Karen Laub-Novak: Writings
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The Art of Interpretation
Lexington Theological Quarterly, April 1977
© Karen Laub-Novak
Syracuse, New York

It was on the Lord's day, and I was caught up by the Spirit; and behind me I heard a loud voice, like the sound of a trumpet, which said to me 'Write down what you see on a scroll and send it to the seven churches:…' I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me; and when I turned I saw seven lamps of gold, and among the lamps one like the son of man robed down to his feet, with a golden girdle around his breast. The hair of his head was as white as snow-white wool, and his eyes flamed like fire; his feet gleamed like burnished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp two edged sword and his face shone like the sun in full strength.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as thought dead, but he laid his right hand upon me and said, "do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, and I am the living one; for I was dead and now I am alive forever more, and I hold the keys of death and Hades. Write down therefore what you have seen what is now and what will be hereafter.

--Apoc. 1:10-20

How do we interpret a painting, a drawing, a biblical text? How does an artist interpret her own images? Interpretation is not a tidy process. We are never sure we have the right interpretation, or even the best one. Interpretation is open to misperception and error. Interpretation is vulnerable to vacillation on the part of the interpreter, or to misconceptions in the interior process of the interpreter. The interpreter looking at a work of art may read ideas into every image, into every color. He or she may read much more into the work than the artist intended. The images may create a stream of conscious connections in the viewer that was not consciously intended by the artists. Sometimes an artists may acknowledge these further connections as valid. On the other hand, the artists may say that the viewer is reading far too much into the work. The intention was much less complicated, more playful, not so serious.

How do we proceed? Is it one meaning vs. anything goes? Is any interpretation as valid as any other? In painting from texts like those of the Apocalypse, the Canticle of Canticles, and Ezekiel, the means of interpretation the artists uses have more scope. What the artists is doing as interpreter is not giving one idea, or one rule, but a way of looking. Some ways of seeing are more fruitful than others. Some ways are wrong. By returning to the Apocalypse, I don't intent an "exegesis" of the text, an explanation of the imagery. I hope to illustrate a way of working, a process of perception, a visual language. A visual language grows from a process often unconscious, non-conceptual: a nonverbal language within a language. It is a language of images, symbols and media. Interpretation here is the ability to translate a text into a new language. It depends upon an ability to see visual connections. It is constituted by three kinds of activity: perception, intelligence, and physical action: eye, mind and hand. Interpretation is a response. Hermeneutics is a guide to this response.

An even more difficult problem in the Apocalypse is the conflict between dream and vision. To be "in the spirit" leads us to the unconscious. We often think the words dream and vision are synonymous. However, I see a disparity between them. One derivation of dream (Archaic German) is to deceive. (According to Freud the symbolic nature of dreams is to disguise.) The derivation of vision (videre) means to see, to perceive, to become aware of, to take hold of, to understand. Is the Apocalypse deception or revelation? Do we (a) read these passages as dreams according to Freud's psychoanalysis, where every image would have a double meaning? Do we see these images as the private illusions or neurosis of one man? Are they symbols which mask John's motives, fears, desires, inhibitions or self-deceptions? Or (b) do we read these images as having a logical connection to a deeper meaning? Not as a activity of masking, but of unmasking.

To see John's experience as dream takes us down one path. To see his experience as vision takes us in another direction.
But finally John is more than a dreamer or visionary. The Apocalypse has the continuity of art and craft. As does William Blake, the eighteenth-century visionary, writer and artist. John records his visions and sustains them with an inner structure. These visions are bounded by form. They come to a conclusion. John, as Blake did, stood both inside and outside the experience. This brings us to the next problem.

The relationship to experience: standing in the experience and outside. The interpretive problem of the artist takes a different path from that of the verbalist. Tart is a language with rules of its own. Its rules parallel and at intervals intersect with the verbal, conscious, and conceptual. It is on one side unconscious, nonverbal, non-conceptual. And on the other side, it is a standing back and analyzing, criticizing, a conscious decision making. When the artists steps back from her work she becomes an interpreter of her own actions. She reflects on the conscious and unconscious visions in front of her. The artist needs to be both intuitive and reflective. The intuitive experience is standing within the activity. The eye turns inwards. But that can lead down many wrong paths. Into playfulness (but not artfully), narcissism or chaos. In another step, the artist stands outside the work, criticizes and interprets what is on the canvas or in the sculpture. This, too, in excess, can lead down barren paths, into imitation, stiffness, loss of spontaneity, dry and forced handling of the media. The emotion, the self-interest of the intuitive stage is guided by the activities f reflection, and criticism.

