In this mini-documentary, Sean Hammond explores the philosophy behind artist intention and its value when understanding works of art. Filled with interviews and illustrative examples ranging from music, painting, sculpting, and literature; the primary question centralizes around which matters more when evaluating art - the audience interpretation or artist intention?
Created for information and educational purposes only. This project was conducted under the University of Nevada Las Vegas Department of Philosophy, Philosophy of Aesthetics 452, by Professor Ian Dove. He said I nailed it. *insert thumbs up*
Sarah Saturday – Gardening, Not Architecture
Cedbill – Writer / Creator of Phantom Squad
Margaret Piepenbrink – Biological Illustrator & Packaging Designer
Prof. Dr. Todd Jones, Ph.D. – University of Nevada Las Vegas Philosophy Department
Prof. Dr. Ian Dove, Ph.D. – University of Nevada Las Vegas Philosophy Department
A heartfelt thanks and much appreciation to all of the artists, creators, and producers that contributed illustrative examples. All photos, recordings, and artworks are retained by their respective copyright owners.
Welcome to San Jose Comic Con, a premier gathering of nerds, scholars, celebrities, and artists that combines everything pop culture, science, technology, and art. This year’s theme—exploring what it means to be human. My quest at the con—to sell a few books and further investigate the meaning behind art; namely artist intention.
What does giving an interpretation of an artwork accomplish? Is there a single correct interpretation, or are multiple acceptable variations? What matters more when evaluating the meaning of an artwork, artist intent or audience interpretation?
And I’m Sean Hammond, Author and Philosopher. Join us as we discuss the divisive argument between audience interpretation and artist intention; getting one step closer at what’s really going on behind your favorite works of art.
When we ask, “does artist intention matter?”–well, matter in reference to what? Generally what we mean is does it matter in regard to the artist, to the artwork, and to the audience.
Unquestionably artist intention matters to the artist—the act of creation by nature is intentional. While art can be serendipitous, overall it is not accidental. The reasons behind why an artist creates something don’t have to be good—say, boredom or apathy—but the key feature is that there has to be reasons or the end product could never exist.
Artist intention doesn’t matter much to the artwork itself—works of art are inanimate objects. In this context, only people are able to attribute and assign meaning. Whether or not the artist fulfills his or her intention, or whether that intention was properly received by the audience, isn’t a concern of the actual object.
That leaves us with artist intention and the audience interpretation; this being the most controversial and divisive claim. About 70 ago years when the topic really gained philosophical attention, there were lines drawn--either you believe artist intention was central in understanding an artwork, or you thought intention was completely irrelevant and interpretation was all that mattered. Now the views are much more moderate, both sides compromising and agreeing that on some level each side plays a role—now it’s just a debate about to what degree and overall which matters more when understanding an artwork—the artist intention or audience interpretation.
[Inteview with Professor Todd Jones & Cedbill]
Before we get too much further, when beginning to consider artist intention, first we need to understand what we are talking about. What is art? What is intent and why do we value it? What is meaning and what makes something meaningful?
Defining art is like trying to define love—there are countless interpretations, which is odd because unlike love, artworks are tangible objects. We can see art—hear it, taste it, and in some cases become part of it. So why can’t we define art? The problem is trying to confine artworks into meeting necessary and sufficient conditions—“this is the criteria an artwork must meet in order to be considered art.” When doing this, we’re always able to find a counterexample that contradicts our definition, leaving most of our accounts to be explosive—anything and everything becoming art, which doesn’t help us in understanding what art is—or restrictive, our definition too ridged and it leaves things out that we’d like to consider as art. This lack of a universal definition serves as the foundation from which all philosophical art issues arise.
[Interview with Cedbill & Meg Piepenbrink]
Intent, on the other hand, is the purpose behind the action. A reason. And reasons can be subdivided into two categories; what for? and how come? How Come? questions seeks the process that explains the occurrence, or in other words, a kind of continuity. Home Come? questions do not attempt to explain purpose or function, rather these questions would explain the historical context of the time or personal events in the artist’s life that inspired the work to be created. An example of this would be the political turmoil and bombing that led to the creation of Guernica by Pablo Picasso. As seen here in this art history documentary, the How Come? of Guernica are the first questions the scholar addresses.
However, there’s some that view Home Come? questions as irrelevant when determining the correct meaning of an artwork. For those who favor audience interpretation, they argue that either artist intentions are successfully embodied in the artwork itself, or they are not. If the artist successfully articulated their intentions, any external reference of the artist’s life—in Picasso’s case, understanding the Spanish civil war and the Nationalist’s bombing of Guernica—will contribute nothing to the interpretation of the actual artwork. Any of this external “how come?” information only takes us away from the artwork, and the debate spirals into irrelevancies beyond what the artist actually created. A brief note, this method of interpretation typically aligns with a representational theory of art as opposed to a conventional theory, but more on this later.
