Monday, December 08, 2008

Artistic Intent

In twentieth-century critical theory, it was customary to deny that reference to artists bares any relevance to artistic criticism and evaluation. As Beardsley puts it, speaking of literary arts, “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art…”

I’d like to begin by considering an argument often put forward against the relevance of artistic intention. After considering the argument I will evaluate it, stating where the argument breaks down and why I think intention is in fact relevant to critical activity and artistic evaluation. The argument primarily has to do with interpreting literary texts, though it can apply to other arts.
Communication via language is possible only because there is a public structure of language. Beardsley thus takes exception to Hirsch’s view that “a text means what its author meant” and that the meaning of an utterance is indeterminate until we find out what the speaker meant. Beardsley argues, on the other hand, that because the meaning of words are publicly available, we can find out what someone means by consulting dictionaries, not the author/speaker. No amount of intending on the part of the artist can change what the poem actually says or how the painting actually looks. Thus, in his monograph The Possibility of Criticism, Beardsley writes:

"It is in its language that the poem happens. That is why the language is the object of our attention and our study when its meaning is difficult to understand. It is not the interpreter’s task…to draw our attention off to the psychological states of the author."

Because “language is the object of our attention” (in Beardsley’s view, not mine), it follows that the meaning of a text functions quite independently of the author. Hence, he can say (as Beardsley in fact does) that “the belief that a text means what its author meant is not sensible.” Or again, as Beardsley and Wimsatt say in their famous and influential essay,
The Intentional fallacy,

"‘A poem should not mean but be.’ A poem can be only through its meaning – since its medium is words – yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant."

In The Possibility of Criticism, Beardsley presents us with a number of examples to try to show that language functions independently of the speaker. First, he quotes from situations in which speakers have a slip of the tongue or writers of newspapers print typos. The results of such cases are sometimes humorous, but this is only possible because the words have a meaning that is independent of intention. The same can be said of Beardsley’s second example, which is a poem created randomly by a computer. Bearsdley concludes, “There are textual meanings without authorial meanings. Therefore textual meaning is not identical to authorial meaning.”

A third example given by Beardsley is the way in which the meaning of a text can change after the author is dead. He quotes a poem from 1744 in which the word ‘plastic arm’ occurs. Now that ‘plastic arm’ means something different to what the term meant in 1744, this line of the poem has acquired a new meaning. Consequently, there are now two meanings of the poem: what the poem meant in 1744 and what the poem means today. Now here's the crucial point for Beardsley: because today’s meaning cannot be identified with an act of authorial intention, it follows that textual meanings can exist independently of authorial intention.

Fourthly, Beardsley appeals to situations where a text can mean something of which the author is unaware. Because of these things, Beardsley thinks we need to ask “what does this line mean?” and not “what did the poet mean in this line?”

In refuting Beardsley’s argument, I do not take issue with the fact that meaning exists independent of human acts of intention. We might remark that one of the lines produced by the gorilla randomly typing “has a meaning…amazingly”, presupposing that meaning can exist independent of authorial intention. A sentence can have a meaning even though no meaning was intended. Similarly, if someone expresses a thought rather badly, and we know what they were trying to say, we can say, “Your words don’t mean what you think they mean.” Therefore, I agree with Beardsley’s statement that “textual meaning is not identical to the authorial meaning.”
But all this shows is that there are two kinds of meanings that we are dealing with: (A) authorial or intended meaning and (B) textual meaning. But in order for Beardsley’s overall conclusion to be sound, we need reasons showing why critics ought only to attend to meaning in the second sense. It is not good enough to simply observe that meaning can exist independent from human intention: we need to be persuaded that this kind of meaning (the kind of meaning that can exist independently) is the only kind to which critics should attend.

But herein lies a difficulty for Beardsley, for critics do not merely attend to a work’s independent meaning, they attend to a work’s meaning as an artwork. When we attend to a work as an artwork we are attending to more than merely its meaning (in the case of poems) or merely its appearance (in the case of paintings) or merely its sound (in the case of music). Let me prove that this is so, starting with poetry.