The interpreter of a work of art should choose a method responsive to these two rhythms of the visual arts: to enter into the work, and then to distance oneself from it. To respond unconsciously, intuitively to the materials and to exercise judgment, to select, to analyze, to criticize, the activity.

To enter into the intuitive and into the unconscious is to be vulnerable to a loss of structure. To be vulnerable to meanings within meanings that finally fracture apart into an absurd jumble. Dream and fantasy are recorded in works of art through craft. A work must have limits. Even in cinema; each sequence is a unit. The dreamer as opposed to the artist has no boundaries and is fixed in illusion. The artist as opposed to the dreamer will set limits and become a maker. The artists will make concrete the floating images, symbols, responses, dreams and feelings of the imagination. Thus, without craft, free fantasies are without form. They are merely scattered moments. Art grabs them, pulls them together. Art exercises restraints, pulls and pushes, directs and guides the medium. Art is work and exertion. The artists is part dreamer and fantasizer. The artist is part maker and interpreter.

As an artist/interpreter I will describe five dangers that have to be overcome in the act of interpretation. Three of these dangers have two sides in conflict. What makes interpretation so difficult is that one must, sometimes, align oneself with one side or the other. Interpretation would be simple if we could set out a series of rules to follow in a straightforward manner.

The problems I see are five:
1. The tradition of the images. Are they literal or symbolic? Dreams or visions?
2. The relationship to experience. Is the interpreter standing in the experience or outside the experience?
3. Two forms of communication. On the one side clarity, and on the other side suggestion. On one side analysis, on the other composing a whole.
4. Medium, materials and tools. These may change the meaning of the work. For example, the difference between the original language and the language of translation, ore between a pen drawing and a charcoal drawing.
5. The stages of development. The same image at different stages in the life of at he interpreter. The effect of experience on change.

Then he carried me away in spirit into the desert. There I saw a woman riding upon a scarlet animal, covered with blasphemous titles and having seven heads and ten horns….The woman…held a golden cup full of the earth's filthiness and her own foul impurity. On her forehead is a name with a secret meaning- Babylon the Great, Mother of all Harlots and of the earth's abominations.

Then I noticed that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and of the martyrs for Jesus. As I watched her I was filled with utter amazement….

Later I saw another angel: …and he cried in mighty voice:
"Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a haunt of devils, a prison for every unclean spirit, and a cage for every foul and hateful bird…."

"….So in a single day her punishments shall strike her-death, sorrow, and famine, and she shall be burned in the fire…."
--Apoc. 17:3-18:9

John is "in the spirit." The passages seem to read like a dream or nightmare filled with fantastic imagery.
The problem for the interpreter is to decide (a) are these images literal or symbolic. (b) Do these images disguise or reveal their meaning? Are they dreams or visions?

Each image arouses waves of connections in the interpreter's mind. Do we understand these images in a literal way or as meaning anything we want them to?

The text advises us to look beyond the surface:

…the angel said to me: "Why are you amazed? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the animal with seven heads and ten horns which carries her…The seven heads are seven hills…There are also seven kings: …the waters…are peoples, and vast crowds, nations and languages…The woman that you saw is the great city which dominates the kings of the earth.
--Apoc. 17:7-18

Are these images tied strictly to the cultural events of John's time or are they paradigms in which we read the present? Do we compare New York City and Babylon? Is John using many images to reveal one idea or did he intend each image to reveal a multipli-city of ideas?

Each act of the artist, each brushstroke, demands a response and an interpretation. Not totally conscious but partly conscious, partly unconscious. But there is enormous conflict within the artist to be able to stand in and outside the work in a complimentary rhythm. So, too, for the interpreter in any tradition.

