15 Works of Art We’ve All Read Too Much Into
Stuff’s good, isn’t it? In some circles, that is more than enough interpretation of things, but in others, depth, scrutiny and in-depth analysis are demanded. It’s not enough to look at a piece of art and say, “Yeah, that’s really great!” — you have to point out how the clouds in the background symbolize the internal state of the artist, or the shape of the frame contains subtextual cues about the political state of the world at the time of painting.
Certain pieces of work just seem to encourage more of this than others, drawing endless interpretation and analysis, decade after decade of academic pontificating about the symbolic nature of a super-cool painting of a dog.
Sometimes it’s genuinely fascinating, but a lot of the time it comes across as overthinking in a way the creator of the artwork wasn’t necessarily doing — the clouds might just be clouds. They might not have been there in their studio going, “And of course, the angle of the window frame in the background will make it clear to everyone who sees this picture that I have complex views on post-war Russia.” Like, plenty of it is clearly valid, but maybe sometimes people are just doing things to fill the frame, or because they think it looks nice.
There are some iconic creative works that have been so over-scrutinized and analyzed to within an inch of existing, to the point that it somehow ends up making them seem less interesting, less impressive and more like hard work. And hard work’s not good. Stuff’s good, isn’t it?
What’s She Got to Smile About?
The Mona Lisa has been discussed, analyzed and thought about far more than it warrants. From speculation about her identity to overanalysis of her smile to absurd conspiracy theories — Dan Brown gotta eat. Maybe it’s just… a nice picture.
Is Jesus’ Bread a Secret Song?
People love overthinking Leonardo Da Vinci. What else would spur someone to investigate whether the bread rolls in The Last Supper were meant to represent notes on a stave? It turns out they might, which is bonkers, but even considering that might be a thing is, surely, bonkers.
Was Michelangelo Really a Party Dude?
Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, a massive fresco in the Sistine Chapel, has been endlessly scrutinized. Does the flayed skin of St. Bartholemew contain a self-portrait of the artist? And if so, isn’t that hella badass?
Who Is Everyone, and How, and Why, When? WHERE
Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas is incredible, seen from the POV of the royal family as — whoa — Velázquez paints them. A staggering amount of academic papers have been written about the relationships portrayed. Can’t it just be… super rad?
Heeeeeeere’s Johnny! But What Does That Mean?
There are so many theories, mysteries and questions about Stanley Kubrick’s movie of Stephen King’s book The Shining that a feature-length documentary, Room 237, barely scratched the surface. What the theories detract from is that it’s fun and spooooky.
I’m Sorry Dave, I’m Afraid I Don’t Mean That
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey invites similar overanalysis, with different analytical approaches reaching entirely contrary positions — there are painstakingly detailed papers about how optimistic it is, and similarly hard-researched ones about its apocalyptic pessimism.
These Things Are Never Just Black and White
Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, while universally believed to be an anti-war statement, is interpreted as stating that message in completely contradictory ways. Some claim the bull is the people of Spain while the horse represents Nationalism, some see exactly the opposite.
Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory was, according to the artist, inspired by watching Camembert melting in the sun, but has been interpreted as everything from a treatise on the theory of relativity to a cheerful bit of ant-covered nonsense.
Keep Rodin, Rodin, Rodin, Rodin
Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker is interpreted as anything from a profound statement on the world as a whole to a pompous portrayal of Rodin himself as an extraordinarily deep thinker. Also they do funny posters of it on a toilet.
Butt Is It Art?
Pioneering street photographer Robert Duisneau’s photo Un Regard Oblique is taught in sociology lessons and endlessly dug into. It doesn’t need to be — it’s a dude looking at a butt. Great photo, not that much to it.
Every note, flourish and muffled half-syllable on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been inspected, reversed, isolated, analyzed and pontificated upon. Can nobody just clap their hands to it and think “this sounds nice”?
Blame Scarlett Johansson
Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring remains the subject of vastly more speculation than it ever seemed intended to. Who’s the girl? Is it a pearl? Is it an earring? Nobody knows the answers to any of these.
Van Gogh-ing Nuts
Van Gogh was in an asylum when he painted Starry Night (after the ear thing). Is every brushstroke an insight into his mental state? Are there religious undertones? Was he just trying something new? It’s all been pondered to excess.
What the Shell Is That All About?
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is, according to various experts, laden with everything from references to Neoplatonic philosophy to visual puns to ass-kissing references to Lorenzo di Medici, who paid for it. Plus you can almost see everything!
The Can That Could
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain — a urinal presented as art to challenge the definition of what art was — is still discussed and reinterpreted 100 years later. There is no chance Duchamp put enough thought into it to warrant that. It’s a toilet.