Imagine you and a friend are strolling through an art exhibit and a striking painting catches your eye. The vibrant red appears to you as a symbol of love, but your friend is convinced it's a symbol of war. And where you see stars in a romantic sky, your friend interprets global warming-inducing pollutants. To settle the debate, you turn to the internet, where you read that the painting is a replica of the artist's first-grade art project: Red was her favorite color and the silver dots are fairies. You now know the exact intentions that led to the creation of this work. Are you wrong to have enjoyed it as something the artist didn’t intend? Do you enjoy it less now that you know the truth? Just how much should the artist's intention affect your interpretation of the painting?
It's a question that's been tossed around by philosophers and art critics for decades, with no consensus in sight. In the mid-20th century, literary critic W.K. Wimsatt and philosopher Monroe Beardsley argued that artistic intention was irrelevant. They called this the Intentional Fallacy: the belief that valuing an artist's intentions was misguided. Their argument was twofold: First, the artists we study are no longer living, never recorded their intentions, or are simply unavailable to answer questions about their work. Second, even if there were a bounty of relevant information, Wimsatt and Beardsley believed it would distract us from the qualities of the work itself. They compared art to a dessert: When you taste a pudding, the chef's intentions don't affect whether you enjoy its flavor or texture. All that matters, they said, is that the pudding "works." Of course, what "works" for one person might not "work" for another. And since different interpretations appeal to different people, the silver dots in our painting could be reasonably interpreted as fairies, stars, or pollutants. By Wimsatt and Beardsley's logic, the artist's interpretation of her own work would just be one among many equally acceptable possibilities.
If you find this problematic, you might be more in line with Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, two literary theorists who rejected the Intentional Fallacy. They argued that an artist's intended meaning was not just one possible interpretation, but the only possible interpretation. For example, suppose you're walking along a beach and come across a series of marks in the sand that spell out a verse of poetry. Knapp and Michaels believed the poem would lose all meaning if you discovered these marks were not the work of a human being, but an odd coincidence produced by the waves. They believed an intentional creator is what makes the poem subject to understanding at all.
Other thinkers advocate for a middle ground, suggesting that intention is just one piece in a larger puzzle. Contemporary philosopher Noel Carroll took this stance, arguing that an artist's intentions are relevant to their audience the same way a speaker's intentions are relevant to the person they’re engaging in conversation. To understand how intentions function in conversation, Carroll said to imagine someone holding a cigarette and asking for a match. You respond by handing them a lighter, gathering that their motivation is to light their cigarette. The words they used to ask the question are important, but the intentions behind the question dictate your understanding and ultimately, your response.
So which end of this spectrum do you lean towards? Do you, like Wimsatt and Beardsley, believe that when it comes to art, the proof should be in the pudding? Or do you think that an artist's plans and motivations for their work affect its meaning? Artistic interpretation is a complex web that will probably never offer a definitive answer.