How then does the view understand the work? How can the interpreter stand in the tradition, in the activity of the original work, and its maker? The artist, I said, interprets as he or she works. Some of the interpretation is conscious, much of it is unconscious. The artist makes decisions about putting colors in areas of the painting by sometimes standing back and saying, "it needs blue up here or a little brown over there." But much of here decision-making is by habit, by the accumulated experience of making and doing; the experience of noticing a problem and then solving it without completely moving back into the conscious realm. There is danger in the area for any interpreter. The influence of the unconscious in interpretation can be fruitful or not. The unconscious can also lead us down blind alleys. We can repress good insights from our consciousness and our acts. We select and arrange our paints and ideas consciously but we also unconsciously select and arrange them. Some of the best material may be ignored because we censor too severely our psychic life. We may reject or accept ideas without being aware that we do. We may be narrowing our interpretive abilities because of this censorship. It is the unconscious, interpretive process that is the most difficult to define and which on one hand can either increase our abilities or diminish them.

There are two forms of communication at war with one another. On the one side, analysis and clarity; on the other, suggestion and the composition of the whole. One aspect of interpretation is to decipher symbols. However, the artist is busy encoding them. I see my own work as creating enigmas, not revealing them. In my own work I do not want to be literal and univocal, but to create several levels of meaning. I am attempting to obscure, not to reveal.

As an artist I am asking the viewer to cope with several levels at once:
(a) the media and the materials-paint or clay, ink, pastel, line, texture, paper:
(b) color values-black and white, shades of gray, blue, red, yellow, green; and also tone;
(c) shapes and forms within the media and the colors-the illusions of space;
(d) images that are literal. Images that are obscure and symbolic; and
(e) the unconscious. What lies behind the image? The viewer is asked to participate in the work through his or her own paths of intuitive understanding.

My intention is not to reveal but to both reveal and hide. By hiding the literal meaning, to reveal another level of our unconscious and conscious enigmas. To ask the viewer to float on the edge of the unconscious. Not to create in a literal sense a one-to-one relationship between the inner vision and the outer form. Though my initial intention as an artists seems to be in opposition to the act of interpretation, the actual interior process of creating the work seems in many ways to be similar to the process of interpretations.

The artist is in many ways attempting to create an illusion. The interpreter is attempting to reduce the illusion to what is verbal and articulate, in order to translate its meaning. As an artists I am attempting to create a meaning by building up media and shapes. On the other hand, both the artist and the interpreter go through cycle of intuition, reflection, interpretation, and action. There is one interpretive process that is attempting to create meaning through images, symbols and media. There is another interpretive process, coming from another direction, which is attempting to see through the illusion.

Then a huge sign became visible in the sky. The figure of a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars upon her head. She was pregnant, and cried out in her labor and in the pain of bringing forth her child. Then another sign became visible in the sky and I saw it was a huge red dragon with seven heads and horns with a diadim upon each of his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them upon the earth. The dragon took his place in front of the woman who was about to give birth to the child, so that as soon as she did so, he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child…her child was snatched up to God and his throne while the woman fled into the desert…
-- Apoc. 12:1

Later on the dragon begins to pursue the woman who is then given
Two great eagle wings so that she could fly to her place in the desert, …and the serpent ejected water from his mouth streaming like a river in pursuit of the woman to drown her in its flood. But the earth came to the woman's rescue, open its mouth and swallowed up the river…
-- Apoc. 12:13

A literal interpretation by an artist would show each image exactly as the text describes it. My own activity was to read the passages over and over, putting myself more and more in the place of the woman. An act of reflection and feeling into the passage. The interpretation in this case was to combine many sequences into one picture so that the viewer will identify with the woman in labor. The viewer will feel the danger, the fear as the child is caught away, the darkness of the encircling evil, the strength of the woman with the eagle's wings, the power of the wings as a part of the woman. I attempted to give form to a series of images, events, and sensations in a single drawing.

The media, the materials and the tools change the meaning.
One of the most important part of art is the relationship between medium and the image. Art is first of all the concrete reality of one single medium. The bond between the symbol and materials cannot be separated in interpretation. The same image in paint pen and ink, charcoal, watercolor or pastel, creates a different evocative quality. Incarnation in one medium changes the meaning. Each medium has its own qualities inherent in it. The change in medium affects the meaning of a work in the same way that images in writing are affected by the original language or the language of translation. But not only do the materials create a different evocative quality, they can also effect the way the artists works. I drew the same image of a woman in pen and ink and wash, and then with charcoal, pastels, and black spray paint. As I worked with the pen and ink, the drawings became increasingly tight. I used patterns of straight small lines and cross hatching. The drawings were linear, small. The size of the drawing, its over all composition and design were directly affected by suing pen and ink. The amount of time the work took, the attention to detail and tightness of the work began to distress me. I then tacked up some very large sheets of paper and began to work on them with black spray paint. Something very different began to happen. I sprayed the black paint on the paper and then worked into it with black charcoal, pressed charcoal, white pastel, black pastel. The drawing opened up. The work came quickly. The line was loose. The shapes open, less detailed.

