by Carter Gillies
We can stipulate that only things done with intention count as art, and surely many examples can be found where specific intentions lead specifically to art results. The question is whether all art necessarily relies on intention or even whether the intentions an artist has necessarily produce the end result of the art that follows it. It seems worth examining whether there are cases where things that we acknowledge as art came about either in conflict with an artist’s intentions or where no intentions were required to make it manifest.
Intention can relate to art in a number of ways. Sometimes intending a thing as art makes it art. That was the point of Duchamp’s exercises in readymades: “An ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” This is as tight a relation as possible between intention and the result as art. The artist curates what counts as art. Art is a frame of mind towards the world of objects. And it needs to be respected as such.
But this leaves undecided what actually counts as art besides the artist’s intention. If anything could be presented as art, the “art object” itself is irrelevant. Art is a conceptualization of whatever we decide. This makes art an act of ego. The result of the “choice” by an artist is simply that it was, in this instance, chosen. The relation between art and intention skews entirely towards the intention, leaving the art itself as a placeholder at best, empty at worst. It explains nothing about the characteristics of an object’s artworthiness because there is no such thing independent of being chosen. How it is seen as art comes after the fact. And while this is a valuable insight, it clearly is an exception to the way we ordinarily attach our intentions to art objects.
Another more common connection between intention and art objects is that an artist has a plan and executes it. The intention for this specific result is predetermined in the artist’s intention. The virtue of this is that art is not the empty concept Duchamp leaves us with. Some things but not others will count as art because one cannot simply achieve that status as a mental act. The art has to have at least the distance between conceiving it and realizing it. And surely this accounts for a vast number of accepted art objects.
The ideal seems to be that the balance between art and intention is equal, because the intention is manifest directly and proportionately in the object itself. There is no art remainder that hasn’t been intended. Intention entirely explains a thing as art. The result, in its capacity as art, is exactly as planned. Nothing significant has been left to chance. Nothing not predetermined in the artist’s intentions shows up in the object as art. The art object is the intention made manifest.
Clearly the above two examples count for very many things we describe as art. We make art both by framing something as art and by intending specific art results. But the question is still whether these are the only relations between art and our intentions. In both cases intention was necessary for art to exist, but are the examples exhaustive? And if they are not, what then?
The explanatory shortcomings of intention
I take this question seriously. Rather than intention being essential to art, we have the opportunity to see that art can have a family resemblance relationship with intention. That is, some art is intended in various ways, but this neither explains art in general nor gives us all the examples of possible art. Intention, if this is right, is not a strand that weaves through all instances of art.
What if an artist started with clear intentions but failed to deliver? What if the intention shows up in the finished result as merely an absence; that this is specifically not what was intended? Can it still be art? Or is it merely “so much ruined canvas and so many stained walls,” as Danto suggests? And if it somehow survives as art, is intention then simply a matter of degrees? Can intention have a loose connection to the art-object? Can its failure be gradual? Can “close” count in horseshoes, hand grenades and art?
If a thing is art despite a failure of intentions, then we have pushed intention to a subservient role rather than a determining one. Art may be of a kind, but intention only a matter of degree. Intention can be coincidental. If that is the case, intention may have little to no explanatory value. As Pablo Picasso put it,
I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.
The idea that intention is fully behind the results and explains them has another glaring deficiency. Anyone who has ever written words on paper to tell a story, explain some philosophy, put paint on a canvas, taken a chisel to some marble or put clay on a wheel will understand that at some point you just have to let it go. You work and you work, but the idea that there is some idealized “completed” version we are striving towards and that we inevitably end up with is almost always a myth.
At some point, you are simply done. What you have now is as good as it gets to be before it is turned loose in the world. You have to stop somewhere. So, the result is almost never what was intended, if we intended anything at all. No matter what your intention, no matter what you were aiming at, you almost always end up settling for what you have rather than what you could have had. The intention misses its mark simply through our failure at completion.