[Interview with Meg Piepenbrink]
In our pursuit of intent, the other category of reason finding is What For? What for? questions seeks to understand function, and then provides meaning of that function in the larger narrative of the observation. When someone asks me “why are you writing your book?” they are really asking “what is the function / purpose of your book?” or rather, “what are you writing the book for?” What For? questions evolve out of How Come? questions. Once causes are understood from How Come? questions, further What For? questions are asked to understand purpose and relevance; the combination of both sets of reasons yield design and purpose. This is why it is naive for those who simply favor audience interpretation and reject the significance of the historical context or personal events in the artist’s life that gave rise to creation of the work. In order to fully understand purpose and function, you must first understand the causes and consequences that determined the need for the artwork to be created in the first place.
[Interview with Professor Todd Jones]
Now that we understand the reasons behind intention, how do we use intent and why do we value it? Outside of art, the use of intent has massive legal consequences. Intent is one of the three general classes in determining if a person committed a crime. Ascribing intent to the accused is a necessary element of many crimes when determining a verdict. Lives are literally on the line and hinge upon intention. Bringing this back to art, trivializing artist intention to the point of irrelevancy when doing an overall critique of an artwork is a massive inconsistency when in keeping with our value system. The reasons why someone does something matters when forming judgements and evaluations—whether it’s committing crimes, nations deciding to go to war, or whether someone decides to get married for love or money—we don’t just the consider the outcome of these actions, but the reasons behind them.
One final comment on the value of intention. Should the market be your barometer of whether artist intention matters, the value of fakes and forgeries are significantly less than originals. Why is this? Formally, fakes can be technically indiscernible—the world’s best historians and curators being fooled by imposters. The aesthetic experience for the audience of these fakes is exactly the same as the original—the driving force in value seems to be related to the How Come? and What For? reasons of the piece, and not the audience interpretation or representational enjoyment of them. This suggest that when attributing value to these artworks, artist intention—such as genuine expressionism or originality—sells for more than when artist intention was to profit off of the work of others, deceive, or gain notoriety. In this case, the market is the audience, and the audience attributes a great deal of value according to the artist intention, not just the experience they get from the artwork.
[Interview with Professor Todd Jones]
Meaning includes grasping representational and conventional properties in works of art. Meaning is the product of coming to understand a work, where understanding encompasses a full range of kinds of awareness of artistically pertinent properties.
Someone cannot not mean just anything by their utterances; you can only be relevantly understood by intending what your words could mean. The range of the possible meanings of your words is determined by the person you’re saying them to—and that determination is dependent upon their entire lifetime of background experience and conventional knowledge.
Of the possible meanings an artwork can have, which is the actual or correct meaning? When an artwork can have multiple interpretations, should the artist intention become the determining factor? The moderate view asserts that artist intent should be disregarded when it departs radically from what can be observed in the work. I say that’s fine for the casual observer, but not for the person who wants a complete understanding.
In the case of Louise Bourgeois, she sculpted many giant and somewhat terrifying spiders. When you see them, they look like monsters. However, these artworks were created in honor of Louise’s mother—and no, they didn’t have a falling out. As It turns out, spiders are extremely good protectors and caretakers of their young. Bourgeois became fascinated by this and in turn named her spiders Maman, a french-akin of "Mummy". Someone would never know this simply by viewing her work, however they’re rewarded with a deeper understanding of spiders and her intention by answering these How Come? questions as opposed to wallowing in their representational disgust.
Artworks should be viewed as conversational–approaching them in the same way that we talk to each other, by interpreting conduct and action. The interplay between the audience, artwork, and artist is a human encounter—we all have a desire to know what the artwork means because we have a personal interest in being a capable respondent. The goal of a conversation is to acquire an understanding of what the person meant to say, specifically to grasp the person’s intentions, and then craft our own opinions and responses to them.
So does artist intention matter? You can almost think of an artist as a miner—someone who sets off to uncover profound and universal elements of the human condition. Once these elements are found, they must then articulate this discovery back to society. The more effectively the artist can convey these profound elements within the artwork, the more people that will understand them and participate in this valued human experience.
Ultimately, that’s why representationalism is secondary to conventionalism. Simply experiencing an artwork doesn’t provide the profound and valuable What For? and Home Come? questions sought by the human condition—representation is merely an exploitative tool used in the process of articulation to aid someone in the ability of understanding the conventions that inspired the art.
The goal by both the artist and the audience is to be fulfilled with an understanding of the human condition; artist intention is the only mechanism of control in the process to achieve and deliver the desired results.