoanalytic concepts developed by Freud and Klein. This I see as the second and broader sense of interpretation.

Interpretation

I begin with interpretation. Wollheim suggests that:

For anyone who accepts the leading ideas of Freudian theory will agree that there must in principle be a way of eliciting the latent content of the Leonardo works: the two open questions being whether the evidence permits this to be done in practice and, if so, whether Freud succeeded in doing it. (Wollheim 1973 p. 2134)

Wollheim accepts that normally we do not have much information about the artist's intention, but we do not need such information. A direct study of the painting allows interpretation. he interprets Poussin's paintings, that were influenced by Stoic philosophy, in terms of Freudian and Kleinian psychoanalysis. Although Wollheim does not ask us to follow him in this enterprise (p. 230) he does claim that Poussin would have described his paintings in the same way if he had access to Wollheim's language. Again we encounter the contested claim that the universality of what it is to be a human being crosses the boundaries of language and culture. Nevertheless the Kleinian interpretation uncovers fresh observations. It would seem that the theoretical framework in terms of which paintings are interpreted need not be quite true, in order to produce fresh insights into those paintings.

What Wollheim understand by interpretation is quite different from Bryson. For Bryson, as we have seen, perception is interpretation. The viewer is an interpreter and, since interpretation changes as the world changes, we cannot lay claim to final or absolute knowledge of paintings. But I believe that this notion of perception as interpretation cannot be accepted without argument. Wittgenstein tells us that we must be careful not to confuse interpretation with meaning, in interpreting some thing we replace its meaning for another: "Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning." (Wittgenstein 1953 p. 80e). Bryson goes on to argue against the neutral object being a 'given' in perception, but his denial of direct acquaintance with this 'given' is also senseless: how can he propose an interpretation with nothing to interpret? Some thing must be present in the experience although it is impossible to view it independently. The experience, following Kant, must therefore be a synthesis, part given and part made.

Carrier argues that Wollheim's claim to translate Poussin's paintings influenced by Stoic philosophy into Kleinian psychoanalysis is fraught with problems. he argues that when conceptual framework are sufficiently different, it is difficult to know what would constitute a successful translation. Translation here I take to be 'sameness of meaning'. How can we translate Freud's notion of parapraxis into Poussin's language? This shows he argues, that the idea that non-linguistic entities such as paintings could be translated into words become unlikely. They are not two comparable languages. he proposes that paintings must rather be interpreted.

Carrier highlights the problem using Wollheim's own argument:

Corresponding to each description of an action is a thought, and an action is intentional under a certain description if what guides the person's action is the corresponding thought. A thought guides an action when it both causes and forms its character (p. 18)

Wollheim, here interprets paintings using concepts that were not available to the artist. If the artist could not have had a thought including these concepts, he must disallow these interpretations.

Wollheim argues that pictorial meaning is not relative but fixed by the artist's intention, if someone interprets the painting differently then it has one meaning for the artist and another for the spectator. In such cases he would say that the spectator is seeing the painting incorrectly. he does accept that a variety of interpretations can and are imposed on a painting, but it should be acknowledged that in so doing the meaning of the painting is being remade, not understood. he also recognizes that the light of history or of cultural difference as well as our mental phenomena may well cloud our vision of the intention in the canvas. Rewriting of a work represents loss of meaning, never a potential gain in it.

Pictorial Meaning

Strictly speaking the only art in which meaning occurs is literature. The elements that constitute have meanings in a sense that does not apply to any of the other arts. For the usual argument has been to point to the fact that, if we take the most obvious contenders for being the elements of art - say, line, or dot, or colour - we cannot assign them a constant meaning. Those who have tried to work out a significance for them, like some of the Expressionist claims, have failed: for such significance as these 'elements' have, they acquire only in the context of a total composition, or perhaps (if we accept the view Gombrich (1960) advances on this point) only in the context of an artist's complete oeuvre. The word 'cat' has a meaning but a jagged line does not; it may provoke various responses but it has no conventional reference.

