The Road to Hell is Paved With Artists’ Intentions

Can there exist an objective understanding of a work of art outside of the artist’s intention? I admit, I’m befuddled by those who say “yes”.

Whenever this debate arises, I’m reminded of the scene in Annie Hall when the characters are in line outside of a theater. Behind them, a man pontificates on the meaning behind the works of artists from Fellini to Marshall McLuhan. Exasperated, Woody Allen’s character calls him on his obnoxious behavior and produces Mr. McLuhan, who explains to the man that his insights are all wrong.

At the end of the scene, Woody Allen breaks the fourth wall and laments that life doesn’t work this way. He produced a deus ex machina moment that transcends reality, leaving the audience with the shared frustration that awkward situations often have no satisfying solution.

In the above case, should we probe further and attempt to uncover a) the true meaning we suppose the author intended but didn’t reveal or b) an unintended meaning agreed upon by consensus?

The first is counter-productive. Need we probe deeper into Mr. Allen’s writing once he has explained the purpose of the scene? If the author tells us the meaning, no further analysis is necessary.

On the second point, can we infer unintended meaning by the artist’s words on a page, or the geometry of the sculpture, or the strokes of a brush? We are arrogant to assume we have insight the artist doesn’t. I understand the intrigue. It’s interesting to presuppose hidden meaning, but it is a disservice to the artist if they didn’t hide it in the first place (even from themselves).

So let’s consider this: can art transcend its creator?

How can it? Suppose the artist intends an appreciation of their art through the personal experiences of its viewers. Such art evokes an EMOTIONAL response, which may manifest itself differently in each person. This is the artist’s intention, so there is no objective meaning laying in wait for the savvy to interpret—every interpretation is subjective and meant to be so.

Otherwise, the work has the meaning the author intended—indeed, its whole being is an expression of the author’s purpose. Who has the right (or the arrogance to insist) that there can be meaning that supersedes the artist’s own thoughts?

Given that, we are left with what happens every day for most people. If we suppose the artist has infused an objective meaning into the work but we don’t know what it is, we are left to ponder and conjecture and endlessly DISPUTE each and every point. But that’s where the fun of critique lies—if we admit it’s all guesses and conjectures.

I support our right to debate the intelligence behind an artist’s work. It’s fun and it motivates logical thinking, emotional analysis, and the hypothetical deduction that makes Sherlock Holmes such a fascinating character.

I am only annoyed at those who insist their subjective conjecture represents the objective meaning. Unless the artist has revealed the same, you cannot know. I cannot know, no one but the artist knows. Without access to the author or their insight, we can debate as much as we want, agree to differ, and RESPECT each other’s opinions.

For that’s all they are. Unless you’re in line with Woody Allen.

As the wise man said,

A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.

— Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man

Words I strive to live by.

Stay Friendly and Healthy.

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