Panczyk, Aleksandra

Aleksandra Panczyk

Aleksandra Panczyk responds to the question: Are some types of knowledge less open to interpretation than others?

Object 1: An article from Chicago Tribune about Polish humour in jokes

This article discusses Polish humour in jokes about other nations, especially Germans and Russians. It highlights that in most Polish regions, there are jokes, often historically-based, about a ‘Pole, a Russian and a German’.

One way in which this object contributes to this exhibition is by showing how a joke is both a type of knowledge due to the level of background understanding needed to understand the joke, as well as a test,’ a measure of how accurate interpretation of that knowledge is judged by ‘getting’ the joke or not. The jokes mentioned in the article demonstrate how it’s not the jokes that are open to interpretation, but the knowledge needed to understand the jokes, due to their nature, rooted in the 20th-century history of Poland and its neighbours. A level of understanding of these events, tested by whether or not you ‘get’ the jokes, is needed, otherwise the jokes are untranslatable and incomprehensible. The joke’s untranslatability is what demonstrates that knowledge is open, or not, to interpretation. The joke is a ‘test’ of the knowledge: if you ‘get’ the joke, you understand the recent history of the three countries’ relations.

This object further enriches the exhibition by raising the issue of translatability. Historians of different nationalities interpret 20th-century Polish economic, cultural, etc history differently, whilst sociologists may interpret Polish stereotypes differently. The interpretation is of the knowledge allowing the joke to ‘work,’ which facilitates the joke’s translatability, despite it being seemingly untranslatable. Translation is an act of interpretation; however, some translations are more faithful to the original than others. A faithful translation demonstrates understanding of the knowledge behind the joke’s creation.  Different translations are differently faithful to the original, demonstrating more fidelity to the background knowledge than others, and that fidelity determines translational validity: the more faithful a translation, the less open to interpretation it is.


Object 2: A piece of art: ‘Immersion’ 

The release of Andres Serrano’s ‘Immersion,’ a photograph of a plastic, commercially-available crucifix submerged in a vat of the artist’s own urine, was met with furore. However, Serrano himself stated that he is a Christian: the reason for making it was not to blaspheme but to show his disagreement with the “(…) commercialising or cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture,” (Serrano, n.d).

This object contributes to the exhibition by presenting the artist’s arguments which interpret the work of art for us: simply, when the interpretation is provided by the artist who produced the artwork, there is no room for interpretation. We have a definitive knowledge claim made by the author telling us what we need to know in order to understand his artwork: we are told a fact about it. If our interpretation doesn’t match this fact, then the interpretation is simply false. We can doubt Serrano, refuse to accept what he says about his motivations, but we are not free to interpret his intentions, given that we are not talking about the interpretation of the artwork, but about the artwork as a manifestation of knowledge.

The object further contributes by showing that if we don’t know Serrano’s motivations, we can interpret only the product. The interpretation is based on either our rejection or acceptance of that artwork. If we don’t know what Serrano says, and only have the artwork, then interpretation is immiscible and possible because all we have as reference is the artwork itself. When interpreted for us by the artist, who alone knows his reasons for creating the artwork, it delimits the possibility of interpretation.

The stereotypical response is usually that artistic interpretation is subjective: here we have a statement of fact about the meaning of the artwork, hence its interpretation cannot be purely subjective when we know the reasons for its creation. If we refuse to consider this knowledge, our interpretation becomes invalid. If we know what the artist has said, and understand that the artist has told us how to interpret the artwork, then there is no room for interpretation. On the other hand, if we lack the knowledge of how to understand the artwork then it is completely open to interpretation, but the validity of those interpretations is questionable.

Object 3: The first version of the Periodic Table of Elements (without the Noble Gases)

This is the original Periodic Table of Elements, which lacked the group of Noble Gases. Mendeleev, its creator, knew the missing elements must exist, but had not yet discovered them.

The object enhances the exhibition because the knowledge behind the creation of this table was based on an understanding of fundamental scientific-chemical principles. Mendeleev didn’t know what the missing elements were, but he knew these elements must exist, and their precise placement in the table. He thus set a challenge to future scientists: with the knowledge provided by the now-existing table and their own scientific knowledge, they could complete his work, using the scientific method.

The object further contributes to the exhibition by showing that the question of being ‘open to interpretation’ is again not viable. Understanding the scientific method implies limited room for interpretation: scientists couldn’t interpret the gaps in the table outside the confines of the scientific methodFollowing this method means there is no room for fundamentally reinterpreting Mendeleev’s discoveries, though within the confines of the method there is some freedom of interpretation. Mendeleev challenged others to interpret what was missing, but left enough evidence, narrowing down possibilities regarding what they were looking for, therefore restricting interpretation. Scientists were free to name the elements as desired, to speculate – a form of interpretation – but were not free to go scientifically ‘off-piste’ completely and add any information. Mendeleev’s ‘gaps’ offered no point of discussion or interpretation regarding whether these elements existed or not; he stated they do exist and there is no possibility that they don’t, as the structure of the scientific method does not permit it.

Reference List:

New York Times News Service. 1986. “What Makes Poles Smile? Polish Jokes.” Chicago Tribune, May 22. Accessed February 1, 2022.

Campbell, Tori. n.d. “Piss Christ by Andres Serrano.” Artland, d. Accessed January 20, 2022.

Guharay, M. Deboleena. 2021. “A Brief History of the Periodic Table.” ASBMB, February 7. Accessed January 20, 2022.