According to Wollheim meaning is roughly that " that which we grasp when we understand a painting: when we understand, not some fact about the painting, but the painting itself." (p. 22) the correct account of pictorial meaning, he claims, is the psychological account, on this account meaning rests upon:

the experience induced in an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator by looking at the surface of the painting as the intentions of the artist led him to mark it. (p. 22)

Central to Wollheim's notion of meaning is that in primary cases of pictorial meaning stems from sensory experience. The distinctive feature of a psychological, as opposed to a non-psychological, account of meaning is that we cannot grasp psychological concepts unless we have been exposed to the phenomenon that they conceptualise. Wittgenstein argues that meaning and intention, the basis of Wollheim' explanation of pictorial meaning, have no experience content:

Meaning is as little an experience as intending. But what distinguishes them from experience? They have no experience content. For the contents (images for instance) which accompany and illustrate them are not the meaning or intending (Wittgenstein 1953 pp. 216217)

The only mental phenomena that do have experience content, Wittgenstein writes, are what Wollheim calls concrete mental concepts. We must therefore be wary of conflating meaning with experience. Experience carries the meaning but it is not meaning itself: "The mistake is to say that there is anything that meaning consists in" (Wittgenstein 1967 p. 4e)

Bryson follows Wittgenstein in challenging the empiricist view that we derive meaning from reference to inner experience. Wittgenstein's (1953, sections 243258) pain argument begins by asking how words 'refer' to a person's inner experiences. The connection is first made in the case of a child. It is done by means of outer conditions and not by pointing to something 'inside'. Wittgenstein argues what gives the sense of the word 'my' here? he argues that "in so far as it makes sense to say that my pain is the same as his, it is also possible for us both to have the same pain." (Wittgenstein 1953 p. 91e) Language which describes inner experiences is a public, not 'private', language. he writes that: "If human beings showed no outward signs of pain..., then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word." (Ibid. p. 92e) Bryson adopts Wittgenstein's argument of how we come to acquire linguistic concepts and applies it to painting: Reference must be to the public not private world.

Wollheim agrees. As we have seen knowledge about the artist's intention is not necessary to the understanding of a painting because it is not just a private event but is publicly exhibited in the painting. The artist is exclusively concerned that the meaning of the act of painting should be visible to his eyes. If it is really visible to the eye then adequately informed, adequately, sensitive eyes must see it see it too: "Visibility, like meaning itself, cannot be private." (p. 304)

The difference between the two position can be clarified by an example:

(A) John has toothache. How do we know that this is the case? We could say that:

(i) John has a broken tooth

(ii) John pain sensing nerves are firing rapidly

(iii) John is holding his jaw

(iv) John has just said 'I am in pain'

Sentences (iii) and (iv) are what Wittgenstein (1958 p. 25) calls 'criteria'. Sentences whose truth is partially constitutive of the meaning of (A) Bryson seem to argue, as a behaviourist would do, that together give the meaning of (A). Sentences (i) and (ii) are what Wittgenstein calls 'symptoms', sentences whose truth is merely evidence for (A). Bryson's position seems to imply, that they are not constitutive of meaning in the way (iii) and (iv) are. Wollheim would explain how we come to know that John is in pain by positing a causal chain that explains why John behaves as he does by reference to (i)(iv). After all (iii) an (iv) may be false yet (A) may be true.

According to Wollheim an 'empathic' spectator would 'centrally imagine' the person enduring toothache. It is because we imagine the person enduring the pain that we feel pain. There are people who might imagine the person in pain and experience nothing. For Wollheim visual perception and imagination are intrinsically related: the spectator "feels what he does not because of what he watches but because of what he imagines: but he imagines what he does because of what he watches" (Wollheim 1973 p. 67)

Against Bryson I would argue that states of mind are private in the sense that they are mine and no one else can have them, yet this does not mean that my private beliefs are something that other people cannot come to share. It also does not make sense for Bryson to argue that others experience pain unless he has the concept of that experience: "If as a matter of logic you exclude other people's having something, it loses its sense to say that you have it." (Wittgenstein 1953 p. 120e).

