– Τhe interpretation of a work of art and the intention of its creator

18 05 2007

Do we need to know, when interpreting a work of art, what the creator of the work intended? 

Last week I gave a lecture on Art History to primary school teachers. During the discussion that followed a lady said: “What you’ve been telling us is fascinating, but I was wondering, do I have to know all this in order to enjoy a work of art? And what if I don’t have someone around to explain, will I still be able to understand what it means and enjoy it?” We discussed it further on and as I was leaving, there came another lady who asked me privately and somehow secretly: “I am going to see the Miro exhibition on the island of Andros this weekend. What do I have to read before going?”

I was reading the Intentional Fallacy at the time and I kept thinking that I may be doing something wrong, by referring so extensively to external evidence when interpreting a work of art. I couldn’t help referring to Gauguin’s life and travels so as to explain that it was a kind of a quest for primitive values that led him to his intention to abandon three-dimensional representation and not lack of competence.

My discipline, of course, is Art History not Philosophy and a certain number of external references are legitimate and unavoidable since I use a combination of two kinds of enquiry, the critical and the biographical. But even so, in the light of our discussion, there were many questions raised: Do we need to know about the artist and his life in order to appreciate a work of art? Does this kind of knowledge enhance or impoverish our aesthetic experience. Is what I understand that a work means, the same as what the author intended it to mean? Does it make any difference if it is not? And so on and so forth.

I will try to discuss some answers to these and similar questions raised, by referring to two things: First, the presence of the artist in the work and the possibility of the work of art and its creator as two distinct entities. Second, the legitimacy and desirability of the claim that, in the interpretation of a work of art, we need to know what its creator intended.

Theoretically, it seems clear and obvious. The work of art is one thing and the artist another. They are two distinct entities and what is true for the one is different from what is true for the other. In art or literary criticism, then, the properties of the work are to be found in the study of the work itself and not to be inferred by references to the artist, because this latter would take us from the study of one thing to the study of another.

In practice, however, that sharp distinction between a work of art and its creator is much more difficult to draw. In the interpretation of a work of art we commonly use terms such as ‘intelligent’, ‘sensitive’, expressive’, ‘witty’, or ‘perceptive’, terms which seem to refer to a person rather than a thing. In trying to answer whether these terms refer to the work (but not the artist) or to the artist (but not the work) we are faced with difficulty. Most of the times, when talking about the properties of the work, we are indeed talking about the features of the artist’s mind displayed in it. How is it possible or feasible then, to draw that sharp distinction between the two and have a full account of the work, without referring to its creator’s life, intelligence or intention?

One possible way of doing so would be to justify the use of these personal-quality terms as referring not to the creator of the work, but to what Beardsley calls ‘the dramatic speaker’ /1/, a fictional character created by the author and present in the work, but not the author himself. But, though it is true, as Beardsley maintains, that we cannot always identify the speaker in the work with the creator of it, Lyas’s distinction between the speaker of the work and the speaker in the work reveals the fact that it is hard to differentiate between the speaker in the work and the author, therefore difficult to ignore the fact that the controlling intelligence displayed in the work is that of its author. And this is especially difficult to ignore in cases of irony or parody, where only the distinction between the fictional character of the work and the intelligence of the author would make the work have sense. Even in these cases however, of irony or satire, the response to social conditions, it may be claimed, can be detected in the work and not in the mind of the author.

Another possible way of doing it, is by following the Descartian dualistic distinction and claim that a work of art is a physical entity that gets its meaning from a mental entity behind it, the artist’s mind. That notion of an immaterial person lying behind the physical thing and giving meaning to it, however, is rather implausible. Meaning is not assigned to works by individual acts of intention or will, but rather within the context of a public interpersonal structure of understanding. In other words, in order to find meaning and interpret a work, we should not refer to the intention of a controlling mind behind it, but to the public meaning-interpretive structures of our common language. The concept of the person and the denial of it brings the argument close to an even more radical approach, that of the Structuralists, who call into doubt the very existence of the person and maintain that persons are nothing more than passive reflections of the structures of language. However, contrary to the extreme views of the Structuralists and despite the fact that extensions of language are to be determined by readers in a public, interpersonal basis, it is persons who creatively introduce and project these structures. In other words, if there were no person to introduce new words and meanings, no creative extension of language would have been achieved. On the other hand, if an author proposed a new use of a word or a new extension of language that no reader could follow, then meaning would not be able to be determinable by the public rules of language and therefore would soon become discredited or ignored.

