- Intentist interview with Professor Colin Lyas
- Intentist interview with Professor Robert Stecker
- Intentist interview with Professor William Irwin 1
- Intentist interview with Professor William Irwin 2
- Intentist interview with Professor Jerrold Levinson
- Intentist interview with Professor Paisley Livingston
- Intentist interview with Professor Hans Maes
- Intentist interview with Professor Noam Chomsky
- Intentist interview with Professor Peter Lamarque
- Intentist interview with Mark Fisher
- University of the Arts, London interview with Vittorio Pelosi
- Intentist conversation with translator Samantha Christie
- Intentist interview with Professor Olivier Richon
- Intentist interview with Dr. Julian Stallabrass
- Interview with Colin Lyas
Colin Lyas was senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Lancaster and is the author of Aesthetics, (Fundamentals of Philosophy), Peter Winch (Philosophy Now) and Philosophy and Linguistics (Controversies in Philosophy).
2. Interview with Professor Robert Stecker
Professor Robert Stecker was awarded his PHD from MIT. He is a Professor of Philosophy at Central Michigan University and teaches, among other courses, ‘Philosophy of the Arts’. He has authored, amongst others, Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art (Roman & Littlefield, 2005); Interpretation and Construction: Art Speech and the Law (Blackwell 2003); and Artworks: Definition, Meaning, Value (Pennsylvania, 1997). His published articles include “Ontology of Art” ( Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 2006), and “Interpretation and the Problem of the Relevant Intention,” (Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics, Blackwell, 2005).
Intentists: Thanks so much for your kindness in allowing me to ask a few questions about intentionality. Am I right in thinking you worked in conjunction with Colin Lyas for the book, ‘ A Companion to Aesthetics.’? We have an interview with him on Youtube and at http://www.intentism.org about intentionality
Robert Stecker: We work in conjunction only in the following sense: first he worked on two of the entries in the volume and then about 10 years later I worked on those same entries updating them. This happened because I couldn’t figure out how to contact Colin to ask him to do it. So I did it myself.
I: I believe you consider yourself a moderate (partial) actual intentionalist. One point often made by partial intentionalists is that the author’s intention is only relevant to a work’s meaning if it is realized. Who would decide if a work is realized? If it is the viewer, then surely meaning solely rests there and not with the intender?
RS: No one decides if an intention is realized. There are truth conditions or some sort of conditions, which, if met settle the matter. It’s controversial what those conditions are.
Here are my conditions taken from Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: An utterance means x if: 1. The utterer intends x, 2. The utterer intends that her audience will grasp this in virtue of the conventional meaning of his words or a contextually supported extension of this meaning permitted by conventions, and 3. The first intention is graspable in virtue of those conventions or permissible extensions of them. If the conditions are met, the intention to convey something with an utterance has been realized. This intention can be realized in other ways (as whatever works intentionalists understand) but not ways that guarantee the utterance will mean what it manages to convey. (As I go on to point out, these conditions need to be modified for non-linguistic contexts.)
I: If an intention fails, does all meaning fail to be present or can it now be theoretically open to mean as many things as there are viewers?
RS: No, all meaning does not fail for two reasons. First, intention rarely fail totally. But second, even if they do, other consideration – context, convention – can then sometimes be meaning determining.
I: You have said that interpreters can interest themselves legitimately in matters other than what it means (Interpretation and Construction: Art, Speech, and the Law). Do you consider, as Hirsch, these other interpretations as ‘significances’?
RS: Some of these others are significance seeking, but not all. An important and somewhat diverse class of them are what I call in the book you refer to “could-mean interpretations.” These are possible understandings of something that can with some be plausibility be attributed it. Sometimes we look for what something could mean as a preliminary to finding what it does mean. But for various reason, searching out what something could mean has taken on a life of its own with respect to art.
I: Professor Robert Stecker, on behalf of the Intentists, thank you for your time.
3. Professor William Irwin 1
Professor William Irwin is Professor of Philosophy, Kings College, Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York in 1996 at the age of 26. Irwin’s dissertation, “Harmonizing Hermeneutics: The Normative and Descriptive Approaches, Interpretation and Criticism,” was awarded the Perry Prize for Outstanding Dissertations in Philosophy. His dissertation director was Jorge J.E. Gracia. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was his external evaluator. He has authored amongst others Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, December 1999) which was nominated for the American Philosophical Association Young Scholar’s Book Prize and was the subject of a special book session at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Hermeneutics and Postmodern Thought in May 2000.
Intentists: You have authored ‘Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense.’ Let me ask you why you consider the intentionalist debate so important at this time?
William Irwin: Intentionalism is the common-sense view and approach to interpretation. Authors and artists attempt to communicate through their work, and audiences need to grasp their intentions for communication to succeed. Most people outside academia and the arts have a hard time understanding why I would need to write a book on the subject. But of course those of us in academia and the arts know that common sense is under attack. Postmodernism has produced fashionable views that hold the author is dead and authorial intention can simply be ignored in interpretation. This has the consequence of undermining the legitimacy of art. We no longer need great art, just great interpretations. Of course, this is nonsense, but it is pervasive nonsense that calls for a response.
I: The relationship between intention and meaning has often be debated through the literary figure Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In one incident when Alice cannot comprehend the meaning of Humpty’s expressions, he answers that when he uses a word it means what he intends it to mean. This has been called Humpty-Dumpty-ism and many philosophers consider Humpty’s claim to be impossible. Professor William Irwin, you are known to hold a different view. Would you explain it to us?
WI: Many philosophers take Humpty Dumpty to be a reductio ad absurdum. “You can’t just make a word mean anything you want,” they say. But upon reflection, it’s not clear why you can’t. Intention is bounded by belief. You can’t just believe anything with a snap of the fingers, but anything you can believe you can intend. As long as I believe (as Humpty Dumpty says he does) that “glory” means “a nice knock-down argument,” then it does. We do this all the time with malapropisms when learning a language or sometimes even in our 38 native tongue. And sometimes we do this when coining a new word. I don’t know if Humpty Dumpty was sincere or just kidding around, but Lewis Carroll endorsed a view very close to Humpty Dumpty’s. (See Lewis Carroll, Symbolic Logic and The Game of Logic, “I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorized in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use” p. 166.)
I: In ‘Intentionalist Interpretation: A Philosophical Explanation and Defense.’ you propose the term urinterpretation which is based on the author construct, and urauthor which includes several elements traditionally seen as separate from the author. Can you help us to understand a little more of this new normative approach?
WI: We never have direct access to another person’s mind and intentions. Instead we form a concept of that person and infer intentions based on that concept. The author construct is just the person you conceive of the author as being. We do this all the time in conversing with someone. In order to fully understand what our conversation partner intends we rely on the concept we have of that person. Likewise when we’re reading we rely on some picture or concept of who the author is to guide us in understanding his/her intention. The idea of the urauthor is that with this concept we should strive to come as close to the fact as we can. We don’t base the author construct on our whims or pleasures but on fact, going back to the origin (“ur”)—going back to who the author really is and what he really intends. As a concept, the urauthor includes not just likely intentions but biographical information, language use, and historical context. The only reason we should be interested in the way a word is used, a detail about an author’s life, or the political climate of his time is as a clue to his likely intentions. Urinterpretation, then, is simply the strict intentionalist approach that I advocate. We should interpret with a concept of the author (an urauthor) that comes as close as possible to the real author and his intentions. I call this a normative approach because it sets up an ethical norm. Namely, we are obliged to interpret an author in accord with his 39 intentions in just the way we are obliged to interpret a conversation partner in accord with his intentions. To do otherwise is dishonest.
I: Professor William Irwin, on behalf of the Intentists, thank you for your time.
4. Interview with Professor William Irwin 2
Intentists: The narrative of LOST has been described as ‘a Ponzi scheme in which the viewer was encouraged by the producers to invest in a story on which they knew they could never pay out.’ (Andrew Anthony, The Observer 30/5/2010). Should we feel cheated that there doesn’t appear to be a single narrative solution to its many mysteries? Can we say that their intentions, to use Barthes’s words, were to give birth to the viewer and allow them to interpret the story in any way they choose?
William Irwin: That is an excellent description, ‘a Ponzi scheme.’ Certainly we should feel cheated that there are no solutions to many of the mysteries that were integral to the plot of Lost because such solutions were repeatedly hinted at by the show’s narrative. Nonetheless I have some sympathy for the writers of Lost. They undertook a vast story-telling enterprise “in public” rather than in the private of a study. Novelists typically revise their work significantly prior to publication, going down blind alleys and making mistakes for their own eyes only—or for the eyes of a few trusted friends—before putting a story into final form for publication. Of course some writers, such as Dickens, have written “in public,” publishing as they were formulating a story, but obviously not everyone has the talent of Dickens—surely not the writers of Lost. At some point in Lost’s development the writers realized that they had no satisfying way of providing answers for all the mysteries and seem to have decided instead to focus on presenting compelling characters and mythological elements instead. Contra Barthes, what is key here is that their intention was not to provide a satisfying plot resolution but to provide characters and mythological elements that stirred the imagination of viewers. It’s not as if their intention ceased to matter; it’s that their intention changed focus and became more open-ended, such that they intended largely just to let the viewers play with the characters and mythology in their own minds.