The problem about sensory experience is that it is always fine in the first person but problematic when you get to the third person. First person accounts seem to explain painting in terms of the artist's intention/meaning and are generally concerned with expression. Third person accounts of pictorial meaning are concerned with the meaning of the painting itself without reference to the artist. We have seen the problems related to individual inner experience. Malcolm (1971) points out that the third person statement are also problematic:

In applying these terms [e.g. anger] to others one must learn to use behavioral criteria; in applying them to oneself one must learn not to use behavioral criteria. In one case the meaning of one's statements is connected with behavior; in the other case, not. One cannot be saying the same kind of thing in the two cases. In their application to other persons one's statements must be, essentially, about the behavior of bodies. But when applying mental terms to oneself, one cannot be referring to behavior. (Malcolm 1971 p. 88)

Bryson's view would seem to lead us to strange conclusions. If we take the meaning of a painting, or any other work of art for that matter, to be based on public agreement then the artist, in order to find out what he meant by that work, should exhibit the work and then collect responses to the work to ascertain what his paintings mean. Perhaps we should write to Bryson and tell him what his books actually mean. Echoes of the Institutional Theory of Art?

Gaut argues that Wollheim's account of meaning has two implications; that meaning should be both transparent and absolute. If to discover the meaning of a painting is to discover the intentions with which it was created, then the meaning of a painting must, in some way, be known to the artist; it must be transparent to the artist and the spectator who has to grasp the meaning. We have seen that postructuralist critics of Intentionalism have gone so far as to declare the author dead. This metaphor is usually understood in terms of the author's death signifying liberation from the absolutism of interpretative correctness that Wollheim seeks to impose. Since there is no meaning beyond the social formation, there can be no source of meaning outside language or the social. In this sense, according to poststructuralists, the author had always been dead. On the contrary, Wollheim (1985) argues, we have good reasons to believe that there are creatures that can entertain rudimentary thinking yet do not have language. Infants, he adds, must be like this, unless their lives are drastically discontinuous with what happens to them once they acquire language.

 Pictorial and Linguistic Meaning

With some qualifications [i] , Wollheim rejects the "structuralist and post-structuralist tradition" (p. 10) These separate positions he brings under the heading of "linguistically oriented theories" because language is the model for the analysis of meaning in terms of rules, codes, conventions, and intra systemic relations among signs. Bryson argues that:

painting is an art made not only of pigments on a surface, but of signs in semantic space. The meaning of a picture in never inscribed on its surface as brushstrokes are; meaning arises in the collaboration between signs (visual or verbal) and interpreters. (Bryson 1990 p. 10)

Distinguishing two irreducible kinds of meaning, Wollheim argues that pictorial meaning cannot be explained in terms of rules, codes, conventions and symbols systems applicable to linguistic meaning:" linguistic meaning can be explained within some such set of terms. But pictures and their meaning cannot be." (p. 22) Wollheim (1993) explains his argument against conflating linguistic and pictorial explanation of meaning. he asks; "Is the cave painting [depicting a bison] of a thing (like a word) or is it of a fact (like a sentence is)?" (Wollheim 1993 p. 187) From this question Wollheim develops three objections to the application of linguistic meaning to pictorial representation: First he argues that structural analysis of the cave painting will not produce a convincing answer. Secondly, as we have seen, the relation of word to world is arbitrary, that cannot be said of the relation between what the picture represent and the thing it represents. The third objection is the argument from transfer. If we know the word 'bison' we cannot understand what the words dog' 'cat' on the basis of knowing the word itself plus knowing what the animals refereed to look like. Each word has to be learned independently. But if we can recognize the picture of a bison, then provided that we know what other animals look like, we can recognize the other pictures for what they are. By staring at a word we can see what is there but we cannot come to understand it as we can with a picture where the child can and does learn to recognize a lion from a picture book. Finally picture are intrinsically perspectival, they imply single viewpoint and there is no parallel of this in language.

