Intentism is a movement of artists, authors, actors and musicians who believe that art can convey an artist’s intended message to his or her intended audience. As a movement it both recognizes and celebrates the relationship between an artist’s creation and its creator.
Intentists believe 3 principles:
Intentists believe that the artist is free to convey his or her intended message. Intentists believe that much of European postmodernism has gagged the artist.
Eminent poststructuralist Jacques Derrida, seen as a champion of Postmodernism, believes intention,”…will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and the entire system of utterances.” For many of Derrida’s followers this means that there must ALWAYS be more than one interpretation of any text or work. Intention will NEVER be completely present. There will ALWAYS be undecidables.
Intentism believes in UNGAGGING the artist so that he or she can speak to us.
Who is right?
Much of postmodernist art theory claims that the artwork has no universal meaning and can therefore say many things. Meaning rests with the interpreter rather than the artist. If this is true, then the work can mean anything and therefore, effectively mean nothing.
The artist has been gagged.
Much of Postmodernism encourages the belief that no artist or author is able to convey his or her intended meaning because everyone must experience art through their limited frame or reference. Semiotician and social theorist Roland Barthes wrote of ‘The Death of the Author’ because, in his eyes, the author’s intention is irrelevant. “To give a text an Author…is to impose a limit on that text.”
Intentists appreciate the revolutionary insights much of postmodernism has made, particularly in the awareness of the baggage every viewer brings to an artwork. However, Intentists believe ‘No creative input, no meaning input.’ Consequently, a viewer cannot provide a new meaning.
Furthermore, since the epistemological qualities of a work finish when the creator creates no more, a viewer can perfectly, but not omnisciently understand the work, since the meaning of the work does not change with each new view. In essence, the hermeneutical circle should be considered the hermeneutical spiral, as a viewer can reduce subjective associations or significances.
Intentists call this the GAGGING of the artist because the artist is very much alive and has a message to say.
Intentists believe a confused, hidden or denied intention can lead to ZERO accountability.
This is bad for art and bad for society.
A dead artist can no longer be associated with a painting advocating racism or homophobia, for example. Both Heidegger and Paul De Man have been rightly criticized for writing anti-Semitic articles, which is hypocritical unless an artist’s voice can be heard and recognized.
Conversely, Intentists believe that an omission of artist intention can lead to enforced restrictionson the artist and even censorship.
When the Contemporary Art Museum in Cincinatti, opened the art exhibition The Perfect Moment in 1990, the city of Cincinnati brought suit against the Centre and two curators as some of the work was considered offensive. The prosecution only showed the work, the defense explained possible artistic intention. The jury acquitted all the accused.
Art has been at the vanguard of changing social behaviour,often encouraging tolerance and civil liberties. Art has often been one step ahead of society in attitudes towards women, race and politics, acting as asocial conscience in times of oppression.
The potency of art to speak to the hearts and minds of people is not doubted by dictators who are often keen to silence its voice.
Without the influence of art with a message civilization will be that much more brutal, that much more intolerant.
Intentists believe that although their artwork can have a complex meaning and be understood on a number of levels, there are definitely ways it can be misunderstood – therefore not all interpretations are equally valid.
Intentists believe that their artwork is able to convey their artistic intention to their intended audience.
Intentists believe that the voice of their work is a force for good. Intentists celebrate the‘creative trail’ in their work by frequently keeping elements of the editing processes in their work. This layering of ideas we call ‘palimpsestism.’
The following two texts are some of the earliest written explaining the theory behind the manifesto. The first is an essay, commissioned by The Battle of Ideas publishing arm ‘Metamute.’ The second is a magazine article commissioned by the arts online magazine The Flaneur.
Intentism: Resurrection of the author
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 model below 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. The model below illustrates 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
The diagram below represents a number of different scenarios.
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 5) Ibid 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
Intentism – The International art movementn
Why Intentions matter: Intentist Theory.
Intentism is an international arts movement. It is comprised of fine artists, poets, writers, musicians, actors and philosophers from all over the world. It is one of the fastest growing art movements in the UK at the present time.