If we were attending only to the meaning of a poem then it would not make any difference whether it was written with artistic intent, that is to say, by a human being rather than a computer or an ape. Hence, all the predicates we might apply to the meaning of the poem we should be able to use whether or not it had a human creator. But this is not so, for many aesthetic predicates that we commonly apply to poems would be meaningless when predicated to the computer generated poem. Consider such predicates as ‘witty’, ‘intelligent’, ‘insightful’, ‘controlled’, ‘suppressed’, ‘overdone’, etc., which presuppose a creative intelligence behind them. To attend to the poem as an artwork is, therefore, to already be aware of more than merely the meaning of the words themselves: it is to be aware of their meaning as an intended artwork.

Similarly, to attend to a visual artwork is to attend to more than merely its appearance, but rather its intended appearance as an artwork. Imagine a piece of wood cut by a wood worker for the purposes of slitting into a joint of a wall. Imagine further that this piece of wood looks identical to an artwork found in a museum. Place the two side by side and they are indistinguishable. But it still matters aesthetically which is the one made with the artistic intentions, for just as with the poem, there are many aesthetic qualities – qualities such as clumsy, controlled, innovative, vulgar, simplistic, etc. – that can be applied only to the piece of wood that we know was made with artistic intention. Thus, to attend to it as an artwork is already to be aware of more than merely its appearance. To do otherwise, and merely to take the object at face value, entails ridding our vocabulary of a wealth of aesthetic predicates and, in so doing, limit the potential enjoyment that might be derived from the work.

Similarly, with music there are some cases where there can be overlap between musical sounds and natural sounds. This is particularly the case with contemporary and postmodern music, though there has always existed a possibility (remote perhaps) that drums could be confused with thunder or that flutes or whistling could be indistinguishable with birdsongs. Knowing which noises are intended for musical art informs the way we listen and evaluate.

I have suggested that our knowledge of intention informs the way we attend to artworks. This occurs at every level of how we attend to such works. If our evaluation and interpretation is of an aesthetic nature, then there is no theoretical limit on the extent to which knowledge of intention may affect this evaluation and interpretation. Knowing that Milton was blind when he wrote his poem "on blindness" affects our aesthetic response, though Beardlsey denies this. Similarly, we may enjoy an apparently serious poem in a way that is different to our enjoyment of the same poem once we have learned that it was written as a joke or mock parody. Knowing that the brass in Mozart’s Magic Flute was intended to give a royal sound, or that in Bach and Handel’s day the oboe and flute were intended to be reminiscent of the rustic bagpipe and shepherd’s flute informs and enhances our aesthetic response.

It should be clear now why it is not possible to draw a sharp distinction between external considerations (about the artist, his history and biographical details) and internal considerations (those relating to the aesthetic features of the work itself) since the former informs the later. It should also be clear why Beardsley and Wimsatt were mistaken in the view that “Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.” (From their paper ‘
The Intentional fallacy.) A work of art differs from a machine or a pudding: with machines and puddings, we need only know if they work, and if we know that, then information about intention is irrelevant. I have tried to show that works of art do not function like this.

We are in a position to answer a final argument used by the anti-intentionalists. It runs like this. Although one might use an artist’s work as a springboard to talk about the artist, this has nothing to do with criticism. On the other hand, were we to use information about the artist to make inferences about features found in the work, then such information is unnecessary because, if the work contains those features, then it must be detectable in the work itself, at least if the artist successfully realized his intentions. But if the artist did not realize his intentions, knowing those intentions won’t make it a better artwork, and hence knowledge of those intentions remain irrelevant.

What is wrong with this argument is that it assumes that “what is detectable in the work itself” can contain all the intentions of the artist. But it is not true that all intentions can be manifest in a work. There are many features of a work’s appearance that only emerge when we first know what to look for. If we consider the case of artwork from past cultures that has been uncovered by archaeologists – say Grecian symposium pottery - it is often only after acquiring background information about the culture, and by implication the governing intentions of the artists, that we properly know what to look for. In recent art as well, the background information we bring with us informs our reception of the work. This is not merely true with conceptual art in which the work is often completely unintelligible until we know the thought behind it, for even the great masterpieces have many features that are lost on us until we submit our minds to the mind of the artist. And more often than not, that requires a bit of learning.
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