These notes are from the course Playing with Meaning, Tate Modern, (by ticket only, sold out).
Session 1 The artist's intentions and other contributions to meaning
What does a work of art mean? Possibly nothing at all. Possibly many different things. We all engage in projective interpretation (finding our own meanings in someone else's art) to some extent. But often artists want you to recognize features of their style, content, etc. So does that mean that the artists have the last say on what their work means? The debate is polarised between those who say No (labelled 'anti-intentionalists here) and those who say Yes (Intentionalists). Some philosophers have also suggested that what matters is not actual intentions, but virtual intentions, those which, based on the work and context, might plausibly be attributed to the artist...
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. Clive Bell's views in his book Art (1914) are 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: '...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. 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, amongst others, 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.
There is a further issue of whether this sort of 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 always 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.
On the general question of how we discern the meaning of various communications, this audio podcast interview with the philosopher Stephen Neale on Meaning and Intention might be of interest.