I: J.K. Rowling has disclosed that Dumbledore is gay. As the author of the work, should this make us reassess our understanding of this wizard- even though the work itself does not disclose his sexual orientation? New York Times columnist Edward Rothstein said that “Ms. Rowling may think of 44 Dumbledore as gay” however, “there is no reason why anyone else should”. Kimberly Maul (2007). “Harry Potter Fans Continue to Debate Rowling’s Outing of Dumbledore”. The Book Standard.
WI: There are two possibilities. The first is that Rowling just decided to get a rise out of people by saying Dumbledore is gay. Some people were bothered by the overtly Christian imagery of the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. Rowling may thus have been sensitive to this and eager to show that she is no predictably conservative or quintessentially fundamentalist religious pundit. If this is the case, then Dumbledore is not gay. Rowling can’t intend him to be gay after the fact if she intended him to be heterosexual all along. The second possibility is that Rowling intended Dumbledore to be gay. Of course Rowling claims this is so. It has even been suggested that she has back-story and draft material that show that she had this intention. If she were willing to make this material public, then the case would be closed: Dumbledore is gay. Still, we could find fault with the presentation of her art to the extent that there is no reason to think that Dumbledore is gay in reading the books. If she intended him to be gay, then she should have done a better job of making her intention manifest in the text. If Dumbledore is gay, that is not an inconsequential fact like being left-handed. If Dumbledore is gay then that would have implications for, among other things, his relationship with Grindelwald. She should have made the intention clear in the text.
I: How important is it to justify our intentions when everyone seems determined not to accept them?
WI: It is an ethical concern. Intentions may not be the most important thing for the audience, but they must be respected for the sake of the artist. People may look at a painting or read a novel and come away with their own interpretations. That is fine as long as they don’t attribute those interpretations to the artist. Someone might, for example, come up with a radical political interpretation of an artwork that has nothing to do with the artist’s intentions and in fact goes against the stated political views of the artist. Such a person would be wrong to attribute that political interpretation 45 to the artist. In his book Validity in Interpretation E.D. Hirsch offers the very useful distinction between meaning and significance. Meaning is what the author intended; significance is an interpretive application. Often times the significance of an artwork is more interesting than the meaning of the artwork, but we are nonetheless ethically bound to respect the intention so as not to misrepresent the artist. Of course sometimes artists don’t mind being misrepresented in this way when an interpretation is more compelling than what they intended. But an artist is dishonest when s/he goes along with such an interpretation as if it were intended or as if the intention all along was just to offer the work for the contemplation and interpretation of the audience (if in fact that was not the intention).
I: Is it always necessary to get your (the maker’s) intention fully through? – As long as the maker he or she knows what it is about, and have a great connection to the intention?
WI: Here conversation is the appropriate model. In conversations it is very important to us to have our intentions understood, and we will offer corrections in conversation to make sure our intentions are understood. Artworks typically do not allow for the kind of dialogue correction that we have in conversation. So artists must take particular care to make the intentions that are important to them clear and manifest in their work. Outside of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland and through the looking glass it’s inconceivable that people would carry on a conversation with no concern about having their intentions understood. But artists realize that when they make an artwork public it is likely to be misunderstood to at least some extent. For this reason some artists produce artworks with only the vague intention that the artworks should stir the imagination of the audience. This is rare, however. Most artists have at least some definite intention that they want to communicate even if they are also glad to simply have the artwork stir the imagination of the audience.
I: Many of us are artists. What if someone pointing at my artwork asks me ‘What does it mean?’ According to intentionalism should I explain my intentions to them while taking away their own experience and dialogue with the artwork?
WI: The answer depends on the intention behind the artwork. If the intention was only to stir the imagination of the audience, then the artist shouldn’t say anything else. But such vague intentions are rare. Most artists do not intend to produce mere inkblots in which the perceiver simply projects his or her own imagination. Most artists have more definite intentions behind their artwork. It may be troubling to the artist when the audience can’t clearly make out the intention, but there is no need to become defensive about it. Often times the audience doesn’t have the educational or cultural background that is necessary to see the clearly manifest intention. If a person asks an artist about his/her intentions, then certainly the artist should not hesitate to give them. Of course it might very well be interesting to ask the audience member what his/her interpretation is, and that interpretation might very well be more stimulating than the intended meaning.
I: How far does the artist’s responsibility/accountability go? Most people are not exactly enlightened and creative processes can often be highly intuitive. On a conscious level an artist might have one idea why they are producing a certain work of art while they might only realise in hindsight a deeper meaning. Are they only accountable for what they consciously know or also for any other effects the artwork might have on the viewer?
WI: Just as some of our actions and some of our ordinary speech may have unconscious intentions, so may artworks have unconscious intentions— sometimes quite profound ones. But, on the other hand, we’ve all had the experience of saying something that other people thought was quite clever or witty only to realize that they were giving us credit for a meaning we did not intend. At that point we might either silently take credit for the witty remark or we might honestly admit we didn’t really intend it that way, though we wish we had. The same is the case with an artwork. Sometimes an interpreter may help an artist realize what the artist unconsciously intended, and other times an interpreter may just come up with an interpretation (a significance) that is more aesthetically pleasing but that was no part of the intended meaning (consciously or unconsciously). It is up to the artist to be honest about which is the case.
I: Some artwork might be shocking to people. Critics might say that the artist’s intention is to shock. The artist’s primary aim however might not have been to shock people but just to tell them what they think is true while being fully aware that this might shock people. How would intentionalism see this? WI: If the intent is not at all to shock people, then the artist has miscalculated if the artwork has that effect. If the artist is aware that the artwork might shock people, then the artist would be responsible for that effect at least to the extent that it is foreseen, even if it is not intended. The shock effect could be part of the meaning of the artwork if it is intended. If, however, the shock effect is merely foreseen as possible, but not intended, then the shock effect could be part of the significance of the artwork but not part of its meaning.
I: I still want to question the premise that the artist’s intention is central. Surely most of the time an artist is using the language of painting to suggest a range of possible readings. In many cases the viewer makes a reading which is completely subjective: many artists I know would be happy with this outcome,- it is after all the logical conclusion of fine art as opposed to illustration. Therefore what value is to be had by rejecting this response?
WI: This strikes me as perfectly fine. When the intention is vague and openended, such as “to stir the imagination of the audience,” then any number of subjective interpretations may be valid. But often times the intention is rather well-defined and to interpret in opposition to the intention would be to wrong the artist. If, for example, I interpreted Picasso’s Guernica as glorifying war, not only would I be wrong but I would be wronging Picasso.
I: Professor William Irwin, on behalf of the Intentists, thank you for your time.
5. Interview with Professor Jerrold Levinson
Professor Jerrold Levinson is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is particularly noted for his work on the aesthetics of music, as well as for his search for meaning and ontology in film, art and humour. He is author of numerous books including Contemplating Art, and The Pleasures of Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays.
Intentists: Thanks so much for your kindness in allowing us to interview you. You have stressed the distinction between categorial intentions (how the work is to be fundamentally conceived or approached), and semantic intentions (the artist’s intentions to mean something by a text or artefact). Firstly, is this distinction always so clear? Might the categorial intention be formed by a multitude of individual semantic intentions?
Jerrold Levinson: Indeed, the distinction is not always so clear, partly because some genres are in part defined by their meanings. But that said, I don’t see how an array of semantic intentions could ever amount to a categorial intention all by themselves, as they are intentions of a different form or different order.
I: Secondly, you appear to put more confidence in an artist’s categorial intentions than semantic intentions in regards determining a work’s meaning, but surely both can fail?
JL: True, a categorial intention can fail, but only where the artist is confused about the nature or features of the category he has in mind or intentionally aims at. For example, if he intends his string of words or notes to be taken as a sculpture, or his pile of bricks as a symphony. Whereas semantic intentions fail much more often, works just not meaning what their creators intended (wanted, planned, hoped) they would mean, due simply to lack of skill or luck, or a recalcitrant medium or material.
I: Thirdly, how do we know what the categorial intentions were? You suggest that they can only be decisive if the text allows it to be taken that way. Yet this gives the final say to the work. Isn’t this the intentional Fallacy, in different garb?
JL: Categorial intentions, as I conceive them, are real mental states of the artist, and thus we may not always know what they are. We need to rely on artist avowals, ancillary statements, catalog indications, placard information, titles in which categories are specified, etcetera. Alternately one might only acknowledge publicly manifested categorial intentions as work-constitutive. (Something like that line is taken by Sherri Irvin, in a BJA article of a few years ago, where she refers to such intentions as “artists’ sanctions”.)
