What does it mean? A quick guide to Integral Hermeneutics

Art is a communication, and hermeneutics is how we can skillfully interpret its messages.

“Integral” — holistic, comprehensive, inclusive.

“Hermeneutics” — the art and science of interpretation. From the Greek hermēneutikós, related to Hermes, the messenger spirit with winged feet who shapeshifts into whatever form is needed to communicate the message.

Wholes and Parts

Interpreting and appreciating art involves grasping the whole work and its internal parts. Hans-Georg Gadamer: “Thus the movement of understanding is constantly from the whole to the part and back to the whole.”

Wholes: depend on their parts to exist, but also ‘transcend’ their parts. “The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts,” because new qualities emerge — like the clock’s ability to tell time — that do not exist in the parts.

Parts: whole in themselves, but also make up larger wholes. For example, a whole clock depends on its many parts.

Everyone and everything is both “whole” with parts and is “part” of larger wholes: we are whole-parts, aka “holons.” Ken Wilber’s favorite example: a whole letter is part of a whole word, which is part of a whole sentence, which is part of a whole paragraph, and so on. In a similar way, a whole atom is part of a whole molecule, which is part of a whole cell, which is part of a whole organism, which is part of a whole gene pool, and on it goes.

All I See Is Part of Me

So, are you “part” of the physical universe? If we stick with our definitions, then the answer is no, you’re not. The physical universe of atoms and molecules and stars is part of you. You depend on it to exist, not the other way around. We confuse size with depth, but the larger universe is actually lower on the totem pole, in that it is more fundamental/foundational. It is part of you.

Art objects are likewise not just “parts” of a larger culture; cultures (contexts) are in fact foundational dimensions of the artworks (texts), which is why we must look to them whenever we wish to interpret a work of art.

Four Places of Meaning

To cover all our bases and to get the most holistic, informed, and integral view of the art object as possible, we must engage not only with its cultural context, but also with three other aspects of the work: the maker, the material artwork itself, and the viewer. We must touch base with MCAV!

Meaning in the maker

The artist’s intent matters. Email or call them and ask them what the artwork means if they’re alive, or try to put yourself in their shoes and reconstruct their subjective experience. This is nearly impossible, although archeologists are particularly good at recovering past intentions. However, because artists, like all narrators, are unreliable, and because they may not even know “why” they made something, we sometimes must use psychoanalysis and a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” aka reading between the lines to get beyond the obvious, self-evident meanings and uncover the artist’s hidden intentions. (Picasso cutting up women’s bodies wasn’t just because he “enjoys abstraction”). Which leads us to…

Meaning in the culture

Artworks are culturally and historically situated. Look at surrounding conditions and cultural values to find meanings. For example, what a religious painting means to the culture that produced it will be different from what that painting means to a neighboring culture, or to, say, people a thousand years from now.

Meaning in the artwork

This approach is called “new criticism” and “formalism.” It looks only at the art object or text. The meaning can be found in the artwork itself, in its affordances (or cues and properties that tell us how the object is used) and if it can’t be found there, then it’s not a very good work of art! After all, the artwork, in and by itself, is what really matters, and it alone can and does transmit meaning. We should ignore the personality (conscious or unconscious) of the maker, ignore the historical setting, the time, the place, and look solely at the “thingly character” of the artwork itself.

Meaning in the viewer

This is known as reception and response. The Meaning of art is found in the viewer and the critics’ response to it. John Passmore (1991): “The proper point of reference in discussing works of art is an interpretation it sets going in an audience… Indeed, the interpreter, not the artist, creates the work.” This is why reading the text is also writing the text, since every word is enacted through one’s own experiences. Roland Barthes: “Every text is eternally written here and now.”

Barthes also said that “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” From this perspective, authorial intent, form, and cultural context don’t really matter. An artwork’s significance is in what it does to us. How does it make you feel?

MCAV! Maker, Culture, Artwork, Viewer. All four of these irreducible dimensions of the artwork are important, but sometimes one can deliver a truer meaning.

For example, art theorist and activist Susan Sontag believes that, in our current state of perpetual interruption, the truest meaning of most artwork is found in the “A,” or artwork itself, whose inherent silence can profoundly still and open the mind. As the saying goes: “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” She warns us in her 1964 essay Against Interpretation not to venture too far away from the materiality of the object, or else its true significance will get lost in “translations.” Artworks are, after all, always already translations of ineffable experiences anyway, so why translate the translation? That redundancy, according to Sontag, sets up an unnecessary, overstimulating, vampiric “world of shadows” that numbs us. It also confuses the map with the territory.

However, if we look only at the artwork, we might miss something crucial. Ken Wilber (1999) argues that sometimes the ultimate meaning is found in the “M,” the maker. His example is a famous misinterpretation of Vincent van Gogh’s painting, A Pair of Worn Shoes. If we only look at the painting, these shoes could be anyone's. Only by reading van Gogh’s letters do we discover the real meaning behind the painting: they are his shoes, the shoes he was wearing when he left home to become a preacher; the shoes he was wearing when he saved a man’s life (!?!); the shoes he was wearing when he had an experience of union with the heart and mind of his creator. The meaning of that yellow halo can now come into greater focus.

As you can see, hermeneutical problems arise when we don’t at least touch base with the different dimensions of the work.

Next time you are entertaining a work of art in your imagination, be sure to touch base with the four contexts, the four places, MCAV. See what happens. You may find that the newfound meanings generate more appreciation and more room to dream.

Painter and Professor of Art