The name Intentism is a response to the debate around authorial intent. Does it matter what the speaker/artist/author/ is intending what he or she says, paints or writes? Intentism maintains that the meaning of the work is the outworking of intention.
Our understanding of intention can often affect the way we view our experiences. Take a look at these two pairs of analogous events: After a violent altercation two men in Glasgow run over a 39 year old man, leaving him for dead; an OAP fails to see a pedestrian and knocks him down. A man incensed over unrequited love tracks down the object of his desires and shoots her dead; a woman from Cape Girardeau shoots and kills her attacker during an attempted rape. All tragic events, but should they be treated as equally terrible? In law, distinctions are made based on the perpetrator’s intentions.
It is the belief of the new international movement ‘Intentism’ that intentions matter in the arts too.
Intentism’s central belief may seem uncontroversial; however, this theory is commonly rejected based on arguments which call into question such thinking as: Am I aware of all my reasons for what I do? Might I not subconsciously disclose Freudian Slips? What about what I communicate? As a literate person won’t the clarity of my words or art speak for themselves, regardless of my intentions? Furthermore, do all readers approach the same work identically? Each time a couple says ‘This is our song’ doesn’t the ballad acquire a new meaning?
To many, these questions expose Intentionalism in the arts as an obvious fallacy.
Not so, say the Intentists. This debate has raged in different guises over the centuries for a reason. It hits to the heart at what sets us apart from other animals. How do we communicate? Can we communicate?
Firstly, language as a tool for communication, as Wittgenstein famously said, is essentially public. We share a common lexis.However, language is in a permanent state of flux. A brief listen to your teenage relative will inform you that every nut and bolt of language (noun,verb, adjective and adverb) is not immune to change in use. Pertaining to the visual arts, an interesting study is to look at how cultural associations with colours can be both varied and incompatible. For example, blue can represent immortality in China and mourning in Iran. So, it is far from certain that the work alone can always give us a fixed meaning (if that’s what we want.)
Secondly, with regard to each reader taking different things from what they read (‘What it means to me…’), far from being liberating, this view can cause further hermeneutic and semantic problems. What if I want to communicate something specific and clear? To an Intentist this is possible.
To an Intentist, meaning resides in the author’s intention, whether that intention is vague to invite multiple specific. This is an important point since opponents of Intentism often argue that holding a work’s meaning accountable to the author/artist’s intentions limits the work. ‘Speech acts’ has helped classify verbal utterances and a similar approach can be applied to the arts. A speech act can be divided into three areas. Firstly, the locutionary act is the actual utterance and its ostensible meaning. Secondly, the illocutionary act which can be defined as the intended meaning and lastly, the perlocutionary act which is its actual effect on someone. This breakdown is helpful since it defines creative output as human acts with various purposes and can be applied to the arts as well. Therefore,if the writer/artist’s intention is to create words or images with very no defined, single intended meaning, the work would end at the locution stage.Certain poetry and abstract act may be a mixture of locution and illocution. On the other end of the scale a very prescriptive document like a bank manager’s letter would normally include a perlocutionary act.
Consequently, to solely rely on the text or the interests of the reader/viewer when a work has illocutionary properties can make misinterpretation more likely. Although the work is the most likely place to find the author’s intention, specifically because authors can successfully communicate in the work, communication is not always guaranteed. The celebrated Eros statue in Piccadilly was in fact designed and intended to depict the Greek God of requited love Anteros. (If on QI Alan Davies shouts out ‘Eros!’ to the question of what the statue means, listen out for the Klaxons.)
As to the multiple conflicting interpretations from readers, this diversity can bring richness to certain creative works. However,Intentists believe that it is possible to separate what your personal biases are from the meaning of the work. Literary critic E. D. Hirsch suggested that the author’s intention is the meaning of the work and what it ‘means to you’ is the work’s significance. (An inherent problem is how to distinguish the criteria by which we separate discovered intention from significance.) Intentists think this label is better suited describing works with more rigid intentions.However, where the art work is intended to touch people in numerous ways(certain music for example), the label appears a little weak.