I: Professor Jerrold Levinson, on behalf of The Intentists, thank you for your time
6. Interview with Professor Paisley Livingston
Professor Paisley Livingston is Chair Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Among his publications is Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press and Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman: On Film as Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. His articles include ‘Authorship’. Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Literature, ‘Authorial Intention and the Varieties of Intentionalism’. In A Companion to Philosophy and Literature and ‘Intention in Art’, In Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics.
Intentists: There is a long history of debates over the role of intention in discerning a work’s meaning. How do you see the debate today?
Paisley Livingston: As in many areas of enquiry, especially in philosophy, we are far from having anything like widespread agreement on basic questions about the meaning and interpretation of works of art. Yet I believe that there has nonetheless been great progress on these questions over the last few decades. This progress has consisted, first of all, in a great deal of clarity about the nature of the questions, the kinds of answers that have been proposed, and the sorts of considerations that are generally offered in support of these answers. More importantly, perhaps, is another kind of progress, which has been a matter of informed parties abandoning the most extreme views and exploring and defending answers that accommodate those examples and insights that both intentionalists and anti-intentionalists have bound compelling.
I: In Art and Intention, you state that there can be intended meanings that go unrealized in the work. Does that shift the emphasis of interpretation solely onto the work, therefore making the role of intentions in interpreting a work redundant? If the intention fails, is the work meaningless, or does it carry a different meaning?
PL: Answering these and related questions is impossible until we achieve some clarity about our assumptions concerning the ‘object’ of interpretation in two senses: what is the point or goal of the interpretation, and what is the interpretation an interpretation of. With regard to the first sense of ‘object’, people can think up and communicate and interpretation of a work of art for a lot of different reasons. They may want to show off and prove how creatively (or transgressively) they can talk about a work of art. Or they may want to say things that describe the actual meanings of the work as part of an attempt to appreciate that work’s value as a work of art. With regard to the latter sense of ‘object’ in ‘the object of the interpretation’, it is just a start, for example, to say that the object of interpretation is simply the work of art. A work of art is 30 something someone has made or done in a certain context. A work of art often, but not always, includes an associated artefact that may be a physical, localizable object, or an abstract type of thing having one or more physical instantiations (just as the word ‘chat’ in English can have multiple instances). Now if a work isn’t just a bare artefact, but an artefact made by someone in a context, to interpret a work appropriately as a work of art, it is necessary to have some understanding of the relevant contextual factors, including some of the relevant actions and intentions of the artist. So at that point one cannot distinguish sharply between ‘the work’ and the intentional activities that were involved in its creation. There isn’t a ‘bare object’, separate from the context of creation, to be talked about productively—if, that is, the object or goal of the interpretation is appreciation. Concerning the question regarding failed intentions and the meaning of the work, obviously if there is a work that has been accomplished, the artist could not have failed to realize all of his or her intentions. Yet an artefact that has been executed in a clumsy way may not mesh with or be congruent with some of the artist’s semantic intentions. Perhaps the artist has some very specific attitudes to express but ended up not fashioning a picture, sculpture, or other artistic item the features of which mesh with that intention. In such a case, I’d say the work does not have the intended meaning. It may carry other, unintended meanings. There is no reason to think that ALL of a work’s meanings have to be intended, just as it is the anti-intentionalist fallacy to think that ALL of a work’s meanings are unintended (and hence that intention is irrelevant).
I: Can an intender decide that the work be uncommunicable to a certain audience? (For example, a spy’s coded message is designed to obscure meaning as much as it is to communicate.)
PL: There are plenty of historical examples where an artist (or group of collaborating artists) stage a performance or present an artefact for two different publics. The artist may have some intentions that are pertinent to both of these publics, but can also have other intentions that specific to only one public, while operating with other, incompatible semantic intentions, for a second public. This is quite commonplace in the popular cinema today, where a film that is at one level obviously a well-crafted children’s film will carry a number of jokes and allusions that only adults are intended to understand and appreciate.
I: If a work’s intention is realized if it communicates the intention, does this mean that a person who fails to communicate in fluent French to a Spanish speaker , simply utters meaningless sounds?
PL: As Wayne A. Davis points out, someone can meaningfully curse in a language that no one around him can understand. The absence of people who have the right sort of linguistic competence does not render such a person’s utterance meaningless. It would be better to think of the intention as the intention to express something in a specific language, and that intention can be successfully realized even if no actual audience ever understands the utterance correctly. If by ‘communication’ we mean person X getting person Y to understand X’s intended message correctly, then we don’t want to make communication a necessary condition of the successful expression of meaning in a work. Of course works that express attitudes eloquently are likely to communicate well. But logically the two events are not equivalent: an artist could make a work that expresses her meaning perfectly well, but because there was a fire or some other accident, the work was destroyed before it actually communicated anything to anyone. I: You advocate a position that you call ‘partial intentionalism’. What, finally, are the tenets of this position?
PL: Well, here we go with a concise list: Intention is an executive attitude towards a plan regarding the intending party’s own future action(s). Intentions sometimes motivate and orient intentional actions, some of which successfully realize the intended results. Works are utterances; their content, including implicit content, is partially determined by successfully realized intentions. Some work meaning is unintended. Intentions are successfully realized just in case they mesh sufficiently with the artistic structure or display (e.g. a text, object, or audiovisual display). Meshing is a relation of coherence and ‘congruence’ between the content of the intention and the art object’s internal rhetorical or semantic patterns, such as contrast, parallelism, exemplification. The otherwise useful distinction between categorical and semantic intentions does not map neatly onto a distinction between (a) acceptable and unacceptable evidence in interpretations, or (b) intentions that can and cannot be constitutive of work meaning. Key components of authorship include: decision-making authority exercised in the production of an artistic object or display; uncoerced, intentional expression of attitudes or content; taking of responsibility for the work. A general theory of authorship should respect the distinctions between: (1) individual authorship, (2) individual authorship plus contributions from others, where the author has decision-making authority and full responsibility; (3) joint authorship amongst two or more persons working as equals; (4) as in (3), plus contributions from others without decision-making authority; (5) uncoordinated art-making activity by more than one party, without authorship.
I: An obvious and seemingly telling objection to all of this is quite simple: intentions as well as the activities of bygone artists are pretty nebulous and sometimes simply impossible to know. Yet a canvas is a physical object present in a gallery, available for our immediate response. Aren’t you yoking us to a hopeless project?
PL: In some cases the goal of historically contextualized art appreciation it is indeed hopeless and out of reach so there is no question of anyone’s being yoked to it. If there is insufficient evidence about the artist’s context and intentions, we can just refrain from making assertions about the work’s intended meanings, or more conjectures, framed as such, about what the intentions might have been. It is crucial to recall, however, that in many other cases that is not the situation at all. We do have evidence and we can try to get more. Even when the artists are still living and available for conversation, there are still evidential problems, but as before, the possibility of error shouldn’t make us change our basic strategy. In all empirical inquiry there is an element of risk, and we must find a level of risk-aversion that is appropriate to the situation. What we do not need is a theory of interpretation that tells us not to use evidence that is in fact available because sometimes the evidence is not fully reliable or sometimes it is not available.
I: Professor Paisley Livingston, on behalf of the Intentists, thank you for your time.
7. Interview with Professor Hans Maes
Hans Maes studied at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and graduated there with a PhD in Philosophy. His dissertation, focusing on problems in ethics and moral psychology, was published as a book in Belgium and The Netherlands. He has since made aesthetics and the philosophy of art the main focus of his postdoctoral activities. He worked at the Department of Aesthetics of the University of Helsinki, Finland, and also at the University of Maryland, USA, before coming to Kent where he is currently Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Art. He has authored papers on a variety of topics in aesthetics, including the role of intention in the interpretation of art. His articles include “Challenging Partial Intentionalism,” Journal of Visual Arts Practice, and “Intention, Interpretation, and Contemporary Visual Art,”British Journal of Aesthetics, 50:2.
Intentists: Many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by the arts movement Intentism. Isn’t the mind altogether unknoweable and so intention impossible to find? Furthermore, if we find intention through sketches and interviews, aren’t these further ‘works’ in themselves that we need to find intention for? Would we not be left with another kind of hermeneutical circle?
