Since the 1920s, a certain view regarding meaning in art has dominated the Anglo-American universities and became almost dogma. This viewpoint insists that works of art should primarily be understood by how minds receive them rather than by the psychology that created them. Such an understanding of meaning in art essentially relegates the artist to just another interpreter of his or her own artwork. For this reason Roland Barthes famously proclaimed ‘the death of the author’.
To refer to the artist’s intention was to naively refer to the unknowable and to place unnecessary limitations on the wealth of possible readings of the artwork. Intention was seen to stifle the work. Adrian Searle in the Guardian once referred to Tony Cragg’s sculptures by enthusing, ‘Finally freed from the artist’s ideas and fantasies of intention, all the conceits that made its existence possible, including the fundamental act of making, the work floats freely, emerging from a kind of blindness’ (1).
In contrast, a group of artists have surfaced who share the belief that the author is alive and well and able to communicate their intended meaning to their intended audience with a degree of accuracy sufficient for them to be pioneers in society, helping to shape what will be, rather than merely documenters of society, recording what is and was. We believe that to consider the artist’s role as anything less is to effectively gag the artist, or simply drown the artist’s intended meaning in a cacophony of conflicting interpretations. We have become known as Intentists and we claim that ‘All meaning is simply the imperfect outworking of intention.’
What follows is a brief outline of this position and its importance.
A: What is intention?
At the heart of Intentism lies a particular understanding of the role of ‘intention’ in the process and understanding of art and literature. In fact, for Intentists, artwork cannot have any meaning divorced from realised or accomplished intention. In order to better understand the role of intention we shall first seek to define it according to what it is and is not, beginning with the latter. So firstly, what is intention not?
1. Intention is not always conscious. For example, when the phone rings my intention to answer it is not always a conscious one.
2. Intention is not simply belief. I may believe I will fail my driving test without intending to.
3. Intention is not a plan. I can think of a plan without intending on using it.
4. Intention is not wishing or longing since these things may be out of reach and not intended.
So then, what is intention?
Donald Davidson speaks of the ‘primary reason’ of intention; that the intender has a ‘performance expectation’ (2). If Davidson’s performance meets his expectations then the work would have the aforementioned realised intention. It is the interplay between an artist’s expectation and performance that characterises artistic creativity from conception to the finished work.
The stages of intention within the creative and critical process can be summarised in the following five headings:
1. The artist intends something.
By this we mean that the artist has a creative mental ‘surge’ with a performance expectation which can be sometimes so fast that it can feel instinctive, for example when playing free-form jazz, or can seem to evolve in a measured logical way. Either way this creative mental surge contains the seeds of meaning for all meaning in art or anything else is simply the imperfect outworking of intention.
Our intentions, as stated above, can be conscious, subconscious and even unconscious. Therefore, an artist’s work may include many unconscious influences such as instinct and habit. If the influences were permitted into the art-making process, then they are bound up in intention. The opposite of an intended action is not an unconscious action, but an accident. Even artistic accidents, when allowed to remain, have been intentionally incorporated into the end product and so have their meaning governed by the artist’s intention (3).
2. The artist acts on his/her intention modifying it as he works.
The artist, seeking to realise the intention, will continually alter their performance expectation where it seems fit. Even if the artist begins by free association, there normally will follow an intentional time of evaluation and editing.
3. The artist finishes when he/her intends to.
If intention has no place in the termination of works of art, how is it possible to know when a work is finished? Surely a work is only finished when the artist decides it is so. The artist chooses to refrain from doing any more, either by quitting and leaving the work unfinished and intention unrealised or because the work has fulfilled his/her intentions. When an artist dies in the midst of some creative purpose it is normally assumed that the work is unfinished, since the action of creativity was not terminated by the artist’s intention.
4. The critic seeks to understand the meaning of the work through the ‘realised’ intentions of the artist.
The meaning of the work relates only to the artist’s realised intentions, which is the finished work. Yet in order to understand the realised intention, the intention process of the artist needs to be recognised.
