Is there such a thing as the "correct" interpretation for a work of art?

Recently I’ve seen it claimed in a couple of different contexts that there’s no “correct” interpretation for a work of art (here I’m including visual art, music, literature, etc.), that each person’s interpretation upon experiencing a piece of art is equally valid.

I think that’s nonsense. If you think Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is about how great America is, you’re wrong. If you think the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for the atomic bomb, you’re wrong. If you think Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is about the last time Leonardo and his buddies had dinner together before they all went off to college, you’re wrong.

Personally, I think what matters is what the artist intended the work to be about, at the time that he created it. That’s not to say that an artist can’t deliberately create a work with multiple valid interpretations, or even create a work which is deliberately ambiguous so as to leave the viewer to supply his own interpretation. But if an artist intended his work to be about one thing, and you think it’s about something else, you’re just wrong. If I paint a bowl of fruit and you think it looks like your great aunt Gertrude, it’s still just a picture of a bowl of fruit (though probably not a very good one).

To me it seems like this whole notion that “A work of art can mean anything” is probably just the result of (1) artists liking it when people think their work has more levels to it than it really does, and (2) people not liking to be told they’re wrong.

Anyone care to disagree?

[I’m not sure if this belongs in CS or GD – mods please move as appropriate]

There are lots of obviously incorrect interpretations, and there are lots of almost-certainly-correct interpretations.

It’s similar to science. There are a ton of ideas that just don’t explain data well and are contradicted by evidence. And then there are theories that last for centuries… the great ideas. But even the best ideas are subject to alteration and augmentation (Newton/Einstein)

There could be a new and better Freud come along and open all works of art to re-interpretation.

There is another level as well. All art reflects the society it was created in.

As a simple example, the people who wrote The Babysitter’s Club books were not thinking of anything more than their paycheck. But given time, these books will provide some interesting insights into stuff like social class, adolescence, etc. During that period of time.

I think you’re right that some interpretations are obviously wrong (e.g., my Last Supper example in the OP). But do you agree with the basic idea that “The correct interpretation is whatever the artist intended?” That is, that the only reason that art work is subject to reinterpretation is because we often don’t know what the artist intended? If not, how do you define “correct” interpretation. (Presumably we must be able to define it in some way, since we can definitively say that certain interpretations are incorrect.)

That’s a really good point. Certainly, art can reveal things about the artist (and the culture he was a part of) even if the artist didn’t intentionally put them in there. I guess I have to agree that interpreting art in that way is just as valid as saying “This is what the author meant.” Which leaves me a little more unclear as just what distinguishes a “correct” vs. “incorrect” interpretation. (I still maintain there is a distinction, since some interpretations are clearly wrong.)

Perhaps a correct interpretation is one that says something true about the artist, whether it’s about her intent in creating the work, about the society in which she created the work, etc.

Even if you agree with all this, you’re left with 100,000,000,000,000,000 zillion other interpretations. You haven’t proven your case in any case.

What the author intended is just as meaningless. The author almost never says what was intended, so the reader can never know.

The context of the reading is far more important than you suggest. Reading older works today reveals worlds of classism, sexism, bigotry, chauvinism, and other blindnesses that the original authors couldn’t possibly see. Reinterpreting them in this light is obviously proper, and completely necessary.

A lot of your post indicates that you don’t understand what interpretation is or even what meaning is. Meaning is far deeper than “The U.S. isn’t good.” You might not be able to twist that to “the U.S. is good” but the nuances of Springsteen’s lyrics can support thousands of interpretations, all of them defendable.

I read every book differently from you; I view every movie differently from you; I hear every piece of music differently from you; I see every piece of art differently from you. You can’t get around that.

ETA: Didn’t see your last post when I wrote this.

On a personal level, I generally lean against post-structuralism. (That’s the academic name for the theory that no art can have a fixed meaning.) My viewpoint on the issue is more closely guided by what G. K. Chesterton said:

When an author writes an intelligent, well-planned work of literature, the total of the literary experience should be sufficient to let the reader know where the author stands. Of course many good authors are ambiguous about certain points, but I don’t think it’s legitimate for future generations of analysts to try turning around the entire meaning of a work of art. For example, in Henry V, Shakespeare portrays Henry positively. Some productions have tried to turn the entire play around and cast Henry in a negative light, making him brutal and uncaring, but that does not fit with the actual text of the play. This is not case of current critics commenting on the inherent biases of Shakespeare’s society, but rather of current critics displaying the biases of their own society.

I can’t help but wonder how much the structure of the academic world contributes to this sort of thing. Since academics value originality much more than correctness, that pushes scholars to make up far-fetched explanations. You can’t make a career out of explaining that Moby Dick is about a one-legged captain with a suicidal obsession for hunting a whale, because that’s already been said. Instead you have to make it a metaphor for the War of 1812, or a response to the Book of Job, or an expression of Melville’s closeted homosexuality. Chip Morningstar has investigated the situation in his classic article, How to Deconstruct Almost Anything.

How do you even define the “correct” interpretation? How is it distinguishable from an interpretation that isn’t correct?

I think we have to face the music and admit that art is subjective. There are quite a few possible interpretations, but none of them are “correct”, even though there are an infinitude of obviously incorrect interpretations (Catch-22 wasn’t about the glory and triumph of war, for example, nor was it about elves and unicorns).

As long as you can defend your theory with textual evidence, I say anything goes.

Insofar as art is communication, it can be interpreted correctly or incorrectly.

Insofar as no communication is perfect, no art can be interpreted with perfect correctness.

If it were possible to communicate perfectly, there would be no need for art.

