Overanalyzing: When Is It Too Much and When Does It Hold Value?

People love to find deeper meanings in photographs, films, music, paintings, etc. But what if some of those works of art were never meant to have the symbolism we find in them?

Coming to you from Now You See It, this interesting video essay talks about the pitfalls and validity of overanalysis. We tend to think that works of art that are judged as good must have deeper meaning, and we frequently attempt to ascribe some sort of symbolism to them. I remember once, after a successful premiere, someone came up to me and went on and on about how they loved the motif of the minor 9th in my piece and proceeded to give me an impressive analysis of the symbolism in my work. I smiled and thanked them, mostly because it would have been rude to say: "dude, I just wrote what I thought sounded good." 

There are certainly schools and movements of art where beauty is sought for beauty's sake (whatever "beauty" is), devoid of any sort of symbolic connection, but then, you could make the argument that the creator carries with them experiences, feelings, and biases that are then inextricably linked to that which they create and thus, even if the intention of symbolism isn't there, it's still manifested in the work. It's a nuanced topic that's a lot of fun to think about; give the video above a watch for more. 

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13 Comments

user-156929's picture

Excellent point and one I often wonder about. When I read a book, in particular, it's easy to read too much into the text or, more often the case, miss the author's underlying points.

Michael Holst's picture

OMG I wish I could have seen this when I was taking a cinema class in college. I had a professor who got ultra pretentious about film analysis and applied this strange overreaching formula to literally EVERYTHING in a film. It was exhausting and used to the point where watching anything became literally pointless because there was no enjoyment anymore.

When asked about why we were trying to draw fact from the subjective the professor got nearly irate. Thank god I don't have to do that again.

Mark Holtze's picture

Isn't finding the meaning and the purpose behind the whole thing what art is? I mean two people can look at the same painting and get completely different things from it. Seeing shapes in clouds is another similarity I think.

I think in many ways there's lots to be learned from analysis. I scoffed at it in my younger days, but I see the importance and relevance of it now. Art speaks to people on different levels and there's a lot of fun articulating and trying to dissect what it is about something that triggers some sort of emotional reaction.

Not everything is intentional by far, but when order is found out of utter chaos, it's kind of cool.

I say analyze away ;)

Michael Holst's picture

Yeah I totally agree with your point but I also think we see a common problem when people tell others that their own personal point a view is more accurate. It totally takes the fun away from art and expression.

Mark Holtze's picture

Yes I agree with that fully, if someone is saying someone else interpretation is blatantly "wrong" is just obnoxious ;)...removes all the fun from the discussion.

The KING KONG thing in Inglorious Bastards to me was just a clever interoperation that I hadn't heard before. Even if it wasn't the original authors intent, it's a new clever interoperation that kind of makes you go "mmmmm ya maybe".

That IMHO is just good writing.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm a big fan of the theory that once a piece of art is published or shared, that at least in part, it belongs to the viewer as much as the creator. Sometimes a particular interpretation is something that only works for a particular viewer.

I'm also a fan of the idea that sometimes intention is not intentional. That some of what you find in art is more of a channeling of a particular motif or idea that is charging it's way through society at the time. Perhaps Kubrick didn't mean for his colour blocking to mean something, but, that deep down, he knew what it meant, he just didn't realize it.

I love the story that he spent days searching for just the right shade of green felt for the War Room table in Dr. Strangelove. DAYS. Of course this was a black and white movie.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Completely agree. Sometimes those that do, just do.

William Howell's picture

I’m guilty of over analyzing films too. I thought Mel Brooks’ magnum opus “Space Balls” was an allegory of mankind’s race against global hotness, yet knowing there ain’t no way we could ever defeat global hotness.
Then there was the time I thought Barbara Streisand’s “Funny Girl” was allegory about bodacious bulbous proboscis on hot chicks and the dangers of allowing them near one’s stash of cocaine.

Yeah I over think stuff, way to much.

Bob Brady Jr.'s picture

I love spaceballs! But why was earth hot in it?

William Howell's picture

Good question, well I’m sure one of the Bushes was President at the time I watched Space Balls and as you know they are solely responsible for global hotness.
That and Barbra was in rehab, I think?

Bob Brady Jr.'s picture

What is global hotness? Who is barbara?

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thank you for the enjoyable video. Like some of the previous commenters, I tend to scoff at some analysis of movies or even still photos....except when I don't.
Sometimes it seems valid, other times not.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQomjZX9-Xk&t=43s

even Benny Hill mocked the pretentious film critic.

I do believe an artist creates something that others will interpret however they wish. The artist may correctly say he or she didn't intend (whatever it is)...but the rest of us may still see it.

Dan Marchant's picture

If people want to interpret I am fine with that. My problem is with the way that they state that "The curtains represent...." as fact instead of "For me the curtains represent....". Then having stated something as fact they have to defend it a la Michael Holst's Professor below.

What something means for you comes from your own creativity, which may be different from the creators or mine. Your meaning is valid to you but that doesn't make it objective fact.