Some artists may even place more importance on the activity of making than the product of making, the space where inspiration takes hold of us. The art may be the journey undertaken rather than the destination reached. For instance, is practice not art? Where does the dividing line happen between a sketch itself being art and being merely a study for a painting? Is an unfinished novel not art, because it somehow failed to result in a ‘finished’ product?
Not to artists. Something mattered along the way. The value of creating is not merely contained in a concrete result. For any artist who values inspiration, intention often takes a back seat. Every artist I know has a studio littered with unfinished projects, each waiting for the right moment when the partly formed things to start speaking to them again. Writers have unpublished manuscripts, painters have languishing canvasses, sculptors have vague masses of material. The idea that art is the exact same size as our intentions is simply false.
Consider this from the great composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky:
It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.
In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.
In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.
No matter how precisely we aim, the result is hardly ever what we intended. As we edit, as we see where we are so far, our minds may change, and we intend different things. So, the result isn’t simply a straight line from one specific intention to its conclusion. To say that an artwork is the function of intention is either a fantasy of simplicity or admits that the result does not represent anything less than a quagmire of paths that are not always in evidence in the finished product. We get to erase our mistakes and do about faces. Intention rises up and is cast aside.
As the songwriter Leonard Cohen puts it,
[A song] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.
If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.
Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.
Any change of mind during the process of creation means that there is a new intention replacing the old intention. It will be a conflict of intentions. The new repudiates the old. There is aggression between competing intentions. Intention is not a passive observer but an active participant. Its hands are dirty, and sometimes bloody. Intention, far from being a pure idealization, seems under threat simply by the act of facing reality.
The truth is that we are sometimes pulled forward by our intentions, but often we are pushed by where we stand or the glove smacking us in the face. We can plan, but what happens when reality decides otherwise?
Who says artists are always under the compulsion to aim? Who says that an artistic intention is necessarily more than an ambiguous motivation to be somewhere at some time doing something? The problem with the notion of necessary artistic intention is that it frames an artistic endeavor as leading to some inevitable conclusion. Do artists really care that much? Always? That seems presumptuous.
What if we were simply wandering aimlessly? Just moseying along? What if the point of what we were doing were to simply see what happens? In what sense is the product of our artistic activity related to that intention? What if we were motivated by serendipity or improvisation? And the minimal intention to arrive at what we end up with or where it lands us, wherever and whatever that is, is simply the accident of things having turned out in this particular way?
Artists are surprised too. That is, in point of fact, why some artists actually do what they do. They are looking to be surprised. They leave the lofty clouds behind to join life, enter the ring with Mike Tyson. Because it is what we do. Or should we bar artists from being surprised by their art as a matter of principle? Can an artist wind up in a place he or she never intended? Clinched in the corner? Back flat on the canvas? And does that possibility invalidate what they have done as art? Intentions may be confused. We may be deluded. Distracted. Things may fall short of our intentions. Since when did art necessarily have a specifically rationalist motivation? Art with an artist sized hole.
In Western art it is perhaps more commonplace that art is seen as an egoistic endeavor, as being inherently about the artist. The artist generates the art and is inseparable from it. Provenance matters. Fakery, forgery, imitation, are all disqualifying. There is such a thing as being an impostor. But in Japan, for instance, there is an understanding of worthiness in anonymous folk oriented arts. As Soetsu Yanagi would come to say, “objects born, not made”. Yanagi, a Japanese art critic, understood that individualistic expression did not capture the whole of art. He coined the term ‘Mingei’ to express the stature of “arts of the people”. The book where he makes his case is The Unknown Craftsman, a title that directly confronts our own Western prejudices. The type of art object he had in mind was exemplified by things like this tea bowl.
He wrote the following description:
This single Tea-bowl is considered to be the finest in the world. When I saw it, my heart fell… So simple, no more ordinary thing could be imagined. …The clay had been dug from the hill at the back of the house; the glaze was made with the ash from the hearth; the potter’s wheel had been irregular. The shape revealed no particular thought: it was one of many. The work had been fast; the turning was rough, done with dirty hands; the throwing slipshod; the glaze had run over the foot. … The kiln was a wretched affair; the firing careless. Sand had stuck to the pot… Made for a purpose, made to do work. Sold to be used in everyday life.
