Where Is The Meaning of Art?

Why the quest for a correct interpretation leaves us without satisfying answers

In high school I, like any other self-respecting teenager, took myself very seriously. One of the ways I made this clear was by analyzing the lyrics of my favorite bands.

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines.’? Definitely about the inevitability of death. ‘I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black’? A critique of consumer culture, duh.

Then one day something struck me. How do I know if I’m right?

Pretentious teenagers aren’t the only ones who try to make sense of works that they come across. We’ve all thought about the meaning of some novel we’ve read, or a movie that stuck with us for a while.

Sometimes we come up with an interpretation of it that we’re happy with. But what is it that decides whether we’ve really found the meaning of the work?

Could it be that the meaning is determined by what the author intended for the work to mean? Or maybe it’s decided by us as the viewer?

If we don’t have a response to this question, it’s not clear what we’re even doing when we interpret art. With some help from Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and James Blunt however, I think we’ll discover that finding an answer isn’t as straight forward as we might expect.


Does the author decide?

In medieval times scholars used to engage in hermeneutics, interpreting the intention of God by analyzing religious texts. Could it be that we’re essentially doing the same thing when we’re analyzing art today, but with the author’s intention?

Imagine for instance that I’m trying to understand why Hamlet, the protagonist in Shakespeare’s classic play of the same name, is so fussed about his own existence. In the play Hamlet agonizes over whether he should take revenge against the uncle who killed his father.

Suppose that my interpretation is that Hamlet is afraid that his own identity depends on being the kind of person that avenges their father, and that his choice whether to do so is a choice of whether he will continue to be or not.

Whether or not this seems to us like a plausible interpretation of Hamlet’s intentions, what determines whether it is correct is whether it is what Shakespeare had in mind. Essentially, when we’re analyzing works of art we’re trying to get inside the mind of the artist.

This suggestion is pretty intuitive, don’t you think? It certainly provides us with what we’re looking for at least, namely a standard against which we can compare interpretations.

Unfortunately, the idea that the artist is herself the ultimate judge of meaning has some pretty interesting implications which we might not want to accept.


‘Let the fuckers work that one out, Pete!’ — John Lennon


Suppose that you and I are debating the meaning not of Hamlet, but of Bob Dylan’s classic track ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. I argue that it’s about the value of not being geographically tied down, and you argue that it’s about defying social convention and going your own way.

While Shakespeare is not with us anymore, Dylan still is. It seems then that in principle I could call him and say something like: ‘Hey Bob. Listen, I have a bet that your awesome track is about literally not having a home. Am I right?

Even if we would have more success getting in touch with him than the Swedish academy trying to give him the Nobel Prize in literature, I think it’s not clear that we want to entirely defer the answer to him.

Could interpretation really just be a poor substitute for being able to extract truthful answers from the artist?


Actually, there might be other reasons to think that it isn’t. The ancient philosopher Plato wrote many dialogues in which his teacher Socrates was the protagonist. In one of these Socrates asks Ion, a poet in Athens, where he receives his inspiration from. Socrates with his annoying questions gets Ion to admit that in fact it does not come from him at all, but from the Muses who channel their divine inspiration through him.

What Plato is getting at here is something I think we might be able to relate to. At some point you might have started to write a text or create some other work without any particular intention in mind, but rather a vague feeling that there’s something interesting going on.

When you step back from the work you might look at it and think ‘what’s this actually about?’ Of course if you had created it with an intention in mind, you would know the answer. Rather than being the judge of your work, it seems in those cases that you’re just the first to interpret it.


If you’re skeptical that the author decides the meaning of their work, then you’re in good company.

John Lennon for one thought that the idea that his intentions were worthy of analysis the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. When he was told that students at his old high-school were made to analyze Beatles lyrics he responded by writing ‘I Am the Walrus’: the most non-sensical piece of music he was able to produce. To quote Ben Zimmer from The Atlantic:


‘The image of a “Quarry Bank literature master pontificating about the symbolism of Lennon-McCartney” inspired him to come up with “yellow matter custard” and similarly cockeyed lines. As [Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton] tells it, after Lennon wrote down the line about “semolina pilchard” unaccountably scaling the Eiffel Tower, he smiled and said, “Let the fuckers work that one out, Pete!”’


In other words, anyone who has tried to grasp the meaning of the Walrus from the mind of Lennon has been exquisitely trolled.

Perhaps this should give us reason to think that it’s not Lennon’s mind we should look to in order to find meaning, but our own.


‘That’s like your opinion, man’

Anyone alive in the mid-2000’s will remember James Blunt’s romantic hit ‘You’re beautiful’ besieging radio channels around the world. But was it really that romantic?

In an interview with HuffPost Blunt describes how he actually intended the song to be about a guy, high as a kite, creepily becoming obsessed with a girl on the subway.

