Intentionalism and the Arts

Hypothetical Intentionalism, Interpretation, and Phoebe Washburn                                              Part III

Paisley Livingston in Art and Intention: A Philosophical Study discusses an example that relates to this situation as well. Livingston says:

...We tell a story in which a Japanese novelist—let's call him Soseki the Strange—holds a press conference in which he sincerely and accurately reveals his intention that the three main characters in his trilogy were meant to be the successive appearances of a Martian in disguise. Such a reading is coherent with the textual evidence in the sense that nothing in the texts, standardly and literally interpreted, explicitly contradicts such a claim. Yet the Martian story-line seems tacked on and extraneous, and most if not all readers would have failed to think of it had they not read the interview. Do we not want to deny the intentionalist's idea that the fact that the author wrote with this implicit content in mind suffices to make such a daft interpretation the correct reading of the story?

One does not need to be familiar with Natsume Soseki's work in order to understand the implications of the example. However, one does need to understand that in this case, Livingston is postulating a fictional author called "Soseki the Strange" in order to interject a hypothesized reading that isn't related to Soseki's actual works at all. Soseki's novels have nothing to do with aliens. Livingston points out that the "alien intention" is not contradictory to the content of the works, however, it is "tacked on and extraneous and most if not all readers would have failed to think of it had they not read the interview." Since Soseki the Strange's intentions are not supported by and do not "mesh" well with the content of the work, they need to be dismissed in order to have coherent meaning evident in the text or work. I am arguing that Phoebe Washburn's intentions, while not as out-of-left-field as Soseki the Strange's alien intentions, directly contradict implicit (and sometimes explicit) meanings in her work and therefore should be written off as well.

Livingston considers two ways for intentionalists to handle this situation. We either accept Washburn's statements that the environmentalist aspect of her work is a byproduct of her process-oriented explorations even though it doesn't mesh with the implicit or explicit content of her work (the absolute intentionalist would have to take this position) and regard the only valid interpretation as one that is not environmentally centered (or environmental at all, really) or we adopt a "more restrictive kind of filter or constraint specifying which intentions actually determine utterance or work meaning." The former is unsatisfactory and the latter is unknowable. When Livingston says "which intentions actually determine utterance or work meaning," he's referring to the distinction between semantic and categorial intentions emphasized by Levinson. Semantic intentions refer to what a work means and categorial intentions refer to what a work is. For example, if an artist chooses to make an impressionist painting, that is a categorial intention. If an artist chooses to make that impressionist work about leisure, then that is a semantic intention. Levinson argues that categorial intentions are interpretively prior to semantic ones and are therefore more determinate of the interpretation. He says we have to know what a work is before we can know what it means. We have to recognize the work as impressionist so then we can compare it to the historical lineage of impressionist works and use the proper vocabulary to assess its success. Only after we do that can we know what it means.

Livingston argues that the lines between categorial and semantic intentions are too blurry to be interpretively relevant. I'll apply this distinction to the Washburn situation in terms of the hypothetical intentionalist interpretation and see what happens. From the perspective of the appropriate viewer, Washburn's categorial intention is to make an installation. Her semantic one is to make an environmental commentary on how we should recycle, care for our natural environment, and create our societal structures around these two concerns. It is not clear as to which intention is more determinative. One could say that, under this interpretation, Washburn is an activist and therefore environmental concerns are paramount. The choice of installation would then simply be made because Washburn thought it was the best and most aesthetically engaging way to communicate the message. However, the fact that it is an installation and not a painting could be construed as more determinative of the work than the fact that it is a commentary on sociopolitical issues because its installationality is its nature. If we lose the framework of installation we have no idea what the work would be. But concurrently, if we lose the meaning of environmentalism we have no idea what the work would be either. Whatever choice was made first would seem to be more determinative. If Washburn made the choice to make a social commentary and then that beget the installation, the semantic choice could be said to be more determinative. But if she chose to make installations and then decided to make them about environmentalism, then the categorial intention could be said to be more determinative.

Phoebe Washburn, "Nothing's Cutie," 2004

Neither the semantic or categorial intention can be said to be more inherently determinative and the distinction does not inform this interpretation. However, that fact does not defeat the hypothetical intentionalist interpretation. One can say that the appropriate audience's hypothesis of Washburn's intentions need not include any semantic or categorial distinction.

I'm going to backtrack here to re-examine what I've said. The conclusion to exclude Washburn's actual statements about her intentions in favor of using the appropriate audience's hypothesis seems dangerously anti-intentionalist. How can something be intentionalist and completely disregard the artist's actual intentions? Sometimes Levinson refers to his position as non-intentionalist because it doesn't disregard intentions, recognizing them as needed for interpretation, but it doesn't favor the artist's actual intentions. I agree with this notion that Levinson's take is non-intentionalist because an interpretation, by definition, can't be intentionalist if it dismisses the artist's actual intentions. Stanley Fish might argue otherwise. Fish's position is that the work can't be anything else but what the author intended it to be. However, as his logic goes, those intentions are revealed through the trial and error process of successive interpretations and therefore, in the end, it is the interpreter's collective interpretations that are instrumental as to what the author intended. Again, the collective audience creating the artist's intentions through interpretation is problematic but is it inevitable?

Phoebe Washburn, "Poor Man's Lobster," 2005

Also, through using this hypothetical intentionalist interpretation, I was left with interpreting Washburn as an environmental artist. Doesn't that seem necessarily false? Even if her explicitly stated intentions are incompatible with the content of her work, it still seems unacceptable to regard Washburn as an environmentalist when in fact she's not. And from my logic (which of course can be disputed if one makes a solid case for the fact that environmentalism is neither implicitly or explicitly in Washburn's work, which I can't see as being valid), the hypothetical intentionalist would be left with exactly such a state. The interpreter would then have to regard Washburn as an environmental artist even when she's not. This seems overtly fictional. One must keep in mind that I'm applying the appropriate audience's interpretation on the actual artist. Isn't this the inevitable end of hypothetical intentionalism? If one is hypothesizing an artist's intentions, isn't that distinction made solely to attribute intentions that would otherwise be considered false in place of the artist's actual intentions? And doesn't the existence of this essay inhibit any dismissal of Washburn's actual intentions? Because since I've now made them front and center aren't they inevitably going to be under consideration? We cannot erase the record of her statement. Any interpretation that does not include her actual statements now would seem lacking and blind in their embrace of her environmentalism. The hypothetical intentionalist argument, then, isn't valid in this context. We cannot simply discard Washburn's actual intentions in favor of some idealized notion of what the appropriate reader would interpret.

Noel Carroll, in Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays, makes a statement that coincides with my conclusion for this situation. He says,

Consider an analogy. We employ scientific method in order to approximate the truth. Were we to discover that our best scientific hypothesis were false - that something else were the case - would we stick with a methodologically sound but false hypothesis, or would we go with what we knew to be true? Clearly, the very aims of science would recommend that we live with the truth. Similarly, where actual intentionalism and hypothetical intentionalism diverge in their results, given the comparable aims of their methodologies, why would we stick with the results of the hypothetical intentionalist's interpretation when a true account of an author's actual intention is available?

Why would we hold the appropriate audience's hypothesis to be correct over our knowledge of Washburn's actual intentions?



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-"Resurrection",, September 28, 2004

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- "Listings (recommended)" The New York Times, pg. E36, 7/19/02

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Institute of Contemporary Art from the University of Pennsylvania. "Ramp Project: Phoebe Washburn, Vacational Trappings and Wildlife Worries." 09/04/2007.


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