You are much more likely to make art if you intend to do so, but it is by no means necessary for there to be any intent in order for art to be made. That’s my opinion on the question of intent.
Most people don’t agree with this. By far, the majority feel that the viewer must feel that there is some form of intent apparent in/behind the artwork (though it is not necessary to know precisely what that intent was), and quite a few feel that the viewer must strive to know the artist’s exact intent in order to fully appreciate the art.
Below are extracts from blog postings that I think represent these types of attitudes. The first is from J.T. Kirkland’s blog “Thinking About Art”. Scroll past the posting header to the comments for the good stuff.
Below, first I have one woman’s comment from the linked posting, then, following that is a very well-written dialogue between J.T. Kirkland and “Scott” on their differing views about the intent question.
[woman's response] “Surely you would prefer images to open up meaning rather than clamp down to the artist’s intent. Surely as an artist you would prefer your work to exceed your intentions. This position undermines the authority of artworks and reduces a possibly fecund and imaginative role for the viewer as interpreter to that of reader of and believer in artist statements.”
[J.T. Kirkland comment from mid-dialogue] “I would venture to guess that all artists are aware of their intent in making art. They did not subconsciously set out to paint something, photograph something, sculpt something. They set out in the creative process for a reason. However, as in your case, you may uncover further meaning that you captured, didn’t understand then, but you do now. It’s the difference between photographing a homeless man because you thought the scene and colors were interesting, versus you wanted to capture a poor man’s condition and make a political comment. Either way, when the print is made and you see it years later, it may take on new significance to you. Personally, I’m interested in knowing why you snapped the picture when, where and why. That gets me in the artist’s mind. Significance gained later, when it wasn’t your intent, doesn’t get me into the artist’s mind, it gets me into your mind as viewer. Am I making the difference, to me, clear?
When you say you’ve struggled to figure out the meaning of your most successful pieces, this says to me that what you’ve done is capture a meaningful scene (almost by accident), versus creating a meaningful scene. I could randomly snap pictures blindfolded all day, everyday and eventually stumble upon a meaningful, even successful, image. But I want to know if the artist saw the meaning before or after the snap. Again, your successful photos are likely great, but asking that additional question about intent uncovers a great deal about the artist. Accidents can be wonderful… but I like to know when they happen, though it doesn’t necessarily effect my enjoyment of the piece.
Artwork never creates itself, at least in my definition. That reduces the artist to a role of manufacturer and not creator. I firmly believe, and reiterate for the hundredth time, that there are many interpretations associated with art. It’s ambiguous. Several interpretations can be enjoyable, successful, meaningful… but not accurate.
I don’t believe artwork has intent on its own terms. Definitionally I don’t think that is possible. A viewer should never limit themself [sic] to just the artist’s intent or meaning. There is a ton of art that I think fails in many respects, but I can find stuff about it, perhaps completely unintended by the artist, that still affords me some enjoyment. And that is valuable… but the credit then goes to the viewer and not the artist.
I don’t feel that knowledge of the artist’s intent is essential. I think it is important, very important to me, and that explains why people question art. It’s not essential to the enjoyment of art, but it is essential to the complete and accurate understanding of an artwork. I just don’t see how it can be otherwise. The reason it is important to historians and other academics is because they want the complete view.”
[Scott's response to the above, again, taken from mid-dialogue] “My main point is that you cannot conflate the intent of the artist with the intent of the artwork. The artist may have no idea what is really going on with the artwork. He or she obviously will know what they consciously were trying to do, but I think there is so much more that goes on with a really good piece of art. I agree that you as the viewer may not be able to figure out what the artist was trying to do without asking the artist. My only point is that the artist’s conscious intent may have little or no bearing on what is actually going on with the piece.
This brings up the issue of subconscious (I like to use the word “unconscious”) intent. Obviously, as you say, all artists are aware of their intent in making art. They don’t get up and paint or draw or photograph in some unconscious trance. But just because they know what their conscious intent is doesn’t mean they know what is going on unconsciously that is really driving the artwork. I actually believe that art which is limited to an artist’s conscious intent is pretty dry and lifeless. In order to get really interesting art, you have to tap into something beyond your conscious mind. I think that is what Anna means when she talks about art that is DOA versus art that has a “spark of life.” Art that is created entirely (or mostly) consciously is like a toaster or a widget — it has no life. It’s just a dead object. Art that is created using both the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind, however,is alive, is distinct from the artist, and, yes, can have it’s own intent that is different from the artist’s intent.
You mention that you are interested in the intent of the artist when they create the artwork, not in the meanings that come to mind many years later. I think you misunderstood me. I’m not suggesting that the meaning of the artwork changes with time. I’m suggesting that it is a puzzle that must be solved — even to the artist — and that may take many months or even years. So the meaning of the artwork doesn’t change although the level of the artist’s understanding hopefully does.
You also raise a good question about whether these things are accidental, whether the artist (photographer) “saw the meaning before or after the snap.” I don’t think these things are accidental. I think you see the meaning before the snap. That’s why the scene interests you and resonates with you. But seeing the meaning and understanding the meaning are two different things. I believe that when a photograph, or any work of art, resonates with you, you are seeing/feeling/recognizing the meaning, but you don’t really understand the meaning until you have worked with it awhile. Again, this gets back to the conscious/unconscious dichotomy. Unconsciously, you certainly recognize the meaning of the scene, but it takes some time to understand it consciously.
Finally, you say that artwork never creates itself and that believing so would reduce the artist to a mere manufacturer. I believe the opposite is true. Artwork that is created solely by the artist’s conscious mind is little more than a lifeless widget, and the artist little more than a manufacturer of widgets. But an artist who can tap into the vast wellspring of the unconscious may not control every detail of the artwork, but will certainly be more than a mere manufacturer. I think they are more akin to a shaman, conjuring spirits from beyond and bringing them back for all to see.”
This back-and-forth between J.T. Kirkland and Scott goes for two pages. If you read it, be sure to look for the arrows at the bottom of the first page to get to the ending.
Another blog entry that includes interesting comments on intent is Petra Voegtle’s “About the Intent of Art”. She goes back and forth with J. Alan. I’ll give you an extract of J. Alan’s statements, followed by one from Petra Voegtle. This blog posting is a little harder to read than J.T. Kirkland’s, but it’s a good one if you have the time to work through it (it’s not that long).
[J. Alan] “There is one indubitable indication distinguishing real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of art. If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint on reading, hearing, or seeing another man’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art. And however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it.
If the work does not transmit the artist’s peculiarity of feeling and is therefore not individual, if it is unintelligibly expressed, or if it has not proceeded from the author’s inner need for expression – it is not a work of art. If all these conditions are present, even in the smallest degree, then the work, even if a weak one, is yet a work of art.”
[Petra Voegtle's response (missing some intermediate dialogue)] “I also see the other side of the coin – the artist. Although I also feel that in many many works exactly that purity and intent is missing and many artists seem to have lost exactly what you are talking about, I feel that many artists also give themselves too much importance, separating themselves from the “normal” people in a way that is simply ridiculous. There are lots of so-called artists out there who pretend something that is not there and I wished that the audience would identify them. But that will never happen.
I would like to say that artists are a special breed but they are just ordinary people who utilize skills and talents other people don’t have or don’t want to utilize. I would like to say that artists belong to the kind of people who are always looking behind the things – but that does not apply to too many. I would like to say that artists are the ones who are the keepers of the virtues in this world – but the media prove they are not. I would like to say that artists are changing the world – but I have not seen any proof for this either.”