But What Does It Mean?: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Art Interpretation

Lately, it seems that everyone I know is reading Eric Metaxas’ tome on the life of Deitrich Bonhoeffer. And now I’ve picked it up. (Let’s just say it’s not exactly light reading, though it is excellent.)

I have been taken by an especially interesting section about 18-year-old Bonhoeffer’s semester in Rome. He sees nearly every important piece of art and architecture he can. He also develops definite opinions about how someone should interpret a piece of art, which, having grown up in an exceptional and intellectual family, are quite advanced for his age.

I’d be interested to hear thoughts from any of you readers about his bold assertions (I certainly do not agree with everything he says, although some of it is great!).

From Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer:

“At the moment it gives me great pleasure to try to guess the schools and the individual artists. I believe that gradually I am better able to understand something about the subject than I was before. However, it might be better for a layperson to be completely silent and to leave everything to the artists, because the current art historians really are the worst guides. Even the better ones are awful…[they] arbitrarily interpret, interpret, and further interpret the artworks. There is no criterion for their interpretation and its correctness.

“Interpreting is generally one of the most difficult problems. Yet, our whole thinking process is regulated by it. We have to interpret and give meaning to things so that we can live and think. All of this is very difficult. When one doesn’t have to interpret, one should just leave it alone.

“I believe that interpretation is not necessary in art. One doesn’t need to know whether it is ‘Gothic’ or ‘primitive,’ etc., persons who express themselves in their art. A work of art viewed with clear intellect and comprehension has its own effect on the unconscious. More interpretation won’t lead to a better understanding of the art. One either intuitively sees the right thing or one doesn’t. This is what I call an understanding of art.

“One should work diligently to try to understand the work while looking at it. After that, one gets the absolutely certain feeling, ‘I have grasped the essence of this work.’ Intuitive certainty arrives on the basis of some unknown procedure. To attempt to put this conclusion into words and thereby to interpret the work is meaningless for anyone else. It doesn’t help one person, other people won’t need it, and the subject itself gains nothing by it.”

2 thoughts on “But What Does It Mean?: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Art Interpretation

  1. If a work of art “must be interpreted” to be understood, does this mean that it has been created “in code”?
    I believe many artists today are so entirely caught up in redefining “what art is” that the resulting work is completely indecipherable – unless you’re in the club. That is, unless you know the lingo, the visual language. But if you’re not a curator or collector (or artist wanting to be collectible) why should you care to decipher that work?
    In this sense, I agree with Bonhoeffer.

    In another sense, I disagree. Much of what we call interpretation actually refers to historical context. I appreciate a work of art much more having understood the context in which it entered the world.
    For example:
    Picasso’s “Guernica” is a great work of art in its own right. But understanding its significance politically in the Spanish Civil War adds greatly to my appreciation of the piece. And watching videos of Picasso painting, seeing his process, makes me appreciate his works all the more.


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