Hans Maes: Let’s have a look at the first part of your question. The problem of ‘other minds’ has a long history in philosophy, but it’s good to note that in everyday life this doesn’t seem to be a problem at all. For instance, when I take the bus to campus, which I do on a daily basis, that’s only possible because the bus driver and I are able to correctly assess each other’s intentions. Also, while there are sophisticated – but ultimately flawed – philosophical reasons for doubting the existence and knowability of other minds, it’s interesting to see that the reasons that art theorists usually provide are not that sophisticated. We can’t look directly into someone’s head and that’s where intentions are, they argue, so we can’t know intentions and should abandon all talk of these mental states. But if that’s true, than one should also abandon all talk of beliefs, ideas, emotions, passions – which are also ‘in the head’. Yet, these are mental states that art theorists and artists precisely love to talk about. Of course, people can be mistaken about their own or other people’s intentions. But it would be ridiculous to jump from the fact that we are sometimes mistaken to the conclusion that we never have access to, or reliable knowledge of intentions. The second part of your question suggests a hermeneutical circle where we need the work to interpret the sketch and the sketch to interpret the work. In addition, it nods to the idea of an infinite regress where we need intentions to understand the sketch and then intentions to understand the source of the previous intention, ad infinitum. Again, it may be helpful to look beyond the sphere of art. Think, for instance, of a suspicious car accident where a woman is run over by her ex-husband. At the subsequent murder trial one will try to determine whether the car crash was accidental or intentional and, to this end, one will likely investigate the perpetrator’s preceding actions. It may turn out that the husband took the day off from work, waited for hours in an alley and then sped up when he saw the victim crossing the road. His preceding actions will then illuminate his intentions at the moment of the car crash – yes, it was murder! – but the reverse is also true: the fact that we have good reason to suspect foul play will illuminate the preceding actions. For now we understand why he unexpectedly took the day off from work, why he was waiting in that alley etc. If this sort of ‘hermeneutical circle’ is experienced as unproblematic and helpful in everyday life, then why would it be any different in art? For example, in order to better understand Picasso’s Guernica it will be illuminating to study his preceding sketches, and vice versa.
I: Why do we generally speak of past speech in the past tense, but written work and paintings in the present? E.g. ‘Derrida writes the following.., ”Leonardo repeats the image…’ Aren’t we giving the work a ‘presence’ beyond the life of the deceased author, indicating that our authority comes from this present tense work, rather than the author?
HM: The first thing to note is that we also use phrases like ‘What Leonardo was aiming for is …,’ etc. However, it is true that works of art and literary works live on after the author or artist has died. And when we’re in a museum or in a library, we should be, and typically are, primarily interested in the work. But from this it doesn’t follow that the intentions underlying these works are irrelevant. Suppose you see a nude painting in which a woman is represented in a seemingly objectifying manner. One can easily imagine how this painting can be interpreted in two completely different ways, depending on the intentions of the artist. It may express the sexist view that all women are just objects for male pleasure. But if we know that the artist has strong feminist sympathies we will more likely interpret it in the opposite way, as a protest against the objectification of women. So, it seems that in such cases we have to look beyond what is present in front of us and try to figure out what the artist was aiming for when she was creating the work.
I: Do you believe that intention can fail and so the work may not mean what was intended? If so, would this not normally be decided by the critic (viewer) which would essentially be the death of the author and the birth of the viewer through the back door?
HM: Yes, I believe that intentions can fail to be realized. When that happens, the work will have a different meaning than the one intended by the artist. So, I am a moderate intentionalist. Let me illustrate this with an example. Suppose that an artist receives the commission to paint the archbishop of Canterbury and intends to portray him as very dignified. Suppose further that, while she was once told that a purple robe is a classic symbol of dignity, this fact gets twisted in the artist’s memory and she ends up depicting the archbishop in a pink tutu. It is very likely that her intention to portray the archbishop as dignified will have failed in this case. Now, it is certainly true that this can be pointed out by a critic. But that does not mean that we should subscribe to ‘death of the author’ thesis. Quite on the contrary. It seems to me that a critic will only be able to decide whether or not the work is a failure by referring to the artist’s intentions. Just imagine that the artist had the intention to mock instead of glorify the archbishop… In that case, the painting with the pink tutu would be probably be a success, and not a failure. Incidentally, I think that this is one of the reasons why contemporary artists are sometimes coy about revealing their intentions; because if they were to do that, it would be much more straightforward for critics and viewers to evaluate, and possibly criticize, their work.
I: There has been much more written about authorship and intention in regards to texts than to visual art. Do you think the same broad intentionalist theory is applicable to both, or do the visual arts have certain qualities that make intention and singularity of meaning less possible?
HM: The majority of what has been written about the relation between intention and interpretation does focus on literature. In a sense, this is surprising because issues of interpretation often seem more pressing in visual art. Whereas the average reader of a contemporary novel will have a good general idea of what the novel is about, many visitors to a contemporary art gallery will have no clue whatsoever about the meaning of the works on display. Can information about the artist’s intention help to clear up the confusion of these visitors? I think it can, and in a recent article for the British Journal of Aesthetics I have tried to defend a particular version of intentionalism with regard to contemporary visual art. So, yes, I do think that intentionalism is the right theory for visual art as well as literature.
I: On behalf of the Intentists, many thanks.
8. Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, logician, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes described as “the father of modern linguistics, Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy. He has spent most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was awarded his doctorate in 1955 for his theory of transformational grammar. He is credited as the creator or co-creator of the universal grammar theory, and has also played a major role in the decline of behaviorism, being particularly critical of the work of B. F. Skinner. He is currently Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT, and is the author of over 100 books on politics and linguistics. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.
Intentists: Professor Noam Chomsky many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed by the arts movement Intentism. If the externalization of language to the sensory motor system for communication is a second aspect of language, (the first being a computational system of the mind/brain), do we need to trace a linguistic ‘fossil record’ for evidence, or do we begin from observing the nature of language today? How can we empirically demonstrate it?
Chomsky: A linguistic “fossil record” would provide direct evidence, but it does not exist, and will not, though there is relevant evidence bearing on the apparently rather sudden emergence of what paleoanthropologists call “the human capacity, presumably related to emergence of language. Therefore, we are largely restricted to indirect evidence from the nature of language today – which appears to be as it has been since our ancestors left Africa some 50,000 years ago. These sources of evidence do seem to me to provide evidence on the secondary character of externalization, as I and others have discussed elsewhere.
I: Several Intentists worry that to assume language is primarily for communication can be used to endorse Barthes theory of the ‘death of the author.’ If the listener needs to agree with the interlocutor for his or her language to succeed in its communicatory purpose, a listener interpreting the language differently would void it of meaning. This then places the listener as judicator. Many Intentists would instead argue against this not only because language is an evolution of tools to make sense of the world, but that since language is a human gesture it still must have meaning even if is known solely by its author. How does the dogmatism held by many who maintain language as primarily for communication hinder research in other areas?
C: I doubt that any conclusions can be drawn about the ideas of Barthes. There are issues raised by Wittgenstein’s “private language” argument, but my own feeling is that they do not undermine the conclusions about the secondary character of externalization, nor do I see how they seriously question that when I write “It is snowing right now” (as it is) then it means what I intend whether anyone reads it or not, or whether they understand it if they do read it. Admittedly, there is a lot more to the issue than that, but I think observations like these are at least a good start, rather like Dr. Johnson’s attempted refutation of Berkeley, or Moore’s “this is a hand.”
Intentists: Professor Noam Chomsky on behalf of Intentism, many thanks for your time.
9. Interview with Professor Peter Lamarque
Peter V. Lamarque is a philosopher of art, working in the analytic tradition. Since 2000 he has been a Professor of Philosophy at the University of York. He is known primarily for his work in philosophy of literature and on the role of emotions in fiction. Lamarque has published extensively on various philosophical topics, mostly in the area of analytic philosophy of art. He was the first proponent of an approach to the paradox of fiction usually referred to as ‘thought theory’. He was editor of the British Journal of Aesthetics from 1995 to 2008. In 2009 he was chosen to give the first ever BSA/ASA Wollheim Memorial Lecture at the American Society for Aesthetics Annual Meeting. Essays include “The Death of the Author: An Analytical Autopsy”, British Journal of Aesthetics.
Intentists: Professor Peter Lamarque many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed by the arts movement Intentism. From an exegetical perspective, is the whole hermeneutical debate concerning whether intentions are relevant to a work’s meaning just a question as to whether meaning is: a) what you want to express or b) what you communicate? In other words, is the debate ultimately not a theory concerning aesthetics, psychology, or literary theory, but philosophy (and even anthropology)- how have we understood meaning?
PL: The first thing to note is that “what you want to express” and “what you communicate” are not incompatible. Communication is successful to the extent that what a speaker wants to express is successfully conveyed. But meaning is not always about either communication or expression. We can ask what those spots mean, or those statistics (falling inflation), or those earth tremors without supposing that any person wants to communicate or express something by them. Even where language is concerned the procedures for determining meaning can be different. We determine what a remark in a conversation means and what a word in the language means in different ways (ask the speaker, look in a dictionary). And no doubt if we are analysing a political speech, a philosophical argument, or a Wallace Stevens poem we should not assume that some single mode of interpretation applies to all. When it comes to the arts we should be wary of supposing that “meaning” is always the same—or always determined in the same way—whether it be poetry, painting, film, music, or the novel that concerns us. The medium seems to make a difference to the kind of meaning sought. Nor should we assume that there is always something that answers to the description “the meaning of the work”, not only because there might be more than one meaning, but because in many cases it is simply misleading to postulate a meaning for the whole as against a meaning for specific parts. The basic mistake is to suppose that interpretation is always and only concerned with the recovery of meaning.