Intentists further maintain that in rejecting authorship and intention some creative work has become anaemic and in different. In attempting to be all things to all people in certain cases the quality and efficacy has been diluted.
To sum up then: Why Intentism? For the very fact that in every human act, from car accident to gun crime, from written text to art installation; intentions simply do matter.
A second area that needs to be touched upon is authorship
One of the casualties of a rejection of intention has been to cast doubt on the relevance of the author. A seminal essay the‘Death of the Author’ was penned by Roland Barthes in 1967. In this text Barthes asserted that ‘writing is the destruction of every point of origin’ and to ‘give a text an author is to impose a limit on the text.’ Barthes argument has parallels with other thinkers and movements that now dominate Anglo-American art schools with their shared conviction that works of art should be primarily understood by how minds receive them rather than by the human intentions that created them.
In this brief time I would like to look at two areas of theory that I believe are central to the debate: Firstly, The New Critics and texts, and secondly, Gadamar and the fine arts.
The New Critics Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1946) asserted two things that would influence Barthes.Texts have an independent status from the author and consequently the intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging a literary work’s success.
It should be noted that according to Wimsatt and Beardsley, even living authors intentions are never available. Moreover, if we were able to know an author’s explicit, comprehensive intentions, they would not be desirable. The meaning resides in the text alone.
However, if texts are independent from authors and the meaning does reside in the work alone then we shouldn’t refer to it as if it were connected to the author in some way; for example Turner’s work or Derrida’s work. Of course this is precisely how we do refer to them and interestingly so do Wimsatt, Beardsley and even Barthes. Furthermore,rejecting authorship would be to treat a landscape by Turner the same as we treat nature itself. Although we delight in both, we treat the artwork differently- why? Intentists would suggest one reason is that we are recognising a mind behind it. We see it as a gesture formed through creative thinking or intention.
Any creative work is primarily a human gesture. A painting of nature is different from nature, an intentionally carved Stoneage tool is different from a naturally sharp flint. The human intentional gesture imbues the object with meaning.
A further implication of these claims that was later developed by Barthes is that a text can semantically change over time. It is clear that over time people have used a word to mean different things. (eg. Wicked, gay etc.) It is the contention of the Intentists that when these words are brought together in a text, these words have a fixed meaning in space and time by the human gesture and that any later change is a change insignificance, not meaning.
Secondly, Gadamer has been hugely influential with fine art interpretation. Gadamer reasoned that works develop an ‘effective history’ as different cultures and peoples load new meanings. Influenced by Heidegger, Gadamer also emphasized the continuing narrative and baggage of our own lives. Since we are from a different place and time from the author, we can only understand when the two narratives happily meet; which he called the fusion of horizons. (Gadamer was content with this predicament and believed this must take place for any genuine understanding.) However, this narrative argument was formed and developed as a discursive model applied to writing. It is therefore very effective when interpreting texts since they clearly are narratorial and linear. We generally start and finish at the same place, reading letters and words sequentially. We discover the world of and in front of the text incrementally in space and time as both the texts and ourselves develop. However, Gadamer,Barthes, Foucault and Derrida have all used this established literary theory to understand fine art. Intentism as an arts movement argues that this theory overreaches itself. The reason is that many arts such as painting, sculpture and photography are anarrative. There is no order of experience expectation in these art forms.Furthermore, there are no public rules that say an artist can’t ignore perspective or colour theory in his work that parallel the public rules of language or genre. Without these public rules we can either echo Derrida that‘meaning is constantly deferred’ or we need to know authorial intentions.
In conclusion, since most anti-intentionalist theory distinguishes between speech and writing, can it really be the case that if I were speaking to you now I could communicate with you?– however imperfectly – but when I begin to write or paint I become suddenly dead to you? Can a reader no longer ‘hear me’ when I pick up a pen? Can a viewer genuinely only see their own reflections in every artwork; their own face in every portrait? Is it truly impossible even with careful exegesis to know what a work might have meant? (An Intentist would say there is the world of difference between knowing omnisciently (impossible) and knowing something of it (possible.) Are we all so hermetically sealed in this bubble that no artist can communicate with us through their art?