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Essay: How can we distinguish between good and bad interpretation?

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Interpretation is an important mechanism to help us have a better understanding of a knowledge ground. Most of the time it is triggered by our senses. A simple example that I had is when I first listened to Any Song by Zico. The song appealed with such an addicting and joyful melody that made me believe this song is indeed a happy theme song. Later when I read through its lyrics, it was a melancholy song that tells the story of someone who missed his youth. This situation makes me realize that an interpretation from solely one aspect will often bring a misleading understanding of the object. Nevertheless, this does not mean that my interpretation is wrong but rather that it is a bad interpretation of the song instead. On the grounds of art and history, most of the time there is no clear-cut answer to an interpretation whether it is right or wrong. This is due to the nature of these subjects. Arguably, interpretation can be classified as good or bad based on the extent to which the interpretation is closer or further from the truth. In another word, we can say that a good interpretation is the one closer to the truth whereas a bad interpretation is the one further from the truth. However, this is not always the case and will be further explained later. In this writing, we will be focusing on two different areas of knowledge which are arts and history to examine the way for us to distinguish the difference between good and bad interpretations in both areas.

Art revolves around the imagination of the artist to convey knowledge through their arts. It’s not easy to interpret works of art correctly and it’s not always evident how to do so. A good art interpretation always comes with the appreciation of the art. According to Noel Carrol, art appreciation is the knowledge and understanding of the universal and timeless qualities that identify all great art. This is important as with just a mere observation of the art, people tend to make interpretations that are far from the truth of it. Observation not only includes seeing the art but rather a mental process that involves both vision and mind. Therefore it is important to have a constant re-exposure to the art so that the recipient is completely engrossed in and penetrated by it. Pivotal factor that distinguishes between good and bad art interpretation is the existence of facts and evidence to support the interpretation. These facts and evidence can be from the techniques used to produce the arts, the period in which it is produced, or the intention of the artist itself. A good example of this is the Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel. Without the appreciation of art, this piece is just an ordinary view of the harvesters in Belgium. However, the more you observe, the more you will notice that this painting is a depiction of society with over 40 people in it, and each one of them is occupied with various activities. A Belgian art collector, Niclaes Jongelinck stated the longer you look at it, the more people will be discovered. The evidence to support the interpretation of this painting is the fact that Bruegel was one of the first artists to reject religious or classical themes in favor of focusing on the people in his works or also known as humanism. This had impacted his art to focus more on the realistic representation of the people and their environments. We can see that this interpretation is the closest to the truth and aligns with the intention of the artist himself making it a good interpretation of this piece.

We may say that the expert’s interpretation in art is the closest one to the truth but this is not always the case. Even sometimes experts are exaggerating when interpreting and it becomes a competition for them to come up with the most unique interpretation of a certain art that is further away from the truth especially in the surrealism era where artists depicted unsettling and illogical scenarios to allow the unconscious mind to express itself. Therefore the term isolationism was introduced. Art, according to isolationists is unique, apart from the rest of existence, and knowing about an artist’s biography and historical context, and other elements is unimportant to appreciating a work of art and, in most cases, unhelpful since it gets in the way. In reality, art is sometimes produced to convey an explicit meaning rather than the implicit one. This is because the way art is presented is sometimes inspired by normal objects but often is mistakenly assumed as an element used by the artist. This is the case in the painting by Salvador Dali, the Persistence of Memory. This art was interpreted by Dawn Adès as a symbolism of the relativity, malleability, and fluidity of time and space. This interpretation implies that Dali was adopting Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity into his view of the universe. However, this interpretation is far from the truth as Dali himself stated that this painting was a surrealist perception of the picture of melted camembert cheese in the sun and has nothing to do with the theory of relativity. In conclusion, art interpretations are not always correct, they are often plausible, compelling, instructive, and illuminating. Interpretations of art that are good reveal more about the artwork than they do about the interpreter.

Interpretation in history is the act of describing, analyzing, evaluating, and creating an explanation for previous events. It heavily relies on primary and secondary sources to form its base. The historian must analyze his sources to create a dynamic pattern of pictures that reflects the shape of the historical event. A good history interpretation is not measured by the ability of the historian to include all the facts into his narrative but rather the ability of him to fill in the gap of his sources with inference or speculation. Once the history is interpreted, the historian’s explanation will be evaluated whether it is objective or subjective that aligns with reality. A prominent example of this is the history of prehistoric society. One of the primary sources of this is the cave drawing of Lascaux cave that shows a vivid illustration of various animals such as horses and bison. Based on this painting, many historians and researchers have drawn different historical interpretations of it. The common would be that this painting symbolizes the lifestyles of the previous human species that depend on hunting and serve as the ceremonial purpose of a successful hunt. Other than that, a German researcher, Dr. Michael Rappengluck interpreted this painting as the representation of a historical star map. He explained that the drawing of a bird, a birdman, and a bull is the symbolism of the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega. We may see that both interpretations are based on the same subject but have a different outcome. In this manner, we can not say that either one of them has a bad interpretation because both are aligned with reality and therefore shows the use of inferences and speculations making both of them a good interpretation.

A bad interpretation of history is related to denialism. Denialism is the act of rejecting the truth in the face of proof or strong and valid evidence that exists. It can be mainly made by replicating history records or documents. According to Richard J. Evans, this action will create a sense of doubt in the genuine record and thus create a false interpretation of the event. This can be seen in Holocaust denial. It is a strategy intended to discredit or put doubt on the Holocaust’s historical facts. Deniers engage in this behavior to diminish public sympathy for Jews, undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel, sow doubt about Jews and the Holocaust, and attract attention to certain topics or points of view. However upon the discovery of Anne Frank’s diary, one of the victims of the Holocaust, the scholars had rejected the denial and the British court judged David Irving, a Holocaust denier to be a “historical falsifier, anti-Semitic, and racist who was linked with right-wing radicals who supported neo-Nazism”. Other than that, history interpretation is also influenced by political power. This can be seen in 2007 when Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan at that time stated that there is no strong evidence to prove that sexual slavery was coercion by the Japanese military during the second Sino-Japanese war. Due to this statement, it influenced few people to interpret that the incident never took place, and even some radical groups interpreted the death toll as purely military and that no such crimes were ever committed. This shows how much power politics have in history interpretation among historians and the public. Even so, as a knower, we can differentiate these false interpretations by referring back to the latest evidence that is available and the scholars’ reasoning regarding the history.

In conclusion, we can say that to distinguish between good and bad interpretation is the closeness of it to the truth or reality. Interpretation is a process of triggering the meaning of a certain matter, therefore when the process is being disturbed by certain matters such as exaggeration and denialism, the interpretation being made is still considered as a bad interpretation even though it is the closest to the truth. In both art and history, logical explanation and evidence are required to create a good interpretation. However, this does not limit the use of imagination when interpreting art or historical sources.

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