At a recent book club meeting, my friends and I were discussing What Strange Paradise, by Omar El Akkad. We were all bothered by the novel’s ambiguous ending which left us unsure about what happened to the protagonist. We wanted to know what the author intended, because it’s his story, and so what he thinks happened is surely the truth.
But in a 2021 interview, El Akkad had this to say about readers’ interpretation of the ending:
I have been fascinated by the number of people who have superimposed their worldview onto the narrative, and I don’t mean that in a critical way. It’s a source of great joy for me because I think that is the point of engaging with literature. What you feel has happened [laughs] is what matters. What I intended does not matter at all.
Something similar happens when we engage with visual art. Each of us brings our own perspective, our own personal experiences, preferences, and understandings. As a result of this individuality, we may each see something quite different in a work of art—and that may not coincide with what the artist sees or intended others to see.
For many years now, I have created mostly non-representational art, which means it does not attempt to represent anything in the real world. While representational art, like a landscape or still life, may affect those viewing it in diverse ways, non-representational art by its nature is completely open to interpretation.
This is one of the reasons I enjoy our annual show (coming up April 21-23): It enables me to hear from many people what they see in my art. Their observations and reactions often surprise me and help me see my own art in new ways. I find it fascinating that some viewers instantly give meaning to shapes in the art that I had not even noticed, and certainly not intended. There’s a word for this: pareidolia, “the tendency for perception to impose a meaningful interpretation on a nebulous stimulus, usually visual, so that one sees an object, pattern, or meaning where there is none.”
However non-representational art affects you—whether it evokes emotions or memories, makes you think you see animals lurking in a jungle, or is simply a pleasurable visual experience—your response is uniquely yours. There’s no right or wrong. As for what I would like others to get from my art, I am with El Akkad: “What you feel . . . is what matters. What I intended does not matter at all.”