5. The critic assesses the appropriateness of the intention.
The merit of an artwork is to be found both in the value of the intention when realised, and how well the intention was realised. In 1878, Whistler took John Ruskin to court over a review that his ‘Nocturnes’ were ‘slapdash, unfinished, they look like work in progress rather than finished paintings’ (4). One of Whistler’s defenders, William Michael Rossetti (the brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), took notes on the trial and said that the art critic should always bear in mind the artist’s intentions. Whether the artist successfully fulfils these intentions may be difficult to ascertain but is the domain of the critic. However, Rossetti continued that Whistler’s work was ‘justified to itself by adequately and exquisitely fulfilling its own condition…Whistler produces the exact result he is aiming at’ (5). Rossetti was right in reminding Ruskin that any appraisal of artwork that fails to take into account artistic intention can be validly accused of ‘missing the point’. He does, however, provide a ‘get out clause’ for the artist if the chief test of the merit of an artwork were how well the intention was realised, since the artist can simply form his intention around what he has already done. It is the job of the critic to critique the artwork as realised intention with a bias towards ambition. A meagre intention almost perfectly realised ought never to outweigh a majestic intention sketchily realised.
B: Three Models for understanding intention and meaning in art
In order to better understand the relationships between artist and artwork and intention and meaning we shall consider three models: the traditional model, the postmodern model and the Intentist model. The models can be viewed in terms of a chronological evolution in how art is understood.
Brief explanation of the Traditional model :
The traditional model represents a linear understanding of how the meaning of artwork is conveyed and understood. The artist thinks of an idea (intention), goes to work and makes his idea a reality (artwork = realised intention) and the meaning of the artwork can be ‘passively received’ and understood by the interpreter by studying the artwork and to a lesser degree the artist. This model dominated our understanding of art for thousands of years until the last two centuries and because it is linear and almost mathematical, it differs little from the Modernist model.
Brief explanation of the Postmodern model :
The traditional model seemed inadequate once Post-modernist thought explored how individuals and communities engage differently with the ‘vocabulary’ of signs and the structural ‘grammar’ of the artwork. There are three key issues in the Postmodern understanding of meaning in art. Firstly, advocates of this model believe it is impossible to discover the artist’s intention via the artwork. The author is dead because it is the artwork that speaks to us rather than the artist. A broken bridge between artist intention and artwork illustrates this concept. Secondly, the process of finding meaning is found through dialogue between the artwork and the interpreter. Thirdly, the artist becomes simply another interpreter of his/her own work since the meaning of the artwork is not connected to intention.
For Intentists, the Postmodern conclusion that it is impossible to discover the artist’s intention via the artwork is right at the heart of the problem with this model. Of course, there are complications in viewing a work through the intentions of the artist but artistic intent is not as elusive as some would suggest and especially not to the intended audience. When we are in everyday conversation we habitually know our interlocutor’s intention without asking for clarification, indeed we become so adept at recognising what others intend their words to mean that misunderstanding surprises us. Historians often consider the bias of the author when analysing written accounts. In order to do so, they need to be able to recognise the intended meaning of phrases sometimes written in the distant past, however imperfectly interpreted. Richard Wollheim, Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, University of California puts it this way ‘why if in our everyday lives we believe we can grasp the intentions of others, why should we think…the intentions of artists, the psychological factors that motivate them, have a peculiar elusiveness…people have no hesitation in writing military history, in which they talk about the intentions of generals, when of course generals, by their very nature, are totally committed to concealment of their intentions. But nevertheless, the idea persists about artists’ (6).