I: Barthes in his seminal paper The Death of the Author says,’ The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.’ Leaving the contentious definition of a text being multiple ‘quotations’ aside, if, as it seems reasonable, our texts are ‘influenced’ by multiple conscious and unconscious sources, do we have no reliable measure to determine whether the text is authored by the writer alone?
PL: Barthes is absolutely right that words in any language are thick with inherited connotations, allusions, evaluations, and hidden histories. These can often be released and played on, not least in poetry where readers are on the look-out for resonances and “intertextuality”. He is also right that these can sometime intrude even where a writer or speaker has no idea of them or no intention to invoke them. We can easily be caught out by, for example, innuendos, double entrendres, or puns that are unintended and of which we are ignorant. Does that mean that we lose control completely of what we say or write? Clearly not. Politicians as well as poets, philosophers as well as lawmakers, choose their words carefully to express what they want to express. Barthes is wrong to think that texts always involve just undifferentiated writing (écriture) whereby everything they can mean they do mean. Texts for the most part are produced for a purpose in a context. The value of a context is as much in eliminating meaning as releasing meaning.
I: If, as various partial intentionalists (such as Paisley Livingston) believe, the author’s intention is only relevant if it has been successfully ‘realized’ in the work, who determines this? Is it not, the reader and therefore Barthes’ reader, or Fish’s ‘interpretative communities’ that ultimately determine meaning?
PL: Barthes is somewhat disingenuous in claiming to proclaim the “birth of the reader” after the “death of the author” as it turns out that what he has in mind as the “reader” is not the likes of you and me but some entirely abstracted entity “without history, without biography, without psychology”, who, per impossibile, holds in mind the near infinite multiplicity of an entire language and culture. This “reader” is unconstrained by context, practices, norms of interpretation, or historical groundedness, so is of little help in negotiating all the judgments that matter, relevance or irrelevance, insight or distraction, in a subtle, creative, and informed reading of any literary work. It is the particular information we have about the (admittedly often hugely complex) circumstances surrounding a work’s production, not mere generalities about the language itself that will yield the most rewarding readings.
I: Structuralism’s insistence on the arbitrary nature of signs has come under great fire as there are words that have universal patterns (onomatopoeic words etc), sounds that invoke universal responses ( major, minor etc) and colours that neurologically trigger the same responses. Does this mean that meaning rests not on the intention of the author, not on the reader, or even a community, but in whatever public universal qualities are in the work?
PL: The universal appeal of some of the greatest works of art is unlikely to be explained, entirely or even to a great extent, by matters such as onomatopoeia, emotion-provoking sounds, or responses to colour. These themselves will mostly turn out to be culture-relative. If there is something genuinely universal about art it is likely to lie in universal “themes”, which engage humans in all cultures at all times if only because they are so fundamental to what it is to be human: themes like birth and death, hope and despair, love and betrayal, jealousy and revenge, fear and pity. The greatest artists offer us powerful visions of these themes, in stories, in drama, in song, in dance that can resonate with all of us just in virtue of our common humanity. Of course the particular genres and styles and media through which the themes are explored will be rooted in specific cultures. But something deep and shared can occasionally transcend these different manifestations.
I: Derrida famously said ‘There is nothing outside the text’ and neither is there a ‘transcendental signifier.’ Surely, every extrinsic (whether further work from the author’s oeuvre, or interviews, or an appeal to genre etc etc) is a further work that needs to be interpreted by the same sources ad infinitum. Therefore, are we not in an impasse, a hermeneutical circle?
PL: Of course there is much dispute about what Derrida meant. One possible interpretation is to see it as a statement of intertextuality, or the idea that texts ultimately refer only to other texts not to some extra-textual “world”. There could be stronger or weaker versions of this. A moderate version might simply want to emphasize that literary works refer (or “allude”) to other literary works as much as they do to an objective or scientific world. Thus the first crucial step in understanding a poem is to locate it in a poetic tradition. A stronger version says that there are only texts. So any explanation we seek for a text must appeal to another text, including what an author states about the text. This invites the question whether some texts, on this view, have more authority than others. And it introduces the kind of considerations about verification that come up in relation to the “coherence theory” of truth. But in general there seems no good reason to hold that the world consists only of texts (a kind of linguistic idealism). It is helpful, at the least, to acknowledge a robust causal relation between, say, a text (or work), an author and a reader. This is not reducible to a relation between texts.
I: Professor Peter Lamarque, on behalf of the Intentist movement- many thanks for your time and answers.
10. Interview with Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher is a theatre critic, editor, feature writer and freelance journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has written about theatre in Scotland since the late-1980s, contributing theatre reviews, interviews, arts features and travel articles to newspapers and magazines in Scotland and all over the world. He is the Scottish theatre critic for The Guardian and Variety, a former editor of The List magazine and a frequent contributor to Scotland on Sunday and many magazines, newspapers and websites. As an editor, he has worked for the Edinburgh International Festival and Raploch Urban Regeneration Company. He is the co-editor of Made in Scotland, an anthology of plays, The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: a manual for critics students and bloggers published in August 2015.
Intentists: Your degree was in Drama and Theatre studies. Have you participated in much acting yourself, and if so, has this informed your writing as a critic?
Mark Fisher: I acted in a few shows at university and directed a couple of things as part of the course. Apart from acting in a Christmas show not long after graduating, I haven’t done anything since then. My degree course was a mixture of theory and practice. It wasn’t designed to train you to be one thing or another, but in retrospect, it turned out to be pretty useful for my role as a critic, because it meant I had a broad understanding of theatre’s component parts. I’m not a specialist in any one of them, but I have an awareness that someone is responsible for the set, someone for the script, someone for the lighting, etc. One of the first courses I did was called “drama in performance” and there’s an important lesson in the idea that theatre exists only in performance, not simply a thing to be studied on the page. Many critics are graduates of English literature courses and this can lead to them considering theatre entirely from the point of view of the script and underrating the performative elements.
I: In a stage production of a play, do you think they are co-authored by the playwright and the director? If so, is there a governing author? For example, is there a hierarchy of authorship between the playwright and the Director? Furthermore, are plays actually co-authored by all the cast, back stage crew and anyone with a creative input?
MF: It’s a useful shorthand to attribute everything to the director even if, as your question implies, real life is much more complicated than that. In most cases it’s the director who chooses the play and chooses the actors and getting those things right (the best play, the best actors) can contribute hugely to the success of the final production. As an audience member, you frequently don’t know. Is the actor acting well because of or in spite of the director? Was the script transformed from scraps of paper into a masterpiece only during rehearsals? Was the set designer responsible for the idea that gave the show coherence? The most reliable guide is to consider a body of work: if you keep seeing an actor acting badly, then maybe that says something about their abilities as a performer. As for authorship, the way I talk about it is likely to change according to the nature of the show. If it’s a new play, I’m most likely to concentrate on the the playwright’s ideas and to talk about the playwright as author. If it’s a classic, I’m more likely to talk about “Peter Hall’s Hamlet” because the distinguishing characteristics of this production are likely to be attributable to the director (even though I’m fully aware that it is still Shakespeare’s Hamlet). But, yes, theatre is a collaborative act, so authorship is rarely as clear-cut as it is with novels and paintings.
I: When a film or play is described as being ‘based’ on a literary work, how loose can this be before the performance is a new work with a new author? For example ‘Kiss Me Kate’ in the Pitlochry Festival, is about a theatre company staging a version of The Taming of the Shrew, yet is still considered a new work.
MF: Well, you could go back to the Taming of the Shrew and discover that Shakespeare took the idea from a comedy by Aristo, so you could ask the same question of Shakespeare himself. And where did Aristo get the idea from? I believe it’s relatively recently that we’ve become concerned with originality. In previous times it was perfectly acceptable to be an artist who told old stories in new ways. In the world of visual art, Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho is Hitchcock’s movie slowed down to fill 24 hours. Gordon had a simple idea, but one that had a huge effect on the way the film was seen. In effect, it is a new work, even though it is one that couldn’t exist without the old work. The Wooster Group routinely creates cultural clashes (in pop music they’d be called mash-ups) in which a 1950s B-movie, for example, will appear alongside an early opera or some similarly unexpected work. The juxtaposition of the old things produces something new. So it seems to me that it doesn’t have to be very loose at all before one work gets transformed into a new work with a new author.
I: When producing Shakespeare, is it relevant to understand the historical context of firstly, when it was written and secondly, when the play is set, or is all we need in the text?
MF: There are lot of jokes, in particular, that make no sense unless you understand the historical context. And in 400 years the meaning of a lot of words has changed, so some knowledge is helpful there. Understanding the politics of Shakespeare’s day can also shed some light on why he told the stories he did. The evidence so far, however, is that he touched on such “universal” (I use the word advisedly) human themes that audiences respond to the plays even though their experience is very far removed from the specific circumstances of 16th century England. In that sense, a hell of a lot if it is in the text. That’s not the same as saying there is a “correct” way of interpreting Shakespeare or that we can know what his intentions were (or even that he knew what his own intentions were). One reason for the durability of his plays is that they have the capacity to illuminate very different situations, whether it was Henry V capturing a mood of British patriotism in the Second World War or Macbeth speaking to Polish audiences about the oppression of the communist regime. Shakespeare clearly knew nothing of these things, yet somehow his plays became especially relevant at those particular crisis points.
