Interpreting: Body and Mind

Humans are by definition ‘meaning-makers’ and thus interact with environments, people and objects to interpret reality. Interpretation is ‘virtually’ an act of ‘translation’ (Sontag, 1961) based on mental schemes and categories arising from social, political and cultural contexts. When entering a museum environment, people are thus lead to interpreting the exhibits by finding their way to the narrative initially constructed by the curator.

Without the public the piece doesn’t exist. (Abramovic, 2010)

Like a reader, the visitor analyses the text – the exhibition -, which takes life only when it is read, and eventually creates the ‘aesthetic object’ (Deneau, 1980).

The infinite interpretations that result from the interaction of the two subjects – text and reader – proves as impossible the attempt of individual institutions to introject knowledge passively and asserts the relativism that lays at the core of art and the need to design education as an interactive process.fa71f4c1cbb9c7811165943f55f2a895
In fact, exhibitions not only exist for ‘those who have the means of approp
riating them, that is, of deciphering them’ (Bourdieu and Darbel, 1997) but is accessible by anyone owning an instinct, as art is often the outcome of an irrational process. Education is thus not necessarily the only mean through which art can be assimilated. The act of interpretation is also built on irrational processes moved by our body sensations and emotions. Scientific studies demonstrate, in fact, that emotions, being part of cognition (Descartes, 1994), play a significant role in understanding and making meaning of reality.

Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside, and I am holly outside myself (Ponti, 1945)

Art is, in fact, much easier than what the education system teaches. Being used to an art paradigm of figurative and realistic forms correctly aligned to their contents, we find ourselves attached to the need of interpreting, or of finding a ‘truth’. Through interpretation, viewers are lead to see art as something that needs to explain and hence to create a ‘separation of content from form’ (Totaro, 2005).

Although, as stated by Donato Totaro (2005) ‘in today’spost-structural/postmodernist context, where there are no longer meta-narratives or “truths,” interpretation has exploded into its own discourse, and some would argue, art form’. Susan Sontag, in the book ‘Against Interpretation’, explains how interpretation ‘makes art manageable and comfortable’, it makes ‘something unreadable readable’ (1961). From the author perspective, it allows us to forget the ineptitude of our senses to read the world without the support of the intellect freely.

Sontag’s argument is not against interpretation per se. She is against the process of ‘using an interpretative grid over and over to “decode” disparate works of art’ (Totaro, 2005), a process that eventually deprives art of its content, or ‘non-content’ like, for example, in Abstract painting.

In other words, ‘the interpretation should not take the place of the experience of art’ (Totaro, 2005).

Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art. Transparence means experiencing the luminous of the thing in itself, of thing being what they are. […] What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. […] The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means (Sontag, 1961).

Susan Sontag


  • Deneau, D. (1980). Wolfang Iser. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. The International Fiction Review,, 7(1), pp.76-77.
  • Sontag, S. (1961). Against interpretation, and other essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Totaro, D. (2005). Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation? Sensorial Criticism. OffScreen, [online] 8(1). Available at: [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016].

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