What becomes clear then from the arguments and counter-arguments above is that in the interpretation of a work of art, and despite our willingness to distinguish between the work and its creator as two distinct entities, we are inevitably aware of a controlling intelligence (Lyas), an authorial choice (Sartre) and an operative mind or effective intention (Wimsatt) of the creator. This does not mean, however, that in our effort to find meaning we should ignore the primacy of critical over genetic studies and refer to external evidence concerning the artist. Once the work belongs to the public domain, meaning is to be determined by the reader or viewer deploying the structures of public language and the operative mind of the artist is to be detected in the work itself. After all, sometimes to talk about the properties of the work itself is to talk about the features of the artist’s mind that are displayed in the work, detected in the work and meaning is to be read off from the work.

Now let us come to the problem of interpretation and intention. In ordinary conversation, when faced with difficulty in finding meaning, we commonly clear things out by asking the other person what he meant by doing or saying so. Can we resort to a similar response when trying to understand a work of art and find meaning in it? Are Wimsatt and Beardsley wrong in claiming that this is neither legitimate, nor desirable? Identifying meaning with authorial intention seems dubious and problematic for a number of reasons.

First, there are cases when the creator of a work is unknown and no suggestions can be made for his intentions. We can still make sense of the work and appreciate it, however.

Second, artists are not always the best judges of their works. They may lie or misjudge the importance of what they have produced. As Socrates had said “not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration”. Or as the example of Johnson and Goldsmith shows, in most cases a critic’s interpretation is much more satisfactory than the artist’s himself. In this example, mentioned by Hanfling, Jhonson’s interpretation of the word slow /2/ as “that sluggishness of mind which comes upon man in solitude” gave an amazingly revealing aspect of the poem which Goldsmith himself, the author of the poem had not given in his interpretation of the word as referring to physical motion.

Third, there are cases of poems or paintings produced by computers, not by a human being with a certain intention in mind, and although one might argue that there was a kind of authorial will in the instruction of the program, the particular result cannot have been predicted by the person who programmed the computer. However, the works may certainly have aesthetic interest and meaning that invites interpretation, despite their lack of authorial intention.

Fourth, there are cases when the final version of a work is a result of an accidental act and not a realization of a determinate will or intention. Hart Crane’s phrase “Thy Nazarene and tinder eyes”, quoted by Beardsley was preferred to his originally intended “… tender eyes” by the author himself. On a similar line, Marcel Duchamp accepted and preserved the accumulated dust and the network of cracks that appeared after a tracking accident in the panes of his Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even), although they were not part of his original intention. There are also cases of dramatic works in which a hidden strength of a work is brought out by a talented producer, hidden because it was not intentioned by the author, even unsuspected, but to which the author has been recorded to have confessed enthusiastically. It follows then, that textual meaning is not to be identified with authorial intention, but it is still there, open to criticism and interpretation.

Fifth, there are cases when a work can have meanings that his author is not aware of. Hirsch claims that the fact “that a man may not be conscious of all that he means is no more remarkable than that he may not be conscious of all that he does”. There is, however, a remarkable difference between the physical act of doing something and the psychological act of meaning, which makes Hirsch’s claim that the implications of a text and its extended meaning falls within the “type” he shareably but determinably uses, sound rather problematic.

Sixth and most interesting, there are cases when the meaning of a text can change after its author has died and without authorial intention for that. Hirsch maintains that the meaning of a work is determined by finding out what the author intended. The fact is however that authors do not give the words they use a meaning. They use them with the meaning they already have within the structure of rules of the language. The same can be said for works of art other than literary texts, such as music, painting or sculpture. We grasp their meaning and interpret them, employing the knowledge we have of their appropriate “vocabulary”. In the public domain that it belongs, this vocabulary is subject to changes, changes that take place in the course of time and affect the ‘language’ of art itself. Not changes imposed by individual acts of willing meaning. In cases when we do not make sense of a work, then, and have difficulty in interpretation, the artist intention would not be of much help. What would indeed help is acquaintance with the ‘language’ they employ. Hence Beardsley’s reference to the experts.