This is one of the most frustrating things in the world. I don’t remember the details any more, but I was in an English class in which we read Wuthering Heights. It was a great book, but everyone in the class wanted to make Heathcliff into a sort of sexy Rebel Without A Cause, but could not back it up or reconcile it with the text itself. Gah!

I choose to go with Duke Ellington’s assessment: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

I reject both of these options and I find them absolutist. I think meaning is created collaboratively by the artist and the audience. That way, not all meanings are correct (if your interpretation of a song is totally contradicted by half the lyrics, your view is not as valid as that of someone who actually paid attention), but the artist doesn’t have fiat over a piece he created. You’re overstating the role of intent. I think much of the time, artists are just creating and they are not always trying to impart a specific meaning. It sometimes becomes clear to them later, for example. In a case where the artist needs time and distance before evaluating his own work, it would be absurd to say the interpretation the audience immediately comes to is just wrong.


Yes, that is a standard conservative (not necessarily political conservative, though there is some overlap) trope, but it’s also proven nonsense. Whole schools of criticism exist to turn around the entire meaning of works. Marxist, feminist, African-American, gender studies, popular cultural critics have taken classics and reinterpreted them in the light of what is left out, unsaid, not-needed-to-be-spoken, or even on the surface obviously there and yet dismissed or ignored by a readership who shared the same biases. Some of these interpretations are strident, narrow minded, deliberately confrontational, or out-and-out insane. So what. I guarantee I can point you to an equal number of classic conservative critics and works that share these faults. Yet, these revisionist schools have opened criticism (in all arts, not just literature) to modern-day perspectives that are breaths of fresh air and/or deeply insightful re-evaluations of the past.

The whole issue of interpretation is a vast one, encompassing the whole of several schools of philosophy, semantics, rhetoric, and culture. Whole waves and generations of scholars have flourished by applying varying methods of interpretation to critiques of art. You cannot deny them as an entirety.

Yes, it is a truism that academics strive to be original. And to be original is not always to be right. Yet your implied alternative is that there is no need, because older scholars got it right in the first place. This is an absurdity. To believe this even for a second is to deny the effects of time and culture. If there were a correct way to read the Bible, we wouldn’t have the thousands upon thousands of sects of Christians. Yet some Christians somehow still manage to insist there is only one correct way. This is a pretty metaphor for the entire issue of interpretation.

Let me quote Goethe:

I would say the artists intent is the only true correct interpretation, with that said, artists certainly feel their creation can have a life of it’s own and probably beam with pride when critics and admirers offer new dimensions of their work they had never thought of.

I would disagree with this. I think a completed piece of art stands on its own. In fact, in some cases I think the artist is the worst person to interpret their own work. Their opinion is coloured by what they were intending to create, while everyone else is dealing with what they actually created.

Imagine that by some cosmic coincidence, two poets were to independently write the same poem, word for word. Do the two poems have different meanings?

I think this may be begging the question. Some of us may be defining “interpretation” of a work of literature/art as “figuring out what its author/creator meant to say.” By this definition, you’d be right; but it’s not the definition that all of us are working with, nor should it be. I think that this is part of interpreting (or understanding, or appreciating, or criticizing) a work of art/literature, but only one part. (And even this part is not necessarily as straightforward as it might be if all authors/artists were completely aware of and completely honest about what they really intended to say.)

Since the OP brought up The Lord of the Rings, I am reminded of what Tolkien said in the forward to the edition I have:

You’re right that the Ring is not a metaphor for the bomb, in the sense that Tolkien never meant it to be. But there may be applicability to the bomb, or to anything else that a reader/critic could make a real case for.

Basically re-stating what’s been said, but FWIW:

There is no incorrect interpretation. There can be incorrect conclusions regarding the artist’s intentions.

I don’t believe that art is supposed to tell you about the author. I believe it’s meant to tell you about yourself. The meaning you get out of a work of art is infinetly more important than the meaning its creator put into it.

It’s either about weed man!

I guess without the artist’s confirmation, you can never really know the meaning of his art.

“Right” and “wrong” are inapt terms for discussing how to think about artistic works.

It’s more like a Venn diagram with sets for “appropriate conclusion” versus “inappropriate conclusion” and “interesting/original conclusion” versus “boring/hackneyed conclusion.” Appropriateness is measured by how well the argument can be based on textual evidence; originality/interest by how much the argument illuminates the material.

Example: Hamlet is stymied in his quest for revenge by existential indecision. “Appropriate” and “boring/hackneyed.” Or, Hamlet is stymied by confusion because his homosexual lust for Laertes has been misplaced onto Ophelia. “Original/interesting” perhaps, but “inappropriate” almost certainly, unless the argument is really clever.


You can think of a work of art as a system of constraints, much like the rules of a game. The constraints prevent certain aesthetic “moves”, but they’re not so rigid that they force you into one and only one interpretation. Add to this the fact that many works rely on the audience adding their own internal aesthetic rule sets to the game and you get a really fluid situation. James Joyce’s *Ulysses *reads like gibberish to a reader who doesn’t come to the table with an encyclopedic knowledge of western culture, but that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. The “meaning” of Ulysses isn’t inherent in the work. It’s a product of the interaction between the text and the reader. And since every reader has a different background, the meaning of the *Ulysses *will naturally vary from reader to reader.

Asking “Which interpretation is correct?” for a work of art is like asking “Which sequence of moves is correct?” for chess. Any sequence of moves that doesn’t violate the rules is a correct sequence of moves. And any interpretation that doesn’t violate the constraints of the text itself is a correct interpretation.