Learning to Look 101: Art and Circumstantial Evidence

Tina Rivers Ryan
Feb 19, 2014 2:10AM

When learning to look at art, one of the first things to understand is the difference between a subjective response (informed by your own taste, personal background, emotional state, etc.) and an objective analysis. From a young age, we're asked to respond to art, but we're rarely asked to analyze it. When my students begin learning to look, they have the same handicap as the rest of us: They're accustomed to thinking of art as something that is "open to interpretation" and, more broadly, of the humanities as being opposed to the sciences. This means that they struggle with the concept that there is such a thing as an interpretation of a work of art that is more plausible than others, and that they don't know how to tell the difference between a defensible interpretation and one that's not really defensible, or is a "stretch."

Over the years, I've come up with an analogy to get them over this handicap. Think of yourself as Sherlock Holmes upon first entering a crime scene. There are innumerable things for you to notice, from the color of the carpets to the embers in the fire; your first job is to simply take all of that in, which requires attention to detail, patience, and time. (I call this "popping popcorn": wait a few moments after you think you've seen all there is to see, and BAM--you'll see something new!) Once you've gathered all of your data, you have to start to interpret it. But which interpretation is the "right" one? There are many possible ways to explain the crime, but only one explanation is the truth.

At this point, I find it helpful to introduce the concept of "circumstantial evidence." This legal term describes evidence that allows you to make inferences, but that doesn't in and of itself offer direct proof of anything. For example, say we notice that a figure in a sculpture is depicted with his eyes closed. We can infer that he's dead--but that's only an inference, because there are other possible interpretations: he might also be sleeping, or day-dreaming. Now, while most visual details of a work of art are open to multiple interpretations, if we start to tie together pieces of circumstantial evidence that all point to the same conclusion, we wind up with "corroborating evidence," which puts us on the right track to a plausible explanation of our work of art. 

To return to our dead/sleeping/day-dreaming figure: it wouldn't have been possible to argue, based on the eyes alone, that the figure was in any particular state; we could only make an inference. But if we then notice that the head is held upright (instead of lolling to the side), we have corroborating evidence to support the idea that the figure is not dead or sleeping, but must be in some sort of day-dreaming or trance-like state. 

In short, while each piece of visual evidence may be open to multiple interpretations--such that a single piece of evidence rarely provides sufficient proof for any one interpretation--there is still a logical way to gather pieces of evidence together to arrive at a plausible, defensible interpretation of a work of art. Looking at art may seem like madness, but there's definitely a method to it.

Tina Rivers Ryan