The 3 Levels of Comprehension: Why some people fail to get the point of art

It’s raining today. The skies are overcast, Sigur Ros’ Agaetis Byrjun is blasting out of my speakers, I am pleasantly surprised at how delicious this licorice mint herbal tea is. All of those things have nothing to do with this post. I just thought I’d let you know how nice my settings are.

I’ve done a lot of thinking lately (shocking, I know) about why people fail to grasp the point of literature, art, movies and music. Why can some people watch a movie and get a lot out of it, but others will just scoff at its slowness? Sure some of it has to do with personal taste, but there is another explanation: People have lost the art of comprehension. Maybe not at the basic level. Most people can understand what is happening in a film or a book (although the fact that people still talk about and debate the ending of Inception might be evidence that even this level of comprehension is dropping). However, few people are able to understand why the art is the way it is, and more importantly what it means.

I propose that there are three basic levels of comprehension. To fully understand an artistic endeavor, we need to get to the third level. Getting to the third level not only will help us understand art, but eventually help us understand what it means to live.


LEVEL 1: What is happening?

This is the most basic level of comprehension. Simply put, this is understand what is happening in the movie, book, music or art that you are experiencing. Mostly everybody can do this. Most art makes this level of comprehension easy. Some artists purposely obscure the events for stylistic purposes (Finnegans Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Heart of Darkness are three books that come to mind.) Consequently students complain that these books are hard and moviegoers tell their friends not to see a film because “it didn’t make any sense.”

But those cases are infrequent. High functioning human beings can usually comprehend what they are watching or reading. However, just knowing what happens is the entry-level of comprehension. It is the bottom of the barrel. Unfortunately, most people only get to this point. Look at ComiCon (or similar conventions) for an example. People at these events spend their time dressing as characters and only talking about the events of their preferred production. They’ll spend all their time practicing Klingon and never discuss the moral implications of the Star Trek universe. In fact, genre fiction fan base (sci fi and fantasy fans) are built on a foundation of only understanding the events. Sure they know everything about Star Wars but they do not comprehend what it means. They are forever stuck at level 1.


LEVEL 2: Why the happenings are happening.

About half way through high school, people are confronted by Level 2 of comprehension. They no longer can stay in level 1. Simply knowing the plot of the book no longer suffices. They are forced to understand the “why” behind works. Because of this stretching, most students hate their English class.

The “why” manifests itself in two forms. First, is the intertextual “why”. This is understanding the motivations of the characters in the work. You move past just knowing what is happening and start questioning “why” things are happening. If an artist is really good, he or she will make characters act in ways similar to real people. As you question character’s motives, you will learn more about your own motives. Art becomes a reflection of yourself and you grow as a person. It requires a bit of thought and a little mental stretching, but the intertextual “why” is an important part of comprehending the work of art.

The second “why” is the extratextual “why.” This really can be labelled level 2.5, since it requires a little more effort than the intertextual “why”. As you work to level 2.5 you start to question why the artist has made this work of art. You start to think about what certain scenes are trying to say. You notice certain filming techniques and wonder what emotion the director is trying to convey. As you do this, you begin to get in the mind of the artist and learn the theme of the work. The theme is the ultimate “why”. comprehending why the artist has crafted his or her work in the way that they did expands our horizons and prepares us for level 3.

This really has nothing to do with the topic. But isn't this such a pretty picture of Iceland?

This really has nothing to do with the topic. But isn’t this such a pretty picture of Iceland?

LEVEL 3: What it means.

This is the final level of comprehension, and in the long run is the only one that matters. Once you have understood what is happening in a work and why it is happening you are ready to ask yourself what it actually means to you. How does it apply to your life? What has it changed in your perception of the world? How are you a different person as result of this art?

Level 3 is the most difficult level, and is a level that a small minority of people can really meet. It requires us to expand our understanding to the whole world. We must analyze the movie, TV show, literature, music as being a reflection of the world that we live in. Doing this requires us to not only understand the theme of a work but to take that theme and apply it to the lives that we are currently living. Not only does this need a level of comprehension that is only developed through patience and diligence but it requires self-mastery. We need to able to know ourselves enough to know what a work means to our lives.

Everybody can to do this, but very few have the desire. Those who do are able to use what art is meant for: a soul growing experience that helps us understand the nature of our existence. These people will have a broader world view and greater understanding. They will be more alive.

I am still working on this. Getting to level 3 requires patience and skill, honed throughout a long life of experience. But this is a goal that we should all work towards.


I’ve written some lofty things about art, but not all movies, books, music, etc. allow us to get to level 3. Art has to give us that opportunity, but unfortunately not all of it does. This is what separates bad art from good art. Good art allows a person to reach level 3 and apply it to their lives. Bad art (Transformers) only allows us to get to level 1. There is not much more depth than that. Even the character actions do not make sense. Decent art (Battlestar Galactica) allows us to understand motivations of the characters and maybe the mind of the creators, but does not really have application to our lives. It is ok, but it will not make a person any better. Great art (I am looking  at Albert Camus’s The Stranger right now so that is a good example) has all three levels. It is the highest form of art. Basically I say this because if for some reason you decide to start following my advice and try to comprehend art at the highest level you may find yourself unable to do so. Never fear, it may not be your fault. Some people’s work just cannot cut it.


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