And yet it is so revered that the bowl itself has a name, Kizaemon, while its maker, a 16th century Korean farmer, was never more than a simple, anonymous, country yokel. How different from the celebrity of Western artists. Not that the Japanese fail to revere masters of their craft. The difference is that Japanese masters are more the midwives of art while in the West artists are often seen as planners, designers, and the executors of plans and designs.
When we let serendipity count as art the object itself takes prominence and the intention of its maker becomes irrelevant, merely “one of many.” The idea of wabi sabi or the beauty of imperfection, shifts the focus from planning out and executing an intention to the actual thing under consideration. We now get to appreciate art in its own right, not merely as an appendage of intention or some famous artist’s production. Art is what it is, not merely because it may have been intended, but because it is what it is. And if it is sometimes an accident, so be it.
The belief that intention is necessary for art ignores something that the idea of Mingei captures perfectly. In a life so full of action, we simply can’t have intentions for everything we do. Not everything is an act with that sort of specificity. Most of what we do in our daily life is just a blur of living it out. And art can be practiced in much the same way. The ancient Korean farmer was just making bowls. No big deal.
It doesn’t take a seizure to not have intentions. Intention does not lie behind every act. If it did, we would all be paralyzed by the sheer volume of decisions we’d face, from one moment to the next. As non-egoist artists, creative people are simply doing their thing, and designs on some gallery space or museum walls is not always a factor. That others see what we do as artworthy is beside the point.
So, intention seems to be neither specifically necessary for art nor inevitable in what that art ends up being. There is a wedge in explanatory power between some art and whatever was going on in the mind of its maker. The intentions of the artist, should we chose to call them that, are sometimes simply irrelevant for why the thing became what it did, or even that it counts as art. You can intend something as an artist or anonymous creator, but so what? A maker’s authority is misleading. You did something, and regardless of (or despite) your intentions it is worthy of the term ‘art’.
Art with a human-sized hole
There is another issue. If you don’t need to be an artist to make art – if a country bumpkin can produce the pinnacle of beauty – what qualifications seem necessary? Do you even need to be human? And what does this say about ‘intention’?
In fact, artificial intelligence is responsible for producing things that qualify as art. The above AI produced painting sold for over $400,000. Someone thought it was art. AI produced poetry routinely passes the Turing test. If we credit humans with writing bad poetry the line dims even further. Human nonsense obliterates it. Take Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” for instance:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
But similar outcomes aside, can machines intend what they do? Linking art to intention demands we answer this. Either art can be made without intentions, or we are crediting machines with intentions in a way that doesn’t seem to fit with any human conception of intention. Squeezing intention into AI produced art only seems a desperate face-saving maneuver.
In the end intention is a decent place to start for many art practices, but often it quickly gets subverted by the process and by sheer human frailty. Mike Tyson looms. Intention can explain only so much, even in ideal circumstances. To make art necessarily depend on something intended is too simplistic. When carried to the idealized extreme of fully determined, oxygen has been sucked out of the serendipitous art process. It is as good as being purely mechanical. Inspiration never got off the floor. If that is art, it seems few artists would be interested in doing it. Call in the engineers instead.
Art usually needs room to breathe; to make mistakes and change its mind. Our imagination is simply too small for all the possibility of what might exist. We must learn as we go and having too concrete an intention limits us. Artists cannot always and forever be burdened by the weight of intentions. They need to be free to not have intentions. They need to be free to find the world and the potential for art wherever it lies. They need the freedom to be inspired. Intention can be a chain and a yoke. Art doesn’t simply serve intention. Art serves whatever it decides is worth serving.
Carter Gillies has been a working studio professional and instructor in the arts for the past two decades. He received an MFA in ceramics in 1997, but before that spent three years studying philosophy in grad school after a late introduction in his undergrad education. Although the absorption of the hands on process of working in an arts medium is what captivated him he never gave up the idea that anything worthwhile was worth thinking about.