There are several ways an observer can seek an artist’s intention. These include:
A. Interpreting the work through sketches that preceded it.
B. Reading any notes or communication on the work
C. Placing the work in the artist’s oeuvre and using this to compare ideas and artistic progression.
D. Seeing the work in the setting of its genre.
In sum, artist intention is not elusive. Even if it were sometimes difficult, a critic would be irresponsible to conclude that artist’s intention is irrelevant in interpreting a work. As we shall see from the Intentist model below, intention is both integral to meaning and key to appraisal.
Brief explanation of Intentist model :
Although the phrase ‘intended meaning’ has been used above in order to differentiate between the Post-modern view of ‘meaning through dialogue’ and the what the artist intended the work to mean, Intentists believe that all meaning is intended meaning. Sever the connection between intention and meaning and all meaning is lost. In the past, ancient hieroglyphics were meaningless forms until their intended purpose was discovered. The intention journey that took the artist from an idea to finished artwork was across a bridge that must remain unbreakable.
Meaning and significance
It is the belief of Intentists that there has been a serious misunderstanding of the terms ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ in art criticism. Director of the National Gallery Nicholas Penny, in conversation with Jonathon Jones of the Guardian (27 March 2008) said paintings that survive for centuries change their meaning again and again. This is a common understanding, but can this use of ‘meaning’ stand up to rigorous analysis?
A Case Study
In 1960 the photographer Alberto Korda took a photo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Korda had an original intention for the artwork and realised it in the photograph. Since then, the photo has reached iconographic status and has come to represent many different things such as ‘revolution’, ‘justice’ and even ‘coolness’ amongst teenage students. Are these associations new meanings of the original photograph unintended by the original artist?
In the case of the Che Guevara image two different processes have taken place, graphically represented at the top left (1) and top right (2) of the Intentism model. Firstly, as we see from the top left of the diagram, people can appropriate an artwork and thereby give the artwork a new ‘significance’ (not a new meaning). The distinction between ‘significance’ and ‘meaning’ is an important one and it is a misunderstanding of the difference between the two that led to the erroneous Post-modern concept of ‘meaning through dialogue’. The person who creates the artwork is responsible for the meaning, not the one who ‘receives’ it. Yet the receiver can choose to attribute a certain significance to the artwork. This significance can be personal, one of many ‘significances’ and can even be in conflict with the meaning, but should never be termed a ‘new meaning’. In this way individuals and communities chose to give Korda’s photograph a new significance. Secondly (as represented in the top right of the diagram) the original photograph was adapted by Jim Fitzpatrick in 1967 in order to create the heavily stylised posters with the red background that often featured on teenage students’ bedroom walls in the 1970s. Fitzpatrick took the artwork and used it to realise a new artistic intention, thereby creating a new artwork based upon a previous artwork. Another similar example is the alteration of the Mona Lisa by Duchamp. The intention of the new artwork is different and therefore the meaning is different. There can be no new meaning without a new realised intention such as Fitzpatrick’s.
Note also that the artwork is not the meaning, but rather the vehicle for the meaning. The artwork only means something because the artist intended it to. Equally words are not the meaning but can be used by an intender to carry meaning. This applies also to individual words. Swiss linguist Saussure believed that a word and its meaning is arbitrary. For example, the word ‘pen’ has no intrinsic relevance to a pen. We understand a word by understanding the intention of the speaker’s choice of sounds. When a dictionary states that a particular word has five meanings it reads as though the word itself has five intrinsic meanings without needing an intender. In fact, the writers of the dictionary are stating that people generally intend this combination of letters to mean five different things. Dictionaries are only as accurate in as far as their definitions conform to the use of the words within a context and by an intender with a specific intention. When a dictionary states that a word has five meanings, it is similar to when a journalist states that ‘a criminal has been captured.’ The journalist uses the verb in the passive voice so that person who did the capturing is not mentioned. They could instead state that someone captured a criminal but we all know that someone had to do the capturing. In the same way when a dictionary writer gives a meaning there is an implicit intender that is not mentioned, probably the English speaking public (see part 3 of the diagram). To avoid confusion it would be more accurate if dictionaries stated that one spelling represents five words rather than one word has five meanings. Homonyms like ‘nail’ (a metal fastener or fingernail) have two totally different meanings even though the spelling and pronunciation are identical and ought not to be considered the same word.
