Director’s Note: The Question of Interpretation

In 1964, Susan Sontag published her momentous essay “Against Interpretation,” which includes her claim that “interpretation is the revenge of intellect upon art.”

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Regardless of the extent to which each of our museum’s curators and I agree with this idea, the wall texts for our exhibitions generally provide background and context but limited interpretation of the artworks themselves. The introductions to the motion pictures in the Dryden Theatre are similar in this respect.

Our institutional view is that more wall text (or a longer introduction) can distract from the work being exhibited. Moreover, proffering an interpretation could interfere with our visitors’ forming their own perspective on the work.

Our approach can have disadvantages. Visitors have widely varying preferences, and those who prefer more interpretative content may feel they have not learned as much from an exhibition that offers less. In some cases, an artwork can be fundamentally misunderstood by some visitors who are not provided with some form of interpretation — by the artist, a curator, or another expert.

We do present more interpretation and analysis through other forums: gallery tours, public lectures and discussions, and essays in our books. For our current major exhibition — David Levinthal: War, Myth, Desire — the Eastman Museum developed an extensive and highly informative podcast. A new format for the museum, the podcast includes interpretative thoughts from Levinthal, exhibition curator Lisa Hostetler, and several scholars. Docents and visitors have found it very useful in fostering their understanding and appreciation of the exhibition. The podcast can be accessed from anywhere, either by phone or online. We believe that it is the best audio accompaniment that the museum has produced for an exhibition to date.

I have been a great admirer of David Levinthal’s work for many years. Still, although I rarely use audio guides, I found that our podcast significantly enriched my experience of the exhibition.

The David Levinthal exhibition, on view through January 1, is the first retrospective of this internationally renowned artist’s work in more than twenty years. Levinthal is an astute observer of American popular culture and of the profound impact of photographic images on our understanding of history and contemporary culture.

Since the 1970s, he has channeled these insights into his artwork, exploring the relationship between photography and the events, characters, myths, and fantasies in American society. His work has made a crucial contribution at the intersection of photography and contemporary art.

As the world’s oldest museum devoted to photography, the Eastman Museum has a strong record of supporting the history and current practice of the medium through exhibitions, scholarship, and preservation. From the beginning of his career, Levinthal has made photography both the central subject and the primary medium of his art, which makes it uniquely relevant to our mission. The Eastman Museum organized his first solo museum exhibition, Hitler Moves East, in 1978, and premiered his first series of large-scale photographs, History, in 2015.

Lisa Hostetler, drawing on the Eastman Museum’s definitive collection of Levinthal’s work, has curated an exhibition that offers a unique opportunity to see a comprehensive presentation of this influential artist’s oeuvre.

Sontag proclaimed, “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” I urge you all to see the exhibition and, if an interpretation may help, try our podcast. Let me know what you think.

Bruce Barnes, PhD

Ron and Donna Fielding Director

Originally published in the Eastman Museum September/October 2018 Bulletin

George Eastman Museum

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