Sunday, June 12, 2011

Art and the Interpretation Thereof

Even though my mother is an art educator and my brother is a professional artist, I don't have a lot of experience with art. I gave up on trying to draw when I was in first grade and couldn't for the life of me draw X-MEN fighting sentinels the way I had it in my head. I got no pleasure out of making grotesque scrawls of what I had in my head.

So I've been reading this book on how to look at art. It combines art history and art theory and is a fun little read. But it got into this long discussion about what in literary theory is called authorial intent. This is the idea of asking what the author or artist is really trying to say. Most modern literary theorists call this "the intentional fallacy" for a few reasons: 1) Shouldn't the work speak for itself? Why do we have to figure out what the creator meant by it? Why can't we just ask what the piece itself means? 2) There is no way we can ever know what the creator meant, even if he or she told us. They could be lying, they could say something off hand that they really hadn't thought through, or they could not really understand the piece themselves.

For the most part, I don't care what artists or authors or composers have to say about their work. Well, I should specify that I don't care what they have to say more than anyone else talking about the work. They may have some insight, but their views do not trump those of others. I'm not an accomplished artist or poet, but I have written my fair share of music, and one thing that I've found in writing all those pieces is that rarely do I begin a composition thinking, "What do I want this piece to say?" When I do write music that has some kind of meaning beyond the notes themselves, I tend to discover that meaning as I'm writing it (or sometimes long after I've finished). The goofy thing about art (in general, not just visual art) is that the creator often undergoes the same interpretive experience as the audience. So if it's the same experience, why should theirs overwhelm others'?

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. We have all read books where the author set out to prove a point, and we've all seen posters that were created solely to express a singular idea. But we call this "didacticism" and "propaganda," respectively.


  1. Colbert when trying to out-Renaissance the Renaissance Man ("one who can practice many forms of art"), James Franco:

    "The true aesthetic moment hangs in tension between pornography and didacticism."

    Franco: "Say again?"


  2. The funny thing is, I think Colbert is right!