The implicit intender is used when archaeologists find ancient drawings in a cave. How do we know that crude scratches are not arbitrary marks made by the weather or accidental? How do we know that they are intentional? The observer perceives a meaning and therefore an implicit intender. Often the implicit intender is simply ourselves and we interpret the intender to have the same intentions we would have if we had created the same end result.
Summary of the Key points of the Intentist model
1. It is an evolution of the Post-modern model, not its rejection.
2. It restores the unbreakable link between meaning and artist intention: all meaning is realised intent, meaning is the imperfect outworking of intention
3. It replaces ‘finding meaning through dialogue’ (from the post-modern model) with ‘loading significance’
4. It sees the interpreter’s role of understanding the meaning as to recreate the intention journey, however imperfectly.
5. It states that the artist is able to communicate their intended meaning to their intended audience with a degree of accuracy sufficient for them to be a pioneer in society and to have a certain degree of responsibility for the effect of the artwork on society.
C: Beardsley’s Three Objections
Beardsley and Wimsatt wrote the seminal paper on the subject of intention ‘The intentional Fallacy’. (1946 rev. 1954) Beardsley’s key arguments against a link between intention and meaning are set out in an essay published in the book ‘Intention and Interpretation’ (7). They represent three important objections that Beardsley believed proved the link to be a fallacy. Let us deal with them one at a time.
1. ‘Some texts that have been formed without the agency of an author, and hence, without authorial meaning, nevertheless have a meaning and can be interpreted. For example, certain kinds of verbal mistake.’(8) He uses the example of when Hart Crane wrote’ Thy Nazarene and tender eyes,’ a printer’s error transformed it into ‘Thy Nazarene and tinder eyes’, but Crane let the accidental version stand.
Here Crane simply preferred the serendipity of the printer error. (The very fact that Beardsley can label it a ‘mistake’ means that the text is judged by the author’s original intention.) It is similar to the printer suggesting a word change and Crane considering what people would intend the altered phrase to mean and liking it enough to keep it. The only difference in this case is that the word change is accidental. When Crane decides to let the accidental version stand he is intentionally incorporating the phrase into his work and therefore intending it to mean something.
2. ‘The meaning of a text can change after its author has died. But the author cannot change his meaning after he has died. Therefore, the textual meaning is not identical to the authorial meaning. The OED furnishes abundant evidence that individual words and idioms acquire new meanings and lose old meanings as time passes.’ (9)
Here Beardsley wrongly assumes that the meaning of a text can change. Once the writer’s intention is realised and the text finished then the meaning of the text cannot change and it does not matter whether the author is alive of dead. The author cannot alter the meaning of the text without altering the text. The authorial meaning and the textual meaning are one and the same. Furthermore, Beardlsey displays a serious misunderstanding of how words develop by suggesting that words acquire new meanings independent of their use. Surely, the only reason words acquire new meanings is if they are used by people in a new way with a new intention. Words would never acquire new meanings in a vacuum. The OED is simply recording how one word has been used with different intentions over the years.
This is the same problem that was addressed earlier regarding National Gallery Director, Nicholas Penny and art. German philosopher Gadamer spoke of this as ‘eine Wirkungsgeschichte’ or ‘effective history’ (10); how a painting might be involved in all sorts of events that change people‘s associations of it. Yet, surely, when the artist finishes the work, the work has all of its determinate
artistic properties at that time? As philosopher Livingston points out ‘…an event, once past, cannot acquire new non-epistemic properties’ (11). If a painting is constantly changing its meaning, then we can never really know what a painting ever means.