I: Can plays or films mean different things to different people, or should we be seeking to understand the playwright’s/director’s intention?
MF: I don’t like the postmodernist idea that anything can mean anything. I don’t think the reception of art is entirely subjective. Equally, however, one of the reasons being a theatre critic remains exciting is that theatre is a moving target. It can mean different things on different nights (maybe just shades of meaning, but sometimes more substantial differences), according to the place it is performed, the mood of the audience, the weather outside, the politics of the day, the show you saw previously, the book you’ve been reading, etc, etc. To take two examples by the playwright Gregory Burke. When his play Gagarin Way opened on the Edinburgh Fringe, I had the feeling that the middle-class festival audience had a voyeuristic us-and-them attitude to the working-class Fife characters (I have no way of proving this, it was just my hunch). When I saw the play for a second time in Kirkcaldy, closer to where it is set, it seemed to me a more balanced actor-audience relationship. The play was the same, the author’s intentions were the same, but there was something different about the experience. More recently, his play Black Watch has been an international success, so much so that it is being revived again by the National Theatre of Scotland for dates in the UK and America this autumn. I can’t predict how it will go down this time, but given that it tells the story of a Scottish regiment’s involvement in Iraq, it is very likely to be seen differently in 2010 than on its debut in 2006. Governments have changed, the fighting has gone on for longer, the political debate has shifted. This could be to the play’s benefit or detriment, but it will have an effect. Now, if you say that Burke’s intention was to portray the life of the ordinary soldier as honestly as he could, then I’m confident that intention will continue to be realised. But in any theatre production there are so many other factors at play – many of them outside the author’s control, some of them hidden in the author’s subconscious – that much of the production’s “meaning” is liable to change.
11. University of the Arts Alumni Weekend 2009 Interview with Intentism founder Vittorio Pelosi
In 2009 Chelsea college of Arts hosted the University of the Arts, London Alumni Weekend. The University of the Arts, London is Europe’s largest university to specialise in art, design, fashion and the performing arts. It is a collegiate university with six constituent colleges: Camberwell College of Arts,Central Saint Martins, Chelsea College of Art and Design, the London College of Communication, the London College of Fashionand Wimbledon College of Art. The weekend organised a panel debate on Intentism. The speakers were Vittorio Pelosi, founding Intentist, Professor Paisley Livingston (author of Art and Intention) and Stephen Carter (Principal Lecturer Fine Art, Central Saint Martins.) The debate is available on Youtube and at http://www.intentism.com. In advance of the debate at the alumni weekend in July, Sally Ford spoke with practising artist and founding member of the art movement Intentism, Vittorio Pelosi.
Sally Ford: What do Intentists believe?
Vittorio Pelosi: Intentism is a movement of artists, authors and musicians who believe that art can convey an artist’s intended message to his or her intended audience. We believe that some parts of European postmodernism attempted to gag the artist. If meaning rests with the interpreter rather than the artist then it can mean anything and therefore effectively mean nothing. Intentists believe that the author is alive and well and claim that ‘All meaning is simply the imperfect outworking of intention.’
SF: How did the Intentists form?
VP: It has been quite organic. Intentists come from a variety of backgrounds, but we are all questioning ideas related to meaning and the work. We gradually began to be known as Intentists, set up a website and gossiped, and it just exploded. Although a group of artists were looking at these issues in England, unbeknown to us, artists from the States to Ireland to India were posing the same questions. I think areas in art theory have been more regressive and conservative than at any time since the Victorian age and I think certain artists have been feeling this. People don’t realise how long many of these postmodern ideas have been around and they are often accepted without question.
SF: What do you think Intentism brings to the wider art world?
VP: I think the questions of intentionalism are some of the most far-reaching questions in the art world today. In fact, I wouldn’t limit that to the art world. How do we communicate? Are we no more than a collection of experiences? Is that all I am? Let me give you two things to consider: reward and retribution. If, at the moment of writing or painting the artist ‘dies’, and we can only talk of the intention of the work and not the artist, we can only discuss the success of the work and not the artist. Why then, do so few artists who share this belief refuse their awards? Surely the concept of rewarding would become absurd? Secondly, denied intention leads to denied accountability. 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 criticised for writing anti-Semitic articles, which is surely hypocritical unless you believe in the voice of the artist.
SF: How do you think Intentism will affect future generations of artists?
VP: In the last ten years there has been a great deal published about the importance of intention in writing, but little in relation to the visual arts. In fact, I think the best work so far is Art and Intention by Professor Paisley Livingstone, who will be debating with me at the Alumni Weekend. I hope Intentism will highlight this and that future generations will believe that, through their work, they can communicate their intention with a degree of accuracy, sufficient for them to shape society. What the art world needs is people of all ages and races creating art with a bold and clear voice and genuinely listening to the artistic voice of others. Let’s un-gag the artist, let’s resurrect the author.
12. Samantha Christie, MA student in Literary Translation
Samantha Christie an MA student in Literary Translation contacted Intentism for an interview. Below is her record of the event unedited.
Translation and Intentism: A Dialogue My name is Samantha Christie. I’m a literary translator and am currently pursuing an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. We have recently been discussing the idea of looking outside the field of translation studies for theories which ‘belong’ to other disciplines, but which still have significance for translation. Fields such as linguistics, literature, sociology, philosophy and cultural studies can all provide new and interesting ways of thinking about translation. I’m interested in this idea of ‘borrowing’ a way of thinking and thought I’d experiment with the idea by trying to see whether an outside theory could be relevant for, or even inform translation. Vittorio Pelosi, a founding member of the Intentist movement, is a friend of mine and over February-March 2011, I spoke to him about translation and Intentism, to get a better understanding of whether they are compatible. Below is an edited version of the conversation between Vittorio (not a translator) and myself (not necessarily an Intentist).
Samantha Christie: Can you provide a brief introduction to your ideas?
Vittorio Pelosi: It was said in a seminal work called ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ by Wimsatt and Beardsley that not only can intentions not be accurately found, but even if they were, they would not be useful in understanding meaning. However, Intentists believe that the work is the ‘vehicle’ of the meaning and that intentions imbue the work with meaning. If you want to distil our theory into a statement, I suppose it would be that ‘all meaning is the outworking of intention.’ This is to say, intention by itself is not meaning, as intention is a ‘performance expectation’. However, once the intention has been realized, the meaning is found in what was intended.
SC: Where do you think Intentism stands in relation to translation? Are there any translators already working within an Intentist framework? Has it been written about?
VP: Intentists believe that a translator should put the author’s intention (originally formed in one language) in a new set of signs (language.) Professor William Irwin, an Intentist and an American philosopher, has touched on this. He quotes Gadamer, who was against much of what Intentists believe. Gadamer said that however much a translator can empathize with the original author, the translator cannot re-awaken the original process in the writer’s mind. Instead, the translator re-creates the text guided by the way he understands what it says. And Jorge J. E. Gracia makes an interesting distinction. He says that the translator can be a new author, but only the author of a new text, since the translator chooses new signs and nothing has been written in this language like this before. However, he can’t be the author of the work, since that remains with the original creator.
SC: Gadamer’s point is quite a common view amongst translation scholars. We’re almost trained to see ourselves in that way, actually. I agree with him. Though I also think it depends on what type of text is being translated and why – if it’s a two-line answer to a question, something quite close will probably be appropriate. If it’s a poem or a highly stylised piece of writing, I think re-creating or rewriting comes into it more. There is more involvement from the translator and there are some cases where you have to restructure phrases in order for them to make sense in English, or add a short extra sentence to explain something culturally-specific. I agree with Gracia, too. The translator is the author of a new text; a re-created text.
VP: Intentists believe ‘No creative input, no meaning input’ – meaning that anyone who creates something or adds to it creatively, adds to it epistemologically.
SC: I find this very interesting from a translation viewpoint. I see the translator as a separate entity from the author, not just an extension. Inevitably when translating, some of your personal views or style of language will seep in, as Mona Baker has discussed, or you may deliberately try to translate in a certain way to highlight certain things. We’ve already established that we have a creative input into the translation, so if we think of the translation alone, couldn’t we see that the translator has a meaning input as well? I don’t just mean by putting it into a new language we get the new meaning (or same meaning in a different language), I mean by the translation choices made. For example, translating a text in such a way as to emphasize its feminist elements, or translating for a new audience, such as a children’s version. In this way, the translator’s intention supersedes the author’s.