42 responses to “Art and Intention”
Wonderfully thorough expression on the topic, and as I am fond of expressing, “Intention is vastly over-rated. It is simply far more important the way something comes across.” May sound simplistic in it’s over-generalized manner, though as well I see a deceptive simplicity in the statement.
Kudos to the depth you bring to the subject. in the end, though, I firmly feel there’s a fluid fluency present in how a work speaks for itself upon graduating from the armature of the author. And, that’s its voice, for better or worse, where the intent either functions as an integral heartbeat driving its pulse, or intent is shed, the snake its skin not missed, like chaff, from wheat, in the wind.
Keep up the great work!
Terrific essay, particularly in offering insight into the working minds of artists. As a critique of Danto, it is less successful, as it really doesn’t engage with any of the arguments, particularly those having to do with the relationship of intention to not just identity, but individuation. I also think you are going to have a very hard time making sense of there being actions without intentions, and I absolutely would reject the idea that anything a machine makes is art. Of course, that it may *resemble* art is possible, but as Danto I think has demonstrated quite convincingly, this doesn’t really matter, given that one can have perceptually indistinguishable objects, one of which is an artwork and the other that is not.
Still, the real value here lies in seeing you think through the process of artmaking, not whether or not it refutes Danto.
I appreciate your thoughts on intention, but unless the specific arguments Danto offers are confronted, I’m afraid it doesn’t go much past being a slogan.
Excellent. I see no reason to confront arguments. I see actionable aspects as providing the value.
Interesting, you express, “slogan,” as if it’s A superficial gig, whereas I, nonetheless, firmly feel it to provide aN inroad to the fluid fluency of deceptive simplicity that goes places… rather than footnoting in Latin and Greek so to speak.
What about an Art Exhibition with Anonymous submissions, some by machines. Who would know? Will the Jurors discern to cull out the machine’s work?
Interesting that your take that a short expression is both a slogan, and consequently superficial. Whereas, I, nonetheless, firmly feel it to be a consummately, fluid fluency expressing a deceptive simplicity to elucidate inroads that go places from a heart of healthy ambiguity that is in no way vague.
Excellent. Refuting is meaningless where Art is concerned. Thank you!
Not an Eye of the Beholder gig. It’s that sometimes Philosophy sticks its nose in to judge (C.G. Jung has a great one about that), whereas the artist has already done that via the process, where it’s beyond integrated and chaffed off like the snake its skin shedded, the snake its skin not missed…and then the Artist has moved beyond the qualifications and explaining to discern in reified form, having given form to the formless in the completed work.
Well, you’ll reply right off the cuff, though not approving comments via moderation… That’s not a solidly reciprocal recipe for discourse.I guess I mis-discerned your intent.
By the way, Danto has no business speaking of intent. My friend Fred (Nietzche) or Carl (Jung), yes, though Danto. Very much off the mark.
I have no idea what this means. But in philosophy — and this is a philosophy website — when engaging with a position or advancing one, one is expected to provide arguments and counterarguments.
Well, if you haven’t read the material and haven’t engaged with the arguments, this doesn’t mean very much does it?
I’ve published extensively on this, including at this website, so it’s not as if the material is unavailable.
Are you under the impression that people sit attached to their computers all day? I have 200 exams to grade. I approve comments periodically throughout the day.
I appreciate that, though having degrees in Philosophy, Architecture, Psychology, Divination, and making my way through the world now as an authors Tarot Reader, and Astrologer, Painter, and Director of Purchasing & Coordination (read in: Einstein’s Postal Clerk) Actionable imagination and results take precedence.
I find ad infinitum, ad nauseum explanation to be aninvalid substitute for discussion and discourse, an abhorrently pedantic… etc, etc.
It’s like a Hierophant on a bad day… stubborn, unbending Traditionalist rather than being the Heartfelt Hierophant of The Silverback who gauges wisdom from a long life of experiential perspective.