This might be a bit disappointing for couples who’ve played the song at their wedding. But has Blunt really ruined their occasion with his ambiguous lyrics? Could it not be that his song literally has another meaning for them?

What we imagine here is that meaning lies with beauty in the eye of the beholder. In other words, the meaning of an artwork is relative to whoever observes it.

My interpretation of Dylan’s track as being about physical liberty is correct. But your interpretation of it as being about escaping the reigns of society is also correct. We’re both correct, because the meaning is different for each person.

As you might suspect, while this relativistic suggestion does provide an answer of some sort to our question, it has some pretty counterintuitive consequences.


‘Meaning just ain’t in the head’ — Hilary Putnam


Most of us aren’t very relativistic when we interpret art. If I say that Hamlet is about a crisis of identity, I don’t mean that that’s what it means to me. I mean that that’s what it means, and if you think otherwise then at least one of us is wrong.

The problem with this full-on relativism to the viewer is that it makes disagreement about interpretation impossible. When we make different interpretations about Dylan, Shakespeare or Blunt, we are literally both right. In some cases we might be willing to accept this, but in other cases it has absurd consequences.


T.S. Eliot’s epic poem ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) is usually considered one of the hallmarks of 20th century poetry. While it is notoriously difficult to pin down what exactly it is about, there seems to be agreement that it has something to do with the decline of Western civilization as illustrated by World War I. This comes across perhaps most strikingly in famous lines such as ‘I will show you death in a handful of dust’.

Well, I disagree. As a matter of fact, I think it has nothing to do with the war, but is rather a long reflection on the poor insulation of English housing. The starting line ‘April is the cruellest month’ is referring to the fact that April is the month when landlords usually shut off the heating, way before summer. To show ‘death in a handful of dust’ illustrates the many pill bugs whose lives have vanished in the fires made to keep English houses warm.

Do you agree with my interpretation? I would be very surprised if you did. But it doesn’t matter, because it is correct anyway. It is what Eliot’s poem means to me.

Personally I find these consequences difficult to swallow, and I think we should reject this relativistic idea that correct interpretation only depends on the mind of the viewer. To quote philosopher Hilary Putnam: ‘Meaning just ain’t in the head’.

But if meaning ain’t in the head of neither artist nor viewer, where is it?


Is meaning really the point?

There are some serious alternatives remaining which we haven’t considered.

Hans-Georg Gadamer for instance argues that meaning emerges as an independent thing when a viewer engages with a work of art, rather than residing with viewer or artist exclusively. E.D. Hirscher on the other hand thinks that there are different things going on, and that we should make a difference between meaning of the artist and the significance for the viewer. If we really want to go out on a limb we might suggest that meaning is determined by some objective fact about the world that we can discover, similar to mathematics.

Perhaps one of these alternatives is satisfactory. Or maybe the accounts we considered above aren’t as bad as I’ve made them out to be. The disappointing but honest answer is that I don’t have a much better response today to this question than I did back in high school.

While I don’t have much of an answer to what makes for the correct interpretation of a work of art, the attempt to find one has made me think that we might be focusing on the wrong thing.


‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’ — Susan Sontag


I would suggest that dissecting art through interpretation distracts us from the thing that makes it truly unique. What I have in mind is the ability of art to produce that experience of overwhelming beauty that comes when we see something really magnificent. This is the feeling of being engulfed by the splendor of a painting, or to almost lose yourself in a piece when lyrics and sound come together in some awesome harmony.

Interpretation is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes understanding specific parts of a work does contribute to a more complete overall experience. An example of this might be Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’, which finishes with these lines:

‘And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

I find that Shelley’s poem leaves me with a sense of desolation and awe, imagining the barren land in front of me. However, I find that this experience is made even stronger when we know that Ozymandias is another name for Ramses II, the great pharaoh, and that even a reign as majestic as his can with time be turned to ‘a handful of dust’, to quote Eliot.

It is when the practice of interpretation becomes a self-justifying exercise that I think we should leave it to the medieval scholars, and just focus on experiencing the art instead. Conscious reflection is quite obviously needed in a lot of domains, but our relation to art might be one of few where we want to keep it out.

In other words I think that high school-me should have stopped analyzing the lyrics, and instead just listened to the damn music. When it comes to us, I suggest we go out and experience some damn art.


If you’re interested to read more about this, here are a few things you might want to check out:

  • W. K. Wimsatt & M.C. Beardsley (1946), The Intentional Fallacy
  • E.D. Hirsch (1976), Validity in Interpretation
  • S. Sontag (1966), Against Interpretation


Paul de Font-Reaulx is a writer and graduate of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. He has worked at the Future of Humanity Institute and writes mainly about philosophy.