Notes from the second session of Seven Ways of Thinking About Art
Tate Modern, Monday evenings 6.30-8 pm, admission by ticket only
Week Two: Art as Intentional
The main focus of this week’s session was the question, ‘What part should an artist’s expressed intentions play in our interpretation or critical evaluation of 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. And clearly one approach would be to maintain that pluralism, in the sense that there are many acceptable ways of interpreting works of art, is the best approach to take…
Anti-Intentionalists believe that no external evidence should be used to ground an interpretation. An extreme case of an anti-intentionalist is Clive Bell who in his book Art (1914) argued that to appreciate art as art requires us to concentrate on its non-representational aspects: in the case of painting this amounts to patterns of lines, shapes and colours. We are to ignore the subject matter when we are interested in the work as art rather than as illustration. Artists’ intentions are not relevant; nor is the historical context. Art is timeless. To appreciate art requires a sensitive viewer.
Wimsatt and Beardsley put forward a less extreme form of anti-intentionalism in relation to literature. They argued that to base a critical interpretation of a work on external biographical information about intentions was a mistake. What was needed was scrutiny of what was within the work. They coined the label ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ for this kind of mistake. As they put it
‘Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle’
The argument to support the idea that biographical information should not be drawn upon is that it is either misleading or redundant. It is misleading if it supports an interpretation that can’t be arrived at by consideration of the work in front of the reader/viewer. It is redundant if it simply re-iterates what is already visible in the work.
A related argument was used by Roland Barthes in his article 'The Death of the Author ' which promoted multiple readings unbound by original context and authorial intentions.
Intentionalists, such as the philosopher Richard Wollheim, argue that interpretation involves retrieval. The viewer of a work of art should attempt to understand how it came to be as it is. The point is to try to appreciate the artist as someone trying to communicate with viewers. This involves finding out about more than just intentions: changes of mind, historical background, relation to other works by the same artist, and so on, all have their part to play.
Virtual Intentionalists, such as Jerry Fodor , argue that it may not matter if the intentions attributed are historically accurate: what counts is that they can be plausibly attributed to the artist. The notion of an implied author may play a larger role in interpretation than that of the actual author.
In the Gallery
Looking at Jacob Epstein’s Torso in Metal from Rock Drill (1913) as a series of forms and textures led to some observations about symmetries, asymmetries, rhythms, patterns, contrasts of material and so on. Most people agreed that the process of treating this work as a series of interrelated abstract shapes and forms was worthwhile. Scrutiny, though gave an incomplete account of the work.
Treating it as a representation led to a range of interpretations. Most people saw the embryo-figure in the abdomen of the larger figure. The contrast between the body armour and visor of the apparently male figure and the vulnerable embryo was also apparent.
This led quickly to more metaphorical interpretations of the consequences of industrialisation, the contrast between power and vulnerability, and a perhaps Kleinian vision of the inner child, and so on. It seemed reasonable to suppose that these sorts of interpretations were at some level intended by the artist.
However, most people seemed to agree that the additional information about how the torso came to be as it is, was relevant and important. Epstein had originally mounted the sculpture (which was then made of white plaster) on a tripod that was part of a secondhand rock drill, a high-tech device for smashing through rock. In 1913 it was radical to include a piece of real machinery as a major component of a work of sculpture. He even considered setting the drill in motion. As originally conceived the sculpture must have been both more imposing, because of its height and the implied power of the drill, but it would also have been more assertively male. Epstein’s preliminary drawings, and the reconstructions that have been made of Rock Drill suggest that the reading of the drill as a phallic image is not far-fetched. Epstein was on the margins of the Vorticist movement, and influenced by their focus on angularity and power, the power found in a vortex (like the Futurists, they were fascinated by mechanical power). The original Rock Drill was exhibited just once at the London Group show in 1915.
The revised version of the piece, though, plays down the forcefulness of the earlier work. The figure ceases to be a figure in action, and takes on a more passive role.
Epstein significantly altered the Rock Drill to its present form, putting the new work on display in 1916. This is usually read as a reaction to the First World War in which many of his contemporaries lost their lives or were maimed. He removed the drill; removed the legs of the creature; cut back its arms; cast it in bronze (yet the bronze is grey like the grey of gunmetal). The title of the work suggests that the artist wants us to appreciate this metamorphosis. It seems plausible as most critics have done, to read into this change and the resulting sculpture a comment on the destructive power of machinery turned to evil ends. Some have gone so far as to see it as an image of a creature maimed by battle…Knowing the history of how this sculpture came to be as it is could support an interpretation of it as disempowered.
The main point here in relation to the theme for the week – art as intentional - is that without the contextual information and knowledge of some of Epstein’s intentions, a reading of this work may be impoverished or superficial. Or at least incomplete.
Yet at the same time, the link with Epstein’s actual intentions has to some degree been severed and the work continues to exert a power that may go beyond anything he intended. New developments can potentially give it new meanings just as Le Brun’s self portrait in the National Gallery took on new life when viewed through the lens of feminism.
What is mysterious to me, though, is how an object created in 1913 can still look futuristic. Compared, for example, with the robot in Metropolis which looks like a dated vision of the future, Rock Drill could still grace a Ridley Scott film…and perhaps was even an influence on him. It is interesting that when Tate Modern commissioned the band the Chemical Brothers to respond to a work in the museum they chose Rock Drill, linking it to Techno music. This sort of reaction, it seems, is probably independent of (though it might coincide with) Epstein’s actual intentions. He himself in retrospect saw the work as ‘prophetic’ of the horrors of the First World War – not something that could have been explicit in his thinking in 1913. Were we to be invaded by armoured aliens from Mars, it might take on a new profundity as yet unimagined…
What I particularly enjoyed about this session in the gallery is that it has inspired me to go away and find out more about Epstein and the context in which he created Rock Drill.
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.
Clive Bell Art (also my discussion of this in chapter one of The Art Question).
Wimsatt and Beardsley ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ reprinted in my book Philosophy: Basic Readings 2nd ed. see also wikipedia ‘The Intentional Fallacy’
Roland Barthes ‘The Death of the Author’ in his book Image-Music-Text
Richard Wollheim ‘Criticism as Retrieval’ supplementary essay in the second edition of his Art and Its Objects.
Jerry Fodor ‘ It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again’ in Danto and His Critics.