Visual analysis begins by thinking about how a works means. The formal elements of line, color and shape get their meaning from association rather than definition. So, the meanings of visual language are more like how poetic language uses words than the language of prose. Both poetry and visual images depend on the sensible properties of the work which shape our experiences. The use of metaphor grounded in common experiences rather than description is present in all the arts.
The artist begins the process by making choices about media and subject matter. Those choices reflect his/her intention/purpose in making the work. In the creative process, the artist develops those choices by responding to the experiential feedback from work in progress. The question at this stage is What do I do next? If the creator can answer this question, the creative process is working. If not, the process shuts down until it can be answered. Sometimes this shutdown simply means that the work is complete. But this shutdown can also occur if the internal critic interferes with the creator’s trust in the process itself. That is why the ‘voice’ of critic should be ignored or suppressed until the work nears completion.
Once the work seems to be finished, the next question becomes What have I done? This question represents the final stage of the creative process. At this point, the creator shifts roles to become the first viewer of the work. That requires stepping out of the creator role and summoning the critic’s help in determining if the work has achieved enough coherence to shape the experience of a viewer. I use the process of titling the work as way to signal this stage. Giving an art work a title means I own it in a way that represents my judgment that the work embodies my experience in a way that communicates meaning.
Like the process of creating the work, interpretation starts with making associations derived from the visual language of the work. The process of interpretation which creates meaning follows a similar path from experience through knowledge to understanding the work’s meaning/message. Meaning is context dependent. But unlike words which rely on knowledge contexts, visual images use experiential associations to communicate meaning. The visual language itself is represented by the question What do I see? The answer to this question can be a response based on common human experience for example, the color ‘red’ used to symbolize blood or a smiley face icon. Sometimes the answer is grounded a specific context such as community’s way of life. If the viewer shares a common context of knowledge or experience with the artist, they will be able to ‘get’ it without too much trouble. However, if the work comes from an unfamiliar context such as a different culture or time-period, the process of association breaks down. That is why interpreting works of art from a context with which the interpreter is not familiar requires knowledge beyond the common associations of the viewer’s own cultural, social or historical context.
So, the answer to the final question What do I think this experience means? requires a definitive test to determine what information is relevant to the work’s meaning. The test that works best uses the touchstone of experience with rather than knowledge about the work. Facts about the work are not enough to understand its meaning.
The test for relevance involves how much the information changes the interpreter’s experience and thus changes the work’s meaning. Like the way in which an artist ‘owns’ the work by giving it a title, the interpreter tests his/her understanding of the work through experience. That is why I argue that artists are the only true empiricists because the final evaluation of their work must meet the test of the interpreter’s experience. That is the only way to understand art as embodied experience.
Thus, unlike science which demands consistent experimental results, the arts are based on personal point of view. This means that no two interpretations of a work will ever be the same because no two experiences of the work can ever be the same. Even multiple encounters with a work by the same person will produce different—although related—interpretations. But, all these diverse meanings are connected through the objective qualities of the work. As a result, differences in interpretation do not that restrict the meaning by dividing it into each interpreter’s subjective opinion but connect each interpretation. In this way, the work not only links the creator with the interpreter but connects all interpreters who have made the effort to engage with and understand the work.
The image is a mind map of the complex relationship between creator and interpreter that produces meaning. The work reflects the choices and experiences of the artist who created it. This embodied experience functions as both feedback and limit to the experiences of the interpreter. Thus, the work acts as an objective ground for the connection between the subjective experiences of creator and interpreter.