VP: I think I agree. There needs to be a distinguishable difference between the work before the creative act and afterwards. So for example, some postmodernists believe in the creative eye. This is their way of saying when you look at a work you construct the signs and symbols through your creative frame of reference. This is another way of saying meaning comes from the viewer and not the author. I don’t think this holds water. It has been put to me this way: I visit a gallery and I see a work I had seen before. Between my visits it has been seen by another without my knowing. Could I tell from the work alone? Surely not. The work is unchanged. Therefore, there is no genuine creative input that changes the works meaning. (Different cultures and generations can have different views of a work, but that is new significance, not meaning.) However, obviously a translation directly affects the text. So I think I would agree.
SC: If I have understood correctly, you see the role of a translator (from an Intentist point of view) as conveying in another language the original author’s intentions and therefore meaning. I would agree, I think that’s what we do too, but from experience, it’s very difficult to know those intentions and we often have to make an educated guess – and that guess come from OUR interpretation of the text. Does that mean that where an author is unavailable or dead or their intentions aren’t written down somewhere, you believe that a translation can occur, but not an ‘Intentist’ translation, so to speak?
VP: I don’t think there actually is a problem when the author is dead or unavailable. I think most of the time when we try and understand a work for its meaning or translation we invariably introduce an author instinctively. For example, if you were translating Heidegger’s Being and Time from the German, it would be quite natural to ask ‘what did Heidegger mean by this sentence?’ So even if we have a text discovered that cannot be carbon dated and for some reason cannot be linked to any culture or author, we still invariably link it to a mind. In sum, I think translations can certainly be Intentist when the creator is dead.
SC: Wasn’t it E. D. Hirsch, Jr. who wrote about needing to link the text to a mind? Your instinctive author echoes what some areas of translation studies have called the ‘implied author’. It suggests the author can be uncovered by closely studying the text. I understand Intentists to mean the same thing when you refer to an ‘implicit intender’.
VP: I think the concepts of implicit intender and the implied author do have several crossovers but I think they have certain differences. The implied author is a different entity to the author, in that he or she is only inferred from the work. Therefore, it is possible that the work may point to a different understanding of the author than was actually the case. I would suggest that the implied author is important since it establishes the importance of authorship and as I have said before that all works are ultimately human gestures and to appreciate the work is to appreciate this human gesture. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. also believed there can be new significances or associations to a work, but the meaning remains stable because the intention of the creator has not changed. Your earlier comment about making your own interpretation of the text is important. Gadamer spoke of the hermeneutical circle whereby the baggage that we have when coming to a work means that we will never get to the heart of the text. We will always translate it through our own eyes. A recent book called The Hermeneutical Spiral, by Osborne, maintains that by close reading of the text and relevant understanding of its context we can get close enough to translate it perfectly but not ‘omnisciently’.
SC: A ‘perfect’ translation – the Holy Grail! It feels like it can always be refined…
VP: I think when a translation is made, there will always be something lost. It is interesting that even fundamentalists generally don’t believe bible translations are inerrant, but consider only the Greek of Hebrew to be divinely inspired. It is interesting, too, that since language is a living thing and permanently vulnerable to flux, it was considered prudent to revise the King James Bible into modern English (The New King James Bible.) The reason came down to intention and authorship. The original writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, which was the language of the common people; the intention being so that it would be most widely understood.
SC: Are you familiar with Skopos theory? Your King James Bible example seems to fit well with that. It’s widely about the function of a translation. Why is it being translated, for whom, what is its purpose? In this case, the purpose was to help the vulgate understand or have access to the word of God. So here, what I call the purpose, you call the intention. Are they the same thing, then? I’m talking about the text and you’re talking about the people – is that the difference?
VP: I think we are talking about similar things. I am always concerned about using purpose or intention for a text. I can’t think of any other inanimate thing that regularly has purpose or intention. If I said what’s the purpose of a pen or a TV, as far as I can imagine we mean what’s the human purpose for it. Take for example, a beautiful scene from nature or a painting of the same scene. The painting would certainly have meaning, but would the scene from nature? Certainly men like Richard Dawkins say nature has no meaning. Why? Because unlike the painting, nature has no intender or creator behind it (unless you are a deist/theist of course). So I believe texts, as a collection of arbitrary signs have no meaning if separated from a mind. Gadamer spoke of the effective history of the work, meaning that a work continually changes meaning and purpose in different times and cultures. Intentists don’t deny this change but maintain that is the change in human minds, not the text. We therefore talk about the work constantly changing in SIGNIFICANCE. However, we believe that all the epistemological qualities of a work (meaning not significance) are settled when the author finishes his work. Otherwise I could look at Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and say the purpose of the work has changed and the meaning has and the work is now finished.
SC: I’m interested in the Creative Trail which Intentists incorporate into their work. This ties in very well with translation. There exists a notion that translators are invisible (not only in terms of the limited recognition of the profession, scarce credits, and low pay, but also in that most Anglo-American readers believe a ‘good’ translation is one which reads as though it was originally written in English, with no sign of ever having been translated.) Some translators and theorists (particularly Lawrence Venuti) try to make the translation visible by including features in the translation that remind the reader it is a translation – maybe by keeping occasional foreign words or some part of the translation process. The Creative Trail would be a fantastic way of doing this (although unpublishable, probably!)
VP: I’m very interested in what you say about Venuti! The creative trail, as you say, is a way of demonstrating the creative process. In any work (including translations) there are multiple intentions from the overriding idea to ideas that you select or discard. Intentists try to keep suggestions of this process in the work.
SC: Well, Vittorio, this has given me a lot to think about in terms of the relationship between Intentism and translation. Thank you very much.
VP: No problem! Thanks so much for your interest in all these things.
13. Olivier Richon
14. Interview with Dr. Julian Stallabrass
Julian Stallabrass is a British art historian, photographer and curator. He was educated at Leighton Park School and New College, Oxford University where he studied PPE. AMarxist, he has written extensively on contemporary art (including internet art), photography and the history of twentieth century British art. Stallabrass is a Professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. He is on the editorial boards of Art History and the New Left Review. He curated the exhibition “Art and Money Online” at Tate Britain, London in 2001. High Art Lite (Verso 1999) remains the only serious critical and analytical account of ‘young British art’, and was the subject of much controversy on its launch. Julian has also written shorter essays and art criticism for many publications, including Artforum, Texte zur Kunste, Bazaar Art and the London Review of Books.
Intentists: So thank you Dr Julian Stallabrass for agreeing to be interviewed on behalf of Intentism. So what I’ll do is quote a few chunks of texts from your writings and then ask questions based on some of those. “As the art market revived [in the early- to mid- 1990s] and success beckoned, the new art became more evidently two-faced, looking still to the mass media and a broad audience but also to the particular concerns of the narrow world of art-buyers and dealers. To please both was not an easy task. Could the artists face both ways at once, and take both sets of viewers seriously? That split in attention, I shall argue, led to a wide public being successfully courted by not seriously addressed. It has left a large audience for high art lite intrigued but unsatisfied, puzzled at the work’s meaning and wanting explanations that are never vouchsafed: the aim of this book is to suggest the direction some of those answers might take and to do so in a style that is as accessible as the art it examines.”(3ammagazine) Contrary to much postmodern theory you seem to be suggesting that there is a singular meaning of the work to be found. Is this your position?
Julian Stallabrass: Not exactly my position. I think it is the position of a lot of people when look at art that they want to know the meaning and they want to relate it to the intention of the artist. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. As I was suggesting in that quote artists might have contradictory intentions which might push in different directions and that might make the work pretty complex in certain ways. I think there are certain circumstances where meaning can be relatively clear. This is true in a lot of mass cultural products. For example, I think we know where we are with a lot of Hollywood movies. For instance, their intentions are pretty clear and their expectations of the audience are pretty clear and to an extent the constituency to which they are appeal is also defined. However, even here though it’s true that as these things achieve widespread distribution, people start to read them in very different ways. However, with the arts it’s quite different as often a virtue is made out of complex meanings, contrary meanings and ambiguity and so on.
I: The second question is related. You said that the audience is wanting explanations that are never vouchsafed. Do you think there is a hunger in the audience to discover explanation?
JS: I think it depends on the audience again. I think there are some people who are comfortable with contemporary art, you might delineate these into class sections to a certain extent, who like the idea that there is no fixed meaning. What they want to do with a work of art is to play with it, to explore it subjectively and to think about what it means in relationship to their own lives and experiences and so on. There are plenty of others of course, particularly those that are relatively new to contemporary art – there is a new audience for contemporary art- particularly in Britain – a lot of people were coming in who weren’t sure what to think about this stuff. And I think they did often look for particular fixed meaning.
I: Last question on that particular quote. Where would you say the explanation can best be found?
JS: I think that’s a really difficult question and its one of the ones art critics and art historians struggle with a good deal. I wouldn’t dismiss artist’s intentions, in particular if an artist makes public statements about the work. This, I would argue, would alter the character of the work. And even now artists have an authority which is often insisted upon by commentators. But I think you also have to take into account the cultural climate into which a work of art issues, the way in which it is displayed, the things that it is displayed alongside, the kind of viewers that it appeals to and who it attracts. So it gets to be an extremely complex socio-cultural nexus.
