Interpreting Art

Sam Rose

ISBN: 9781800081772

Publication: February 10, 2022

Series: Spotlights

What is this?
How do people make sense of works of art? And how do they write to make others see the same way? There are many guides to looking at art, histories of art history and art criticism, and accounts of various ‘theories’ and ‘methods’, but this book offers something very unlike the normal search for difference and division: it examines the general and largely unspoken norms shared by interpreters of many kinds.

Ranging widely, though taking writing within the Western tradition of art history as its primary focus, Interpreting Art highlights the norms, premises, and patterns that tend to guide interpretation along the way. Why, for example, is the concept of artistic ‘intention’ at once so reviled and yet so hard to let go of? What does it really involve when an interpretation appeals to an artwork’s ‘reception’? How can ‘context’ be used by some to keep things under control and by others to make the interpretation of art seem limitless? And how is it that artworks only seem to grow in complexity over time?

Interpreting Art reveals subtle features of art writing central to the often unnoticed interpretative practices through which we understand works of art. In doing so, the book also sheds light on possible alternatives, pointing to how writers on art might choose to operate differently in the future.

Sam Rose is Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews.

List of Figures


1 Introduction

2 Artists

3 Contexts

4 Reception

5 Complexity

6 Depths



‘It's wonderful to have a book that focuses on what art historians actually do when we interpret art, as opposed to the claims we make about our methods and their histories… Interpreting Art shows how apparently well-understood paths of interpretation are actually half-articulated ideals that are as likely to run away with our texts as support them, and for that reason it should be on the desk of every doctoral student when they set out to write.’ – James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

‘In this lucid, sensible and insightful book, Sam Rose investigates interpretive practices common to almost all professional art historians, regardless of their objects of study, their professed "methods" and their schools of historical thought. Anyone curious about the “how” of art history as an intellectual and aesthetic endeavour will find Rose to be an invaluable guide.’ – Whitney Davis, University of California at Berkeley



Format: Open Access PDF

136 Pages

38 colour illustrations

Copyright: © 2022

ISBN: 9781800081772

Publication: February 10, 2022

Series: Spotlights

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