Art as Intentional
For session 2 of the Tate Modern course 7 Ways of Thinking About Art (tickets only, sold out), we concentrated on the contrast between those, such as Clive Bell, who advocate scrutiny of form and those such as Richard Wollheim who argue that criticism and interpretation require retrieval, a kind of archaeology of the artist's intentions against a historical background.
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. All around us are objects charged with the capacity to move us aesthetically, but only the sensitive perceive and feel this. The beauty of a butterfly's wing, though, is not Significant Form for Bell - it is found in human creations, which may be as diverse as a Chinese carpet, the Cathedral at Chartres, or a painting by Duccio or Picasso. 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:
'...it 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. The late Denis Dutton put an extract of the most pertinent passages from Bell's Art with very useful illustrations on his website. 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. (For a fascinating discussion of a related question about why we value objects with particular histories rather than their indistinguishable copies, see Paul Bloom's interview 'Why do we like what we like?')
The philosopher Stephen Neale discusses the wider question of the importance of intentions to meaning and interpretation in this podcast interview from the Philosophy Bites series (highly recommended for his discussion of his involvement in the interpretation of US drugs law in relation to the use of firearms!). For a general discussion of the question 'What is Art?' listen to this Philosophy Bites audio interview with Derek Matravers.
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.
Next week: ticketholders meet in Tate Britain via Clore wing (NOT Tate Modern!) at usual time. We'll be in the Duffield Room, and then in the galleries. No drinks afterwards just for this week. Finishing time 8.30pm. More information about topics and dates of sessions.