I: Another quote from The Artist as Critic. The Artist as Critic / The Critic as Mouthpiece:The Peculiar Case of Jeff Wall. The Event. “In the years in which he established his reputation as one of the foremost photographic artists, Jeff Wall wrote extensively about his own work and that of others, creating a sophisticated critical web for the elucidation of his work and of the conditions under which photography was being drawn into the museum. More recently, he has written less, but his writing remains the most powerful influence over the interpretation of Wall’s work as well-known critics and art historians act as sympathetic mouthpieces for the artist. While the case of Wall and his writers is an unusual one, it points to more general phenomena: the promotional character of much criticism, the way that the artist’s voice is still held as ineluctable, (irresistible, not to be avoided) and the evolution for photography of a historically and theoretically weighted “museum prose” that assures viewers and institutions alike of the medium’s worthiness.” Why in practice is so much art theory, whether in popular newspapers, television shows or in academic writing, still discussing the work through the artist’s biography, culture and the artist’s own explanation?
JS: Well there are a number of things in there. First Jeff Wall is a very interesting case to talk about because he is unusual in being an artist who really wrote a lot about not only his own work, but art history in generalespecially the history of conceptual art and photography and photo journalism and so on. And he wrote about it with great eloquence and intelligence too. So these are things you might read even if you are not interested in Jeff Wall. Not only that but they get reprinted endlessly over and over again. If you go to Jeff Wall literature in general and the monographs and so on you find his own episodes often dominating those volumes. And it had a very curious effect. Wall’s writing is very complex. His work is very complex. The combination of the two seems to have thrown many commentators into a kind of spin from which they can’t really escape from. There is a comparison with Duchamp I think here who also wrote a great deal about his work in a kind of elliptical manner. And Wall says pretty contradictory things over the course of his development, the way in which that work tends to be cited is as if we can agree with all of it. So it’s really strange. You are right to point to the idea which flits around academia and more popular literature about art that there is a single artist who has one singular intention and we can define it and perhaps the best way we can do that is by listening to his or her words or reading their writing. As I say it with Wall it gets you into really deep trouble because it’s plainly true that he’s changed enormously. What I have been trying to do recently is map some of the development of ideas in Wall’s writing as against the work and see if you can see a way in which they move in step. It’s quite a difficult task in itself- I’m not sure if you can do it. Why in practice does it happen so much? Well I think with academia and Wall in particular and with a bunch of museum photographers like Michael Fried and others, there is a really conservative project which is an anti-postmodern project which is wanting to reassert our faith in the Western tradition and the way in which a pictures work as conventional aesthetic objects. And for that the artist’s intentions and the artist’s practice in particular, is rather important. So Fried wants to line up, in a sense, the experience we have as viewers of a good picture with the labour of the artist in making that picture. So Wall is very important to him. But I don’t think it’s true of all academia, but I think it is true out of that strand. As for the popular media, they like stories and they like personalities. I don’t think there is a great mystery there. Obviously for them the ideal artist is someone like Damien Hurst or Tracy Emin – someone you can easily spin a story about because they come across as such active personas. They work out of this persona in a particular way.
I: “After all those works of art about how unbridgeable the difference is between different categories of people and different cultures, is it possible to make a project which is founded on something that we all share, and without which we would not be? The same rhythmic movement of tissues sustains us all, unconsciously, sleeping and waking. Usually invisible, an art project which asks people to turn their attention to breathing, to make it materialize, is necessarily critical, concentrating attention on the cultural uses of breathing, on what it means for us personally, and on the political and economic matters which surround it. In dealing with this subject, the strands of the physical, the political, the subjective, the scientific and the cultural are twisted together; as with the ropes of the Royal Navy of old, in each twisted whole there is a single red strand, a vessel bearing our oxygenated blood.” Do you consider the fusion of horizons that Gadamer and Ricieor spoke of to be so rare that an audience can only truly understand works of art that are related to our animalistic qualities?
JS: No, I don’t think that. I’m not quite sure I agree with that quote. I don’t know how long ago I wrote it. It’s one possible mode, although it’s not to say in and of itself it would negate other kinds of cultural differences. There’s a work where you wander into a sculptural object and you feel this work as you stand in this cavity and it is kind of drawing the heat out of your body. I guess one could say that many people would have rather similar sorts of experiences of 81 that work. But on the other hand, it’s going to make a difference equally whether you are a Norwegian who is exposed to snow or not. So there are cultural differences that still operate. However, there are a number of circumstances where we can think where there are very small and homogeneous audiences – particular communities, for instance which have perhaps a particular relationship with an individual story teller and that would be one kind of model where we can be fairly sure that meaning will be understood, and talked out. It would not remove debate about it but there is a common ground there – that’s one sort of model.
I: When Professor John Searle wrote an article criticizing a part of Derrida’s thinking, Derrida replied in over 90 pages saying that not only had Searle misunderstood him but that what he said should have been clear to Searle. Do you think followers of post structuralism can be hypocritical in their attitude to the audience’s response to their own work?
JS: Hypocritical? Possibly. I think it’s curious that Derrida doesn’t understand it better. One might argue it’s a clash of very different intellectual backgrounds and traditions. Actually one saw it very clearly at work in a recent photography conference called Agency and Automatism at the Tate. The idea was to bring together art historians and art critics and analytical philosophers and it really became apparent that they didn’t have a lot to say to each other. There was remarkably little common ground despite the fact that they were addressing the same issues but they were doing it from such incompatible viewpoints that conversation was really rather difficult. There’s another question in there about motive and I was reminded of a two word response that Derrida had to a critic of his named Sokal. What Sokal had done which was interesting was to look at mathematics in post structuralism and post modernism and basically to say not that these people made mistakes because they were obviously non mathematicians, but to wonder about why they were using Maths and science in their quotations in their work. And why they were using it in a way which seemed to be so nonsensical. In Finnish he wrote a piece about Quantum gravity for a journal called Social Tech which was complete and utter nonsense. He published it as if it were the real thing and then he revealed it to be a hoax. And then he wrote along with a French theorist called Bricmont a book called Intellectual Impostures and their claim in that book which is an interesting one is that the use of Maths and science by certain established intellectuals is so nonsensical that the only real explanation you can come up with is that it’s there to dominate and intimidate the reader. If that’s true then there is a childish hypocrisy.
I: Do you believe there needs to be an intender for the presence of meaning? Is there any difference in meaning between nature and a landscape painting?
JS: It’s a really difficult question. It’s partly what the conference I previously spoke of was about- the mix of Agency and automatism in photography does present aesthetics with certain problems. The last bit of your question – it’s representation and we have a different sort of relationship to it. Although once one starts to become aware of all the mental apparatus that goes into merely seeing a scene one becomes more aware that our own mental apparatus produces highly complex representations of various kinds. And these are sometimes incompatible.
I: Another way of putting the second part of the question would be to say: would there be any difference in meaning with one person who looks at nature and sees incremental blind evolution and one person who looks at the same thing but believes in a creator God – and His creation? Would the presence of a Creative Mind imbue nature with a different sense of meaning?
JS: Certainly. Well that’s very true. If you look at the writings of Ruskin- for instance, and he very clearly says it does. Therefore he thinks that a meticulous understanding and care for representation of nature is an ethical imperative. And to paint foliage carelessly is an immoral act. So that’s obviously true. There’s an interesting question about natural forces and entropy and understanding of those too. If one looks at elements of nature with an educated scientific eye one also sees it not merely a spectacle but as processes of various kinds at work. They are not intentional unless one thinks of a Divine Being but they do have pattern and direction.
I: Derrida has said that works always have more than one meaning and yet there are ways in which the work can be misunderstood. If the author is dead and the work can be deconstructed, by want new parameters can we decide when a work has been misunderstood?
JS: Well I don’t really go along with Derrida there. I would see them as being competing explanations.
I: Would you consider the most persuasive reading would be the one with the most powerful advocates? I’m thinking of Foucault’s ‘power is knowledge.’
JS: Kind of. Misunderstandings or what we call misunderstandings are often merely the weakest competitors in that kind of struggle. It’s difficult for me to say anything in a sense because I teach art history. I guess that I quite often turn around to students and I don’t think I ever say ‘you’re wrong’ but I guess I would ask them questions about what they said and see if any ready answers come to hand. Maybe that’s an education in simply knowing whether the ideas of theirs have any purchase rather than it being a case in saying ‘you’re wrong.’ It’s incredibly difficult to say -particularly in contemporary art – this is plainly wrong and this is plainly right. Or even this set of explanations have more right to them than this one. Because as I say again we are dealing with a really very complex field and I don’t think artists know what they are doing within that field very much either. They go out and they certainly have intentions but very often they find, I think, that the effect of the work has is quite different.