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Conception and Practices of Interpretation in Art Museums — Interpretive Tendencies I shall proceed to give a broad description of the various interpretive tendencies occurring in galleries, some of which are more traditional whilst others attempt to be innovative. Overall, it can be said that the various tendencies accept the idea that works of art have multiple possible interpretations. Taking this consensus as a starting point, what follows is an explanation of the differences among the various practices.

The methods used to analyze works of art are those used by more traditional art historians: historicism, formal- ism, etc. This type of more-traditional interpretive tendency leads to gallery practices where any act of interpretation is usually reduced to an unquestioning reception of the legitimised meanings, i. Because of this, there is usually no space for diverging interpretations or positioning.

Interpretive resources and educational activities -usually guided tours- are aimed at transmission and the visitor is expected to take on a passive role that aids the repro- duction of an institutional discourse based on the prestige of High Culture and the mythiciz- ation of art and the artist. Within this more traditional approach to interpretation there are differences related to the aspects of the work of art analyzed and, therefore, to the type of interpretive method applied.

Perhaps the most commonly found instance is that of educators who transmit interpretations of the works built upon the methods of the most traditional history of art, those that focus on the analysis of various aspects of the work of art: formal or stylistic aspects, historical aspects, biographical ones, etc.


This type of interpretive practices are present in all kinds of galleries, particularly in en- cyclopaedic-style galleries, holding works of art from different periods in the history of art, and in monographic galleries, dedicated to a single artist. More seldom, interpretive practices are centred on carrying out an analysis of the works from a descriptive and formalistic point of view; an interpretation that is viewed as more relevant than others and legitimises the voices of historians and curators that work with this outlook.

Thus, a formalist narrative, typical of the vanguards, is transmitted and, for this reason, such practices usually find their home in contemporary art galleries. Many galleries, in order to overcome this situation, have turned to learning models that seek the active participation of visitors in the creation of meanings4.

This change is linked to an epistemological move taking place in a broader sphere: the once prevalent view that knowledge is objective and verifiable has been widely challenged by the idea that knowledge is socially constructed and shaped by the particular interests and values of individuals. It is currently common to find educators that organize their talks around questions like what do you see?

What do you think? Which one do you like?

Nevertheless, in my view, galleries that have tried to put these new educational ideas into practice have not delved deeper into a reflection on interpretation and, owing to this, educa- tional practices stemming from these principles have given rise to two opposing notions of interpretation: the first one —if not in form in content- ends up by replicating traditional notions of interpretation and education; the second develops the idea that the best interpretation is the one made by the individual and goes all the way to the extreme, leaving the doors com- pletely open to an interpretive drift whereby the work of art becomes a mere excuse to talk about any subject.

VTS is an education method that exemplifies the educational and interpretive change of direction attempted in recent years. What makes you say that? What else do you see? The first question this kind of practices poses could be: Is it true that these strategies grant freedom for spectators to make their own interpretations?

Lopez and Kivatinetz, b Therefore, educators often encourage consensus and making clear which the pre-determined message that should be assimilated is7.

Thus, the interpretive authority that was meant to rest with the spectator goes back into the hands of the expert or the creator of the discourse that the educator wants to transmit. This analysis can be applied, as i have done in this article, to other practices based on just looking.

Consequently, beneath the guise of an apparent dialogue, this kind of practices continues to be a transmission and unidirectional model based on the same aesthetic notions previously discussed. Do these answers constitute an act of comprehension? By pointing out these fragments, will the visitor manage to understand the relationships established around the problem of represent- ation set out by the artists viewed as cubists? Will he or she establish any links to the con- ceptions of time and space that the theory of relativity had redefined at the beginning of the XX century and which painters took as a reference in order to develop their artistic proposals?

Will the children be able to go further than the painting and begin to see connections to realities, types of thought, that are outside the painting? Finally, if we continue to approach works of art in this way we do nothing but perpetuate a notion of art as a representation that the vanguards questioned a long time ago. This type of strategies based on just looking is not an aid to overcome many of the myths and beliefs that keep the public away from understanding contemporary art.

Umberto Eco

Case 2: verbal Expressionism. Therefore, educators encourage spectators to talk only about what they see, what they feel and what they think without setting any limits to their interpretations and without offering any information8. In these cases, it could be argued that these practices stem from an anti-essentialist view of the work of art: the piece does not have an essence, a message, and therefore, no limits to interpretation are given and there is no information input so that the spectators are free to create their own meanings.

What matters is that pupils think. It is in this situation when, in my view, we fall into an interpretive drift where works of art and exhibitions become a mere excuse to talk about something that the work of art may help to justify. Conclusions and Suggestions: for a Critical and Conscious Interpretation What can educators do to change this situation?

What can we do to avoid falling into a mere transmission of legitimized meanings or into an interpretive drift that leads nowhere?

In my opinion, we must find an intermediate path, like C. Meszaros, a Whilst in the UK and the USA this kind of practices was banished from schools many decades ago, in the Spanish State, this has been the paradigm in force until the curriculum reform of We need to know what interpretation models we use and decide whether we want to continue using them and thus perpetuating them. The second step is to be conscious of the objectives that we believe should guide our educational practices, because this is the only way to define the interpretive model we are interested in.

From my point of view, in galleries, we should develop educational practices that emphasize critique and the development of critical thinking as an objective. In order to fulfil such ob- jectives, it is necessary to develop a conscious and critical interpretive model.

By conceiving works of art in this way, the act of interpreting and understanding the work of art will not attempt to decipher a pre-existing meaning or to find out the meaning given by the curator, the art historian, or the artist him or herself. But neither will it accept as the best result or the final result of an encounter with an artwork and the gallery experience a personal interpretation that ignores all those meanings that have gradually been created around the work of art and that uses the work of art purely as an excuse to talk about any subject that the work may help to justify.

This model for interpretation will give the visitor an active role in the construction of meanings.

We can design educational practices that take as the starting point for the inter- pretation an approach to works of art from the personal point of view what I think, what I feel, what I can relate the artwork to, what does it suggest, what does it remind me of , the personal and subjective ways in which visitors create meanings such as through life exper- iences, opinions, imaginations, fantasies, memories , but not as a final result or the most desired result of the gallery experience.

An interpretation of an artwork should take into account a range of perspectives for ex- tending thinking about the work beyond the personal.

Critical knowledge of these meanings is what will allow spectators to build their own interpretations and experiences of the work of art in a conscious, critical and fulfilling way. Local knowledge. En Huerta, R. From knowledge to narrative. Educators and the changing museum.

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Will the children be able to go further than the painting and begin to see connections to realities, types of thought, that are outside the painting?

Finally, if we continue to approach works of art in this way we do nothing but perpetuate a notion of art as a representation that the vanguards questioned a long time ago.

The methods used to analyze works of art are those used by more traditional art historians: historicism, formal- ism, etc.

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