Not only is the response of the viewer changed by different media, but the artists herself works differently according to the nature of her tools, materials, or media. Ink responds differently to brush or pen. The use of canvas or paper affects the medium. The medium has a life of its own. The concrete reality of the spray paint or the pen and ink directed and embodied the idea. The medium talks back. It sets its own agenda, its own direction., The medium has inherent qualities that the artist must listen to, draw upon, and understand. The artists consciously and unconsciously responds to these qualities in the medium.

The stages of life. The change in the interpreter.
The same image at different stages may appear changed to the eye of the interpreter. In the beginning we haven't learned to understand sequences. Memory is short. Reflection acts with little experience. Interpretation is not a tidy process nor a linear one. The interpreter's ability to respond to the conscious and unconscious activity of his experience increases with reflection. Our interpretation of T.S. Eliot after reading St. John of the Cross is enriched and deepened; and we may even be annoyed. We first discover a difficult style and symbolic language. Another reading finds a deeper theological and stylistic level when we see the influence of St. John's poetry.

As our experience moves on different levels and broadens, it also becomes deeper if we train the imagination and memory. We make connections between the accumulated experience of the past, books read, ideas exchanged, and our own present experience. We try to weed out false starts. We retrace ground we've been over before, but deepen our understanding of it. We criticize our methods in a different way. We understand the work from another point of view. We train our crucial judgment to "circle" rather than to look at the passage or art work from only one point of reference.

Twelve years ago I interpreted the Apocalypse in a series of 17 color lithographs. I fixed on separate images rather quickly for seventeen different sections, made sketches, and then completed one print for each descriptive passage I had selected. The seie was finished and I was satisfied.

Twelve years later my intention was to reinterpret eight of these images: The four horsemen, the locusts, the woman in labor, the harlot and the new Jerusalem. I jotted down ideas and images on scraps of paper. I started with the woman clothed with the sun and the harlot Babylon, but never got to the other six images. Unintentionally, my method and changed. This time, on drawing would not exhaust the power of John's imagery. I did drawing after drawing of essentially the same images. I felt I could go on for months taking just one passage and reinterpreting it in different ways. The avenues to track seems limitless, opening in every direction. I kept doing more and more drawings. One phrase, one image, on idea, led to another. Each shape on the paper suggested other directions in which to go. Using different tools and media took me in other directions. I didn't want to stop. There were too many paths to pursue in the medium, form and symbolic content.

As children we stood within our experience. Ideally, we were encouraged to explore, to discover, to act out a story but not too early to interpret it. The child has an early ability to see connections between things. To be naturally responsive to analogy and metaphor. The young child should not be asked, "What is it?" She is attempting to form her world, not to give justification or explanation to another. She is telling a story, not giving an answer. The child stands in the experience, not outside of it analyzing it and describing it. To tell a story is an expanding process. To ask the question, "What is it?" is to narrow its meaning, its metaphors, to what another understands. One process is opening, the other is closing. However, as the child matures, the process needs to change. At each succeeding stage we want to develop and retain the ability of the child to see multiple meanings, the ability to see and to create metaphors and analogies, to see the dragons in the clouds, to see the images in the written word and on the empty canvas. But we need also to order our experience. To expand this process of understanding by asking further questions. To both empathize and to move to another level in the act of criticism.

The young child cannot interpret. Interpretation requires the ability to stand in and outside his experience in a complimentary rhythm. T he young child wants and should stand in the experience. However, as she matures, she also needs to be guided to view her experience, work and skills critically. On the other hand, too often the adult has learning to stand outside. To prejudge, to analyze. The reach understand of the self and work through preconceived methods.

For the artist, the art of interpretation is the bring these two activists of intuition and criticism into harmony. It is a difficult feat to achieve. It is long-term task. And we often fail.

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Copyright © 2008 Karen Laub-Novak. All rights reserved. :: Design by Blue On Blue