When artists sets out to create a piece of work, they begin with a set intention to convey a message or an idea. It could be specific, like relating a story through song lyrics, or it could be more metaphorical, like inducing feelings via colors and shapes.
Whatever form the art takes, the creator has a desire for the consumer to understand the meaning as intended. After all, if the audience doesn't "get it", can the artist consider the piece "successful"?
I would argue, that art can have value regardless of whether its intended message is interpreted correctly. In fact, sometimes the alternative interpretation allows the piece to take on a life of its own, which is an incredibly powerful thing.
Watch the video below to see what I mean:
Although Vedder had intended a completely different meaning to the song Alive, his recognition and acceptance of the alternative meaning for audiences shows a testament to his character. Appreciation of the audience's ideas, even though they may differ from your own, is a sign of humility.
The Road Not Taken
Another famous misinterpretation also comes in the form of verse, but from a completely different age. The poem The Road Not Taken is one of the most misinterpreted works of all time, according to many literary intellectuals.
“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Most of us have come to interpret this line to indicate a point in life when we might be at a crossroads, facing a big decision, and that we should always go the alternative route. Don't follow the crowd. Forge your own path. Be unique. As a result, you'll end up living your best life.
However, Robert Frost himself stated that the poem is meant to mock the very idea that one decision could change your life in a drastic way. Apparently, Frost had a friend who tended to make mountains out of mole hills, and was paralyzed trying to make the most mundane of decisions.
Regardless of the intended message, high school valedictorians across the nation have quoted this line as a way to inspire graduates as they move on to the next chapter in life. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Given his practical way of looking at the world, I bet Robert Frost wouldn't mind this particular "misinterpretation".
Sometimes, the audience interpretation is more accurate than the artist would like to admit. Georgia O'Keeffe is said to have disputed the interpretation of her flower paintings as basic, semi-veiled depictions of the female and male genitalia.
Anyone who looks at the paintings for even a few seconds can immediately see the obvious similarities.
The artists denials don't seem genuine, but I understand her frustration. At the time, she was surrounded by male artists and was attempting to distinguish herself from their work. I think her art was clearly intentional. In a not-so-subtle way, she put forth her point of view that unfortunately was reduced to the most basic of interpretations. Maybe she hoped the men around her would see the beauty beyond the anatomy. Yes, they are flowers. Yes they are genitalia.
Despite arguments to the contrary from the artist herself, the flowers are exactly what the audience thinks they are. So perhaps the "misinterpretation" isn't one at all and maybe the same can be said of her intent.
The Audience is Never "Wrong"
When it comes to art, interpretation is up to the consumer. Each individual has their own way of digesting words, images, and sounds into a particular meaning. Despite the intent of the creator, the consumer may come away with a completely different take on the work.
I believe art is personal for both the creator and the consumer, and that is a beautiful thing.
I write novels and poetry and this blog.