There are also cases when we do have the statement of the artist’s intention that offers an interpretation which conflicts with a different but more common reading of the work. An example of this is Housman’s poem “1887“, quoted by Beardsley. Are the concluding lines /3/ to be read as sneering irony as most people interpret them or as straightforward Victorian patriotism as Housman’s himself claimed? Which is the correct interpretation, the ironic or the straight? As Hanfling rightly concedes, such questions are misguided and misleading, since an essential part of the enjoyment of art lies exactly in its richness of meaning that allows us to read look or listen to a work with more than one readings in mind, and each reading is desirable because it throws a different light on the work.

Do we need then to know, when interpreting a work of art, the intention of its creator? If we can master the public structure of they language it employ, we don’t. But what if we do refer to the artist’s intention? Does this impoverish our appreciation of the work? It may indeed do so in the sense of drawing us away from the pure aesthetic appreciation of its own qualities. The details of the artists’ life might force us into appreciating the work because of the details we know about them. The fact that we know that Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Rembrandt are considered geniuses and details and possible intentions are known about them may impose a way of reading, looking and appreciating their works. Perhaps if we could follow the line of thought of Clive Bell and bring nothing with us, we would appreciate the works more aesthetically for what they are, rather than for what our knowledge of external evidence compels us to do.

But what if we cannot understand what the work means. Isn’t it legitimate then to refer to the artist intention so as to be able to interpret it?

If we stand before a work with inability of giving an interpretation what is lacking is not knowledge of the artist’s life or his intention, but competence in the use of the specific language the artist uses, whether that is a ‘language of utterances, paint or notes’.

It seems then that what we need is not reference to the author’s private intention, but development of our competence in understanding and handling the wide variety of structures and rules that form the public language that gives works of art their meaning. And then the intention of the artist, even if it were available, would be no more desirable in interpretation because the meaning of the work would make itself obvious and would satisfactorily be read off from the work or the text itself.

This, to finish in a similar way to the one we started, possibly explains why my third year students at college do not ask questions like the ones of the primary school teachers of the lecture. Unlike the latter that were unacquainted with the subject, the art students, after three years of studies are not in much need of referring to such aspects of external evidence as the author’s intention. They feel more competent to offer their own interpretations and to discover aesthetic virtues, and they do not feel so embarrassed if they are told that the meaning they have found is not the one allegedly intended by the author.

* * *

REFERENCES

  1. Beardsley and Wimsatt, in De Molina, 1976;
  2. Mentioned by O. Hanfling. The whole line is “Remote, unfriendly melancholy slow”;
  3. “… Get you your sons your fathers got / And God will save the Queen”.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Hanfling, Oswald (ed.), Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishers in association with The Open University, 1992;
  • Wilkinson, Robert (ed.), Theories of Art and Beauty, The Open University, 1991;
  • Sim, Stuart (ed.), Art: Context and Value, The Open University, 1992;
  • Sheppard, Anne, Aesthetics, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, Oxford University Press, 1987.
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One response

21 02 2009
- Evan Miller

I am writing a paper on critical approaches to interpretation in the art of Edvard Munch. Without understanding the influences of the artists and ultimate intentions derived from learning such knowledge accurate interpretations cant be made. Structures and rules of language have no bearing, and is irrelevant to the discussion… as you have mentioned…

——————–
Dear Evan: What an interesting and challenging task you have embarked upon! Historians of Art are still proposing new interpretations to individual works of Edvard Munch. Munch himself (with his diaries) is to a certain degree helpful. Or is he not…? I remember having read that he wrote to a friend “I already had the entire Frieze of Life ready in poetic form for a long time”. Edvard Munch is by no means an easy case to study. Regards, P.T.

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