Intentionalism and the Arts

         Seven Ways of Thinking About Art - Art as Intentional

This week we looked at the question of how relevant an artist's intentions might be to interpreting a work of art.  I was not attempting to give a conclusive argument in favour of one or other stance, but rather to map out alternatives informed by philosophical aesthetics. 

Anti-Intentionalists see the principal appropriate activity of an art critic/viewer as scrutiny. That is, the viewer looks to see what is there, is not unduly influenced by art historical detail, facts about the artist's life, the subject matter, and so on.

I presented Clive Bell's views in his book Art (1914) as an extreme example. Bell believed that what all art has in common is that it possesses Significant Form. Not all form is significant, but when patterns of lines, shapes and colours (and some depth) combine they can produce an aesthetic emotion in a sensitive viewer. For Bell, we should bring nothing of life to art. All art through ages has achieved its status as art from these formal properties. The emotion they produce, aesthetic emotion, is not characteristic of everyday life. For Bell its power almost certainly came from its potential to put us in touch with the noumenal world (a Kantian term), that is the world of deeper reality that lies behind the veil of everyday appearances and is not usually available to us.

Another famous defence of anti-intentionalism was Wimsatt and Beardsley's famous paper 'The Intentional Fallacy'. ('Fallacy'  in this context is simply an unreliable way of arguing) There they argued that we shouldn't treat the author of a poem as an oracle about its meaning. Rather, readers should focus on the words on the page, and not get embroiled in author psychology. Their main argument was that appeals to authors' intentions were either misleading or unnecessary. If the poem failed to achieve the poet's intentions, then it was misleading to refer to the intentions as the source of its meaning; if the poem did achieve the aims, then appeals to intention were redundant since the meaning was there to be discerned in the poem.

The philosopher Stanley Cavell used a knock-down argument to make the first of these two points:

' no more counts towards the success or failure of a work of art that the artist intended something other than is there, than it counts when the referee is counting over a boxer that the boxer had intended to duck' (in 'Music Discomposed').

Difficulties with the anti-intentionalist position include the fact that as Ernst Gombrich often pointed out, there is no innocent eye. Also it is hard to appreciate irony if you don't have some access to the artist's or writer's intentions. Extreme anti-intentionalists would say that to appreciate a Rembrandt self-portrait the fact that the artist intended (if he did) to potray himself ageing, is irrelevant to our appreciaton of it as art - this seems wrong. Subject matter has to be part of some art. It also seems a bit perverse not to find out as much as you possibly can about the circumstances in which a work of art was produced.

For more about Clive Bell and why is theory of art fails, see Chapter One of my book The Art Question. Wimsatt and Beardsley's paper 'The Intentional Fallacy' is reprinted in my book (ed.) Philosophy: Basic Readings, 2nd ed.

In contrast, intentionalists, such as Richard Wollheim, argue that the job of the critic or viewer involves retrieval, retrieval of an artist's intentions, motivations, historical milieu, and so on. Understanding a work of art involves understanding how it came to be as it is. Obviously information is incomplete in many cases, but this does not prevent it from being a worthwhile goal where we do have access to background information. Nor would Wollheim want us to forego spending time looking very closely at the work itself; it is just that the history of how it came to be as it is, its aetiology is important for understanding it.

For more on Intentionalism see Richard Wollheim 'Criticism as Retrieval' supplementary essay in the second ed. of his book Art and Its Objects.

A third position, taken by Jerry Fodor in his article 'It's Deja Vu All Over Again' (a quotation from the accidentally  brilliant Yogi Berra - my favourite quotation of his is 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it') is what might be called Virtual Intentionalism. Here the facts don't matter so much about what the artist's actual intentions were. The point is to try to reconstruct what they might reasonably have been. The artist can't overrule your interpretation here.
Fodor's article is in Danto and His Critics.

Something we didn’t get on to: the question of whether discussion of artist’s intentions implies a misleading picture of what it is to do something intentionally. Many writers in this area describe intentions as if artists had introspectible mental events that are the precursors of and causes of their works. But is this so? What of R.G. Collingwood’s account of art (in his The Principles of Art) where he described the artist as beginning with an inchoate emotion that he or she makes clear to him or herself in the process of producing a work of art. On that picture (which rings true with many artists), the idea that an artist has a clear intention that precedes the creation of the artwork is implausible in most cases.

In the gallery we applied some of these ideas to the works in the room 'After Impression'on Level 5 West.

To take one example, the bright semi-pointillist early work by Piet Mondrian ponderously named 'Sun, Church inZeeland; Zoutelande Church Facade'. Adopting the stance of Clive Bell we could see this as a bright abstract pattern of paint marks superimposed on on another, (almost in the manner of Howard Hodgkin). The combination of shapes and colours is remarkable and I don't doubt that he would have said that it evoked the aesthetic emotion. What Bell would not be so concerned with was the fact that the painting represented a cathedral front in sunlight. Or that the artist, Piet Mondrian, would go on to paint far more austere geometrical abstractions that were not obviously representational (and yet in some cases could be seen to relate to this image ans for example with his famous Broadway Boogie-Woogie). Mondrian intended his work to be a representation of passing light conditions, very much influenced by Impressionism's attention to changing light conditions and painting from life. All these are the sorts of consideration that would be relevant to an intentionalist art critic. His use of heightened  colour might well have been influenced by Matisse.

There was some discussion of whether or not the 3 positions outlined were mutually incompatible. My view on this is that as stances adopted by a gallery-goer there is nothing inconsistent in at one time focussing on form, another on actual intentions, and then again on virtual or implied intentions. Indeed that seems a very productive way to approach paintings, particularly the sort of paintings we were looking at which rely on effects of form and colour for their content (as opposed to more conceptual works). To suggest, however, that Clive Bell's take on art was compatible with Wollheim's would be very misleading. Bell thought that to understand art we need bring nothing with us from life; Wollheim believed that to appreciate a work of art we need to retrieve the conditions of its creation. These aren't compatible positions.

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