Furthermore, a later work does not change an earlier one. One reads later paintings in the light of earlier ones, not the other way round. What can change, is a person’s associations with a work. Intentism agrees with ED Hirsch who speaks of this as the work changing significance (12). Our conditioning and socio-political environment can make us perceive some aspects of an artwork more sensitively yet be unaware of other aspects but it cannot alter the artwork itself. When the Nazis attributed degeneracy to certain modernist pictures they effectively attributed a degenerate significance to the art without changing the meaning of the work. If a painting can endlessly change its meaning then we cannot argue against Nazi art criticism. Our art could become defenseless against future art critics imposing their own meanings then being both judge and executioner.
3. ‘A text can have meanings that its author is not aware of. Therefore, it can have meanings that its author did not intend. Therefore, textual meaning is not identical to authorial meaning’ (13)
Here we find a further example of the common misunderstanding of the difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. Texts cannot have meanings that its author is not aware of, but texts can have a number of significances to different individuals and communities. The meaning of a text is limited to the magnitude of the author’s intentions, but the significance of the text is potentially unlimited. When Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream’, his intended meaning, the only meaning for those words, majestic though they are, was limited to the context and purpose of his speech. The significance of those words to African Americans, to oppressed people with aspirations everywhere, in fact to many who have never read the speech and so are unaware of the context is far greater than the meaning.
In practice academics almost always refer to the link between the author’s intention and the meaning of a text when they disagree with a critic. Logically, it is impossible to disagree with written viewpoint of a critic unless you believe that the intention of the author is linked to the meaning of his or her writing. Such a critic should not write, ‘Johnson is incorrect in his view of…’ or even ‘Johnson in his book is incorrect’ but should write, ‘the book is incorrect and of the author I have no idea’.
D: Conclusion- Intentism is a force for good
When someone speaks, or when an artist creates, who decides what he or she means? Is the speaker able to communicate or is the listener free to interpret what is said in other ways? Intentism is a movement that deals with such a fundamental issue. Should we be content to let our words and actions be interpreted as a listener sees fit? It is hoped that a reader of this essay would first understand the intention of the arguments before deciding to accept of reject them.
Conversely, Intentists believe that removing the centrality of intention from communication invariably leads to the break down of accountability. Can an artist, for example, the Jamaican reggae singer ‘Bounty Killer’, known for including death threats to homosexuals in his lyrics, be accountable for the impact of his work on society? Are the critics reading homophobia into the work or is there discernable intent that is morally obnoxious?
Intentism grew from like-minded artists who knew that the author and artist are alive and well and can act as pioneers, creating art that stretches human imagination and initiates aesthetic and moral debate of social benefit. They believe that far from being a regressive reaction to postmodernism, Intentism is a small part of what happens next.
Intentism passionately believes in freedom in debate without fear of our intentions being censored. Log on to www.intentism.com to view our manifesto.
If you agree or disagree with anything in this article please join in the debates on the site. (You would need to log on but need not join as an Intentist).
Note: The first Intentist art exhibition will be held in London in 2009.
Livingston, Paisley. 2005. Art and Intention (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
1) Furlon, William (editor). 1995. The Dynamics of Now, (Tate Gallery Pub Ltd), 108
2) Mele, Alfred R. 1992. Springs of Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 141
3) See Sextus Empiricus’ story of the happy accident of the artist Apelles of Kolophon in the Preface of Livingston, Paisley. 2005. Art and Intention (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vii
4) Furlon, William (editor). 1995. The Dynamics of Now, (Tate Gallery Pub Ltd) 95
6) Ibid, 152
7) Iseminger, Gary (editor). 1992. Intention and Interpretation (Temple University Press), 25-27
8) Ibid 25
9) Ibid 26
10) Gadamer, Hand-Georg. 1960. Truth and Method (Tubingen), 299-300
11) Livingston, Paisley. 2005. Art and Intention (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 93
12) Hirsch, Edward D Jr. 1967. Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press)
13) Iseminger, Gary (editor). 1992. Intention and Interpretation (Temple University Press), 26-27