One of my primary goals on my family trip to China just before school started this year was to get some cool art for my room. Walking down the aisles of the antique market in Beijing, I had a feeling I was going to find what I was looking for. As I moved from shanty to shanty, taking in the different pieces of art while having prices screamed at me in gibberish, one piece caught my eye – this piece:
It had a sort of hypnotic effect on me. I didn’t know why I was so drawn to it, but as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I didn’t buy it right away, opting to check out all of my options first – but I kept coming back to it in my head. Questions began piling up: Why does the little girl have a knife? Why is the pig’s head in the air? Why the pink background? How did this standoff come to be? The overriding question however, as with most pieces of art, was what does it all mean?
Once I had the painting back in my hotel room, I sat down to examine it for a while. Eventually, I formed what I thought was the correct interpretation based on solid observations that I believed could explain the majority of the components in front of me. This had to be what the artist intended. But when I took this interpretation to my Mom, she told me I was wrong. She had her own opinion that she believed to be the definitive answer.
Now there were two people in my family with entirely different interpretations that they strongly believed in, but we couldn’t both be right. When we went to my Dad for the tie breaker, he offered a third, distinctive interpretation of the painting, throwing everyone into a tizzy.
This painting has been hanging in my Princeton dorm room for approximately three weeks. Each time a new visitor has come to the room, I have asked them to analyze the painting. Amazingly, everyone has offered up a unique opinion – some more unique than others, but all special in their own way.
The following is a list of interpretations of what I now call the “Pig Girl” painting, that I have compiled to share with all of you.
_My interpretation (I’ll let you insert your own parenthetical for me):_ The pig stands for corruption and greed. The little girl represents innocence. She is trying to stave off the corruption of her innocence, but the whole thing is a paradox because by killing it, it is clear that the pig has won and her innocence has been lost already.
_My Mom (same goes for her):_ Being that the painting is from China, the pig represents Communism and the little girl is an oppressed Chinese girl trying to rise up against the government.
_My Dad (and him):_ The little girl just killed a person. The dead body is lying right behind her and the pig is the only witness. She is deciding whether or not to kill the pig to cover her tracks.
_Freshman Male (concerned about America’s standing in the world):_ The pig stands for how the rest of the world perceives America. The girl represents Asia (China in particular) trying to supplant the US as the most influential world power.
_Sophomore Male (also pessimistic about the direction we are heading):_ It represents the industrialization of society. We are turning on nature but we have no choice.
_Sophomore Male (a carnivore):_ It’s an arrogant pompous pig that deserves to die.
_Sophomore Female (who should probably get to know the above carnivore):_ The little girl hates pigs. This is the last scene in her pig genocide. She has killed every pig and this is the last one left.
_Sophomore Male (putting his own dreams aside to follow in his father’s footsteps):_ The little girl’s family is starving. It is her favorite pig but she has to kill it to save the family.
_Sophomore Male (following his own dreams against his father’s will) :_ The little girl just stopped her family from slaughtering the pig. She took the knife away from her family. The pig is bowing in thanks.
_Sophomore Female (potentially on the road to an eating disorder):_ The pig stands for bacon/hamburgers (food in general). The little girl represents being skinny. She is trying to fight off the food to stay skinny.
_Sophomore Female (and a frequent victim of aggressive creeping on the street):_ The pig is the one on the attack. The girl is just trying to defend herself, but the pig is going to kill her.
_Sophomore Male (with an overbearing older sibling):_ The painting is not complete. Behind the little girl stands her older sister, telling her what to do. The pig is looking up at the big sister while the little sister kills it.
_Sophomore Female (with a very “special” way of looking at things):_ It’s like a combination of Charlotte’s Web and Up!
_Sophomore Male (who thinks pigs understand the concept of compensation):_ The pig and the girl are paid actors preparing to perform the final scene of their blockbuster film, in which they duel to the death; they stand against a green screen.
_Sophomore Male (and a Youtube subscriber of EpicMealTime):_ The pig is a huge fan of EpicMealTime and he has asked the little girl to slaughter him so that he may one day be used as an ingredient on the show. The girl is skeptical, but the pig knows what he wants, and he won’t take no for an answer. #baconstrips
_Sophomore Male (who knows that in real life there isn’t always a happy ending):_ The pig used to be a little boy. He was the little girl’s boyfriend. An evil fairy turned him into a pig and there is no way to change him back. He has asked the girl to kill him to end his embarrassment and put him out of his misery.
_Sophomore Female (and O.J. Simpson admirer):_ The pig is the little girl’s boyfriend. He cheated on her so she sees him as a pig. She is going to stab him as revenge for his infidelity.
_Sophomore Male (afraid of the dentist):_ The little girl is an aspiring veterinarian. The pig has a toothache and she wants to help. The pig is bracing itself for the pain of having its tooth pried out with the knife.
_Sophomore Male (upset about the NBA lockout):_ The pig is David Stern and the Little Girl is a huge basketball fan.
_Junior Male (and a fraternity member):_ The pig represents frats. The little girl is Shirley Tilghman because she looks innocent on the surface but underneath that cool exterior lies an even colder bitch.
_Junior Male (bitter about the lies his parents fed him as a child):_ The girl was told to slaughter the pig, but she loves it very much. She wants it to go out as peacefully as possible, so she told him that they were going to play a game, and that he should close his eyes and count to 10. Now she’s wrestling with her emotions as she prepares to knife him.
_Junior Male (either afraid of women’s rights or just grappling with his sexuality):_ The girl is a lesbian warrior on a mission to eliminate all sausage.
This list is just a sample of the ways I have heard this painting analyzed. Through this little experiment, I have come to realize that “what the artist intended” may not be the most important part of a piece of art. And it is not the lens through which we should attempt to experience art. As an artist, you create something that has a personal connection to you, but with the knowledge that nobody can have the exact same perspective on it as you do. Once the work is created, your job is done and the rest is up to your audience.
There may be certain messages or themes that are universally communicated through a piece, but each audience member picks up on a slightly different set of details and nuances within that piece. Nuances that you, as the artist, perhaps did not even intend. In any artistic medium, meaning takes on a new form in each person’s personal connection with what they see, hear, feel or even what they smell, taste, or experience with a magical sixth sense that nobody else has.
Some of the above “Pig Girl” interpretations may resonate with you and others (probably most) may seem ridiculous. But all of them reflect something true about their author’s way of thinking and about the subjective nature of art. After hearing so many different interpretations of this single painting, I still think that my interpretation is right; but that doesn’t mean I think that any of the other ones are wrong. My view is just right for me.