Evaluation versus Interpretation of Art

By Nhi

“Even though I watch a lot of Korean soap opera, to be honest, I consider them bad art,” I said, thinking about my unhealthy obsession with Korean dramas for many years.

“I don’t watch soap opera. But I can understand why people watch them. For example, if you work in a hair salon for many hours a day, and you have all of these family responsibilities, then soap opera is a great escape. And sometimes, bad art is great. People can connect with it, ” my friend said.

***

As everyone in my family didn’t grow up in an artsy environment where they had access to an education that valued art or received encouragement to pursue aesthetic pleasure, they also raised me in the similar way. Rather than looking at art with seriousness, I used to view it as a hobby unworthy of evaluation and inferior to ostensibly important subjects at school, such math or science. Yet, I was luckier than my grandparents or parents, in the sense that Internet, which they did not have until the 1990s, helps me travel through time and space to find excellent art works, and my education in the later half of high school and college nurtures art appreciation. The observation of my family is not meant to chastise my origins, but to appreciate those as the context giving me the advantage of cultural awareness and wider knowledge of how art influences people, no matter where they live and how they think. Knowledge obtained through my background and my education helps me grow to look at art evaluation and interpretation with reverence and full expectation of complexity.

According to Oxford dictionary, “evaluation” is “the act of forming an opinion of the amount, value or quality of something after thinking about it carefully”. In other words, art “evaluation” is the act of critical thinking, making fair judgment about the good or bad qualities of the artwork itself. Evaluating art requires knowledge of the involved techniques and artistry. Good evaluation demands profound understanding and careful research, shown through persuasive arguments with evidence and unequivocal reasoning. Bad evaluation, on the contrary, shows superficial knowledge. Interpretation, according to the dictionary, is “the particular way in which something is understood or explained.”

Interpretation also involves critical thinking, yet it is more subjective and varies according to different people. The criteria and intentionality between evaluating and interpreting are different. Evaluation is conception, while interpretation is perception. If evaluation is an attempt to be objective, interpretation is about being subjective. A person’s interpretation depends on all sorts of factors, such as the environment that the person lives in, education that s/he receives, cultural values that one holds, experiences one goes through, et cetera. When people interpret works of art, they form the connection and apply their own meanings to the subjects.

In theory, it seems like evaluation and interpretation are two separated concepts with some similarities, yet when it comes to my evaluation of art, I am confused when realizing that my evaluation and interpretation are always connected. Due to my lack of art education, it seems impossible for me to evaluate art without interpreting – connecting the artwork with my interest, experience and feelings. Yet, thanks to my recent expose to literature, philosophy, art, cultural studies, I interpret artwork after taking the evaluation brought about by knowledge into consideration. It is interesting to think about this relationship, since there are works that, after evaluation, are entirely bad art, but can still be interpreted as “good” by people because they have little knowledge about the art fields or find special connection with the works. Meanwhile, there are other complex works created with seriousness and dedication, but receive little recognition from the popular culture.

My evaluation and interpretation are always connected.

So, how do I actually go about evaluating? For most of the time, I look at the content of the artwork, because content stands out. It appeals to the one who doesn’t have knowledge of the form and it is simply easier to grasp. An audience has the freedom of filling the gap between his/ her artwork in his/ her own way, so examining content doesn’t demand a lot of education (of course, people with more knowledge will judge content better, but most of us can have an opinion on it). Furthermore, content can evoke emotions, and emotions draw human beings in. When I listen to a song, I look at the lyrics to decide if it is a good song rather than the techniques used to create the song. When I look at a painting, I appreciate the work by contemplating the meaning that the artist wants to send, not the artistry. The same case applies to sculpture, or drawing. Yet, when it comes to reading a novel, it is a different type of evaluation as I have studied literature and writing for sometimes – I have knowledge in these areas. The content of the work is still the most important factor in helping me pass value judgment since I care about how a book can influence someone, yet I also realize if the techniques the writer uses are admirable, or if the styles are unique, original and elegant. There are books that are written with perfect grammar, vivid descriptions and excellent choices of words, but don’t attract many readers, because the story is not relatable and captivating. On the other hand, we have books on the market such as 50 shades of grey that sells millions of copies thanks to the plot but has indisputably poor writing. As I said above, I tend to make the mistake of including my interpretation as a part of my evaluation, and putting such importance on the content of the work can easily turn evaluation into interpretation. Yet, I often don’t stop with my own interpretation but I like to listen to how others interpret and observe how the artwork influences them. I automatically have questions such as, Is this work deep? Is it realistic? Is it socially conscious? Does it make people think? Does it move people? Is it even created with a meaningful purpose at all? I will evaluate a work of art as good, if it is the excellent food for thought, connected with social issues and generally has positive impacts on people (even when the work does not suit my personal taste). I also evaluate art by looking into other important qualities that constitute good content, such as: originality, creativity and use of metaphors. Besides content, I pay attention to the context in which art is made. I think it tells a lot about an artwork’s value if the artist makes it purely from courage and passion to express ideas, when their art is considered immoral or censored in the society at the time. I also like to learn about the producers/ the creators’ ethics (for example, if they are producing the movie, do they treat the staffs well? Do they care about the money or the audiences they are making art for?), because I think the process and intention of making art are as important as the artwork itself.

What about interpreting? When interpreting an artwork, I approach it with different questions that come from a much more personal level, such as: How does this work of art help me understand myself? How do I connect with it? Does it inspire me? Will I watch this again? It is about me, rather than about other people. For example, recently I watched the comedy Sullivan’s Travel. I thought it is a wonderful film, not because I had any idea of the artistry behind it, or how others think of the work, but because it moves me and helps me look deeper to understand myself. I connect with it because the issues brought up in the movie are issues that often occupy my mind. Sometimes, I like a work before even thinking; I am at a loss to explain why I keep coming back to certain paragraphs, or scenes, or photographs that I enjoy. Evaluation will help me in those situations as it explains why certain artworks are riveting, yet I usually like works that definitely belong to the category of bad art such as mainstream Korean or Chinese soap operas (I like them, but I have to say they are very bad, superficial art works). In fact, it took me a long time to analyze myself as to why I am drawn to certain dramas. Along the way, I realize that it has to do with my childhood connection with these works: I grow up watching soap operas with my family. Those soap operas are not only tied to my personal taste, but also are a part of my childhood and family experiences. People without these experiences won’t be able to understand my interpretation, because we grow up in different backgrounds and live in different cultures. Yet these differences are fascinating, because I like talking and discussing about interpretations with others. Those are great ways for us to evaluate artworks, learn about ourselves and of course, others as well.

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***

“Sometimes, after I finish watching a series of Korean drama, I feel terrible. I feel like I haven’t learned anything. I just throw logic out of the window to indulge in something that can negatively influence the way I expect things in life to work out,” I shared with my professor.

“Nhi, you are so hard on yourself. It is okay to enjoy bad art once in a while. It is okay to listen to Britney Spears once in a while, read Twilight once in a while. It is okay,” he said.

Yet, even though I am torn among all of these questions, I finally decide that I will treat art with honesty, loving things that I genuinely love, but in a very conscious and disciplined way. At the same time, I should use my curiosity to expose myself to other types of art, study, and become more knowledgeable.

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