Unlike the postructuralists Wollheim thinks that there can be meaning outside language. Not all concepts are linguistic, there are also sensory concepts. In perception, a concept need not be one we usually use in thought:

When I see something as a tiger, the concept 'tiger' that I apply is a sensory concept whose sense is roughly 'an animal with the appearance of a tiger'. (Wollheim 1985 p. 37)

Painting is able to capture those concepts that exist beyond language:

I have considered thematisation only of the grosser aspects of painting. From mark all the way to image the thematised aspects I have isolated have been aspects of the painting that readily get captured in words. But thematisation by an artist must reach to aspects of painting too fine-grained for language to follow it. (p. 25)

Although Wollheim argues that pictorial meaning is not primarily determined by rules codes conventions or the symbol systems to which the picture belongs, he acknowledges that: "such factors can have a role to play in shaping, modifying, extending, meaning in certain cases, but I do deny that they are primary determinants of meaning" (p. 22)

Wittgenstein used the pain example partly to illustrate that language presupposes public rules of use. Rule implies the possibility of checking adherence to it. But where a private reference provides the sense of an expression there is no possibility of a check, no reference to a public standard. Otherwise there would not be a distinction between recognizing that it is correct to apply the expression and applying it. Mental terms without public, interpersonal criteria would not be intelligible. This is fine for accounting for linguistic meaning. Bryson applies this linguistic explanation of how words acquire meaning and applies it directly to painting. The problem is that if we look at a word the experience we have in doing so does not provide us with its meaning. We do need to interpret the mark. This is not so when we look at a picture: can we interpret one of CÚzanne's apples as something else? Can we see a 'yellow' brushstroke as 'red'?

 Contextual Meaning

Wollheim acknowledges that the painting is not clearly distinct from its background -its cultural, social and historical context. Bryson goes further in arguing that painting as sign is located in the social formation, it embodies and is permeated with the social from its inception.

For Wollheim that context is flexible, he argues that it cannot be identified independently of what the artist believes it to be and this is irrespective of whether these beliefs are right or wrong. In borrowing a motif or image from a certain source the artist does so under a certain description of that source. It will convey different things if the source from which it originates is described differently. The description fixes what Wollheim calls context. Wollheim is interested with the aesthetic significance of context not with historical accuracy. he does not deny that paintings carry representational meanings bearing the ideologies of a place and time. He is open to the importance of art historical, social and cultural matters as causally formative of the artist's intention, and that stylistic convention, historical distance and cultural perspective can shape the interpretation of what a picture means.

Danto, in his introduction to Philosophy of Action, argues that the intention behind Christ raised arm in the frescoes by Giotto may look indistinguishable but they are different actions because they express different intentions. he proposes that since the raised arm is always present, the different actions must be explained through variations in context. Context is not enough to explain the actions but: " we must invoke the Christ's intentions and purposes, still, we cannot overestimate the extent to which context penetrates purpose." (Danto 1973 p. ix) In the case of Warhol's Brillo box is identified as an artwork only when knowledge of the context allows to identify that object correctly. (It's in an art gallery not in a supermarket.)

Bryson argues that for as long as an image maintains contact with the discourses continuing to circulate in the social formation, it will generate new meanings whose articulation will be as valid an enterprise, in every respect, as the recovery of meanings that have previously arisen. Wollheim refuses to allow the social formation to act as a primary determinant of what a painting means. Wollheim (1980, section 62 p. 150152) argues that to explain a particular work of art in terms of social consciousness, is to exhibit it as an instance of a constant correlation holding between a certain form of art and a certain form of social life. He thinks that there is a difficulty in identifying forms of art and forms of social life in such a way that they may be found to continue across history. Bryson proposes:

that painting as sign must be the fundamental assumption of a materialist art history; that the place where the sign arises is the interindividual territory of recognition; that the concept of the sign's meaning cannot be divorced from its embodiment in context." (Bryson 1986 p. 131)

Bryson is arguing that a painting cannot be created except in relation to other paintings. It is what it is by virtue of those relations. If its meaning changes later on, that is because it enters new relations with later paintings: new works which modify the art world itself. The sign acquires meaning from an interpreter, he argues that meaning comes to the sign from the place it projects itself forward to, or 'lands in'.

