To be overly systematic in an approach to art removes all enjoyment. However, a thorough and intentional approach is required in order to truly understand most art.
Generally, when reading a book or watching a film participants should attempt to both enjoy the story and understand the maker’s intent. Art is more than just an outlet for aesthetic fulfillment. It is an attempt to thoroughly understand life.
Certain works of art can be rather straightforward or are created purely for entertainment value. One might be able to draw some valuable lessons from Mission Impossible or James Bond films but to claim that they have a philosophical intention would be a stretch. There is nothing wrong with this, but the best art thoroughly explores concepts such as the human condition, the nature of love, the nature of beauty, the difference between good and evil and much more.
There are many theories of art. Some of these included in Ronald Hepburn’s 1999 paper “Theories of Art” published in Oxford University Press include art as representation, art as expression and art as creation. These theories about the nature of art are all true to an extent.
Particularly for narrative art forms however, art as representation is the most accurate theory. Art represents a version of life. It represents life as it is, could be, or ought to be.
Hepburn expressed this idea well in the form of a question, “Could we not claim that art is always a mimesis (a copying) of nature: if not of nature’s visible appearances, then of its fundamental energies and their endless transformations?”
One school of thought about artistic interpretation holds that the artist’s intention does not matter as the art itself is a complete whole and what matters is what it communicates not what the artist claims it communicates. This can be particularly true with literature. If I attempt to communicate one message through words, but use the words in such a way that I communicate a completely different message, as an artist I am at least partially responsible for the miscommunication.
However, the artist’s intention does in fact matter, as does the historical context. For historical fiction particularly, it is extremely important to understand the context before diving into the art. If additional context is necessary though, it is more the artist’s job to provide that context than it is the consumer’s job to be aware that they need that context.
A good example of this from a book I recently read is Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Before jumping into the main narrative, Lindsay provides a succinct and artistic summary of the necessary context.
“Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves,” Lindsay’s brief introduction says, “As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.”
An example from film is Guillermo Del Toro’s films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Rather than assuming that the viewers automatically have the context or will understand the films, Del Toro briefly provides the necessary context. In Pan’s Labyrinth this takes the form of title cards with some historical background, and in the Devil’s Backbone a poetic voice over by one of the main character’s which alludes to important themes of the movie.
In his book Validity In Interpretation, E.D. Hirsch argues that there is in fact a most valid interpretation for every narrative. In doing so, he also argues that the author’s original intent is crucial in understanding the meaning of a narrative and disputes the theory of semantic autonomy which proposes the opposite.
“The theory of semantic autonomy forced itself into such unsatisfactory and ad hoc formulations because in its zeal to banish the author it ignored the fact that meaning is an affair of consciousness not words,” Hirsch writes.
Hirsch is correct to point this out. Words can carry different meanings based upon culture and self-perception. Thus, in an interpretation of narratives it is important to understand what the makers intended.
When experiencing a narrative art form it is both acceptable and advisable to draw your own conclusions. However, it is also important to not misinterpret the narrative or fall into the misinterpretation of others.
When reading a fiction book, it is a good idea to not read any forwards or essays not written by the original author until you have finished a complete read through. Oftentimes, new editions will include forwards that include spoilers or could wrongly influence interpretation of the narrative. Introductions by the author themselves are necessary to the story and will help your overall experience, but when you read an introduction by an outside source it can taint your interpretation of the narrative.
Many read using different methods such as annotation. Annotation might be necessary in some cases, but I generally don’t annotate as it can distract from the narrative. I can only recommend general reading methods.
- Consistency— Establish a page or time minimum on your daily reading. I read a minimum of 20 pages per day of non-required reading. At first, this may seem a burden but it becomes a lifestyle.
- Thinking thoroughly— either during or after reading a book or watching a film, consider the broader implications of the narrative. First, do some thinking and maybe journaling about the main themes and takeaways from your perspective. Shared art consumption is a great idea, and helps you to think outside your own perspective, so if you can read a book or watch a movie with some friends great discussion can come out of it. It is not necessary in every case, but it is also a good idea— particularly if you are confused about the narrative to read essays about it or watch special features.
Ultimately, well enjoyment and emotional investment should be the primary function of narrative art forms, it is also important to be intentional so as to increase understanding and long-term benefit. Through an intentional approach you can move from being a consumer to being a participant.