Original Meaning and Subsequent Interpretation

Wollheim has argued for the distinction between what a painting means and what falls outside its meaning: between what can be and what cannot be part of its content. "The meaning of a painting derives from how it is made, or the creative process" (p. 249) To distinguish intended meaning from significance, is to distinguish between the intended meaning of a painting and the significance we attach to it. We need to draw such distinctions because allowing anything as part of the meaning of a work is to lose the idea of meaning in art altogether. But such distinctions are contextual in character, differing as they do from work to work. Meaning and intention are taken to be inextricably linked: where the artist's intention seems to be elusive, we tend to think that the meaning of the work has also eluded us and vice versa. Scepticism about reading an artist's intentions from works is scepticism about knowing anything about other people from their actions.

Wollheim examines Titian's painting 'The Flaying of Marsyas' deriving from Ovid's Metamorphoses and argues that few scholars would equate the meaning of the picture with the gradually acquired meaning, of the event it represents. If we accept an interpretation in terms of the acquired meaning of the event, Titian's flaying of Marsyas will have to be seen in a way that conflicts with what we see in the painting. It should be seen as expressive of joy, elation and triumphant righteousness Wollheim suggests that that we cannot do.

Wollheim concedes that the painting can change physically and what is said about it can affect how we talk about it, but Wollheim argues that no one has yet shown how the content or meaning of a picture are modified by such changes:

"... I do not see, nor is any explanation ever offered, how, or what the mechanism would be by which, such changes could include changes in content or meaning" (p. 185).

The reason behind this statement is, I think, that Wollheim's intentional and causal account meaning of a painting is a once and for all occurrence, it occurs at a particular time and place. Meaning does not have the kind of endurance that things that change have. The painting the meaning has, as we have seen, also depends upon the intention to lead the spectator to apprehend a meaning and not upon the belief either on the part of the artist or the spectator that such intention exists. Intention, like any other occurrence, can be subsequently re-experienced by a spectator and it can either be correctly or incorrectly described, but it cannot either be made permanent or be caused to change. What I meant yesterday by saying that all was well is whatever the words were intended to express at that time. While the meaning of the words I have used may change, and different interpretations of my utterance are offered they do not in any way alter what I intended to say by those words.

Postructuralists have provided a clear outline of how the meaning of a picture can change. Bryson argues that the meaning of a painting is to be found in the " in the interaction of painting with social formation that the semantics of painting is to be found, as a variable term fluctuating according to the fluctuations of discourse." (Bryson 1986 p. 85) But this is a case of our being disposed to attribute meaning to the painting. Cultural meaning remains relative to the particular culture to which it belongs, to that particular period. How do we see the products of earlier social formations?

If Manet is reinterpreted in consequence of Modernism the new interpretation must penetrate the ways in which we are now able to see Manet. New ways of representing, Goodman writes, "may bring out neglected likenesses and differences, force unaccustomed associations, and in some measure remake our world." (Goodman 1968 p. 33) Wollheim would ground this process in perception and reply that if Modernism allows us to see Manet in a new way, this must be because we are able to see Manet in Modernism. But there are great difficulties in deciding whether subsequent history helps the understanding of an artist's intention.

Wollheim thinks it significant that in this context Goodman quotes with approval Picasso's reply to the complaint that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, 'No matter; it will' (Wollheim 1973, p. 312). Where an artist did something ahead of its time which eventually is recognized such intentions are partially redefined in the light of what followed from them. Does subsequent history, while not directly interpretative of the artist's intention, nevertheless gives the painting more meaning. It seems that we cannot remove the perspective of history.

I think that Wollheim is saying that works can be interpreted and reinterpreted in the light of subsequent history:" I have said that the constant possibility of reinterpretation is one of the sources of art's continuing interest for us, and I stand by this." (Wollheim 1980 p. 201) Bryson (1986) argues that in looking at paintings the spectator is transforming the materials of the painting into meanings. This transformation is endless: nothing can stop it. The spectator is an interpreter, and the point is that since interpretation changes as the world changes, no one can claim a final or absolute understanding of painting. Wollheim would agree with the conclusion, no one has the claim to incorrigibility.


[i] Wollheim disagrees with poststructuralist semiotics but finds C.S. Peirce's version of semiotics compatible with his view because of his notion of 'motivated' sign and how they relate to the world.