It very much seems I’ve come to the wrong place. I graduated years ago, and left the multiple dissertations in the dust to do something with them, emancipated myself from camps so to speak, exited Ivory Towers decades ago.
I intend. No disrespect, though have definitely come to the wrong place for what my resonances are.
Thanks for your time, and best to the health of you and yours with good spirits.
Really? Seriously? Publication mean Zip. It’s the substance not the quantity.
Danto is invalid in regard to expressing anything meaningful about the creative process and implementation of it. Just, SO out of touch. So off base. Danto to ne feels like he’s smiling the narcotic of hope that he’s brilliant, without doing much more than over-complexity in If P, then Q models.
No, though you responded immediately, and then stopped the conversation in its tracks without including the commentary.
In closing, and this is on me. I’ve come to the wrong place here.
The epistemological How was integrated into my Process decades ago. It’s wonderful to see the Ivory Towers flush with maintenance and flourishing, though are not for me at this time.
Kudos to you for doing what resonates with you. That’s, maybe not the most important thing, though is certainly one of them.
Best Of to you, Daniel. Enjoy alll that is meaningful to you.
I’ll step off here to head back to my primary roads built by a comfortability with the not knowing and ImaginAction.
Seriously, Best Of to you. Best to you continuing your work in ways that only you can.
That is an invalid statement, quite a presumption actually.
Art is far removed from my expertise. So take this as just a casual comment.
I have tended to think of art as presenting a challenge to perception. If we want to connect art with intention, then it would seem to me that the intention of the perceiver is more important than the intention of the artist.
I full-on agree, Neil. Once the artist lets their work loose, their perspective and intent is null. it is, then, far more important the way the work comes across, and that falls into the domain of the perceiver as you indicate.
The Eye of the Beholder argument.
I like this essay, quite a lot; it certainly raises most of the right questions, without insisting on any definitive answer.
But like most art theory – including Danto’s (and in passing I mention Heidegger’s as well, since it influenced me quite a bit in my youth) – it lacks discussion of one of the most important functions of art as an act of semiosis – that of rhetoric. Art is always addressed to an audience. It may expand audience expectations, but if it completely disappoints those expectations, it will be ignored until such expectations catch up to it over time (the ‘rediscovered masterpiece’), or, is the expectations never catch up, the work simply disappears. Sometimes what is ‘art’ today – what signifies well and meets expectations at the time – becomes unintelligible and disappears – perhaps to be admired by specially trained collectors, sometimes simply forgotten all together.
But of course many in audience want their expectations challenged, and that’s exactly how artists ‘push the envelope; and change expectations over time.
But this is not the only rhetorical achievement of a work of art. For these expectations include our desire to be moved in a certain way, to have our behaviors modified, however slightly (do we not attend a play or a film knowing it will draw forth tears? or cries of fright?), as well as to have our thoughts provoked and yet our values re-enforced. The artist who cannot or will not engage such expectations will disappear unnoticed. Especially thanks to Romantic theories of creativity, attenuated versions of what Tchaikovsky espouses, these are legion. E.g.,they show up especially at open-poetry-readings, which may be the only public exposure they enjoy – or care to enjoy.
I will make public an admission. Throughout my teens and early twenties, I wrote novel after novel. When I would show these to friends, or read passages at open-readings, of course some admirers would suggest getting them into form for publications. I would haughtily and with contempt refused to ever “play the game.” It was years later that I realized that it was not a refusal to play a game, but a disinterest (perhaps, admittedly, born of anxiety) in truly engaging an audience. I did not want to be read by a lot of people. I didn’t want to have a say in the public forum. I suppose harbored a hope that, tucked safely away in an attic, my texts would be ‘discovered,’ like Melville’s Billy Budd – another Romantic illusion – but the truth was that I written all my novels for myself. They were worthwhile supersizes as a kind of therapeutic practice. But any audiences they might be addressed to were all imaginary.
No; while the notion that it is solely the audience that determines a work of art – or even makes it, some sense à la Fish’s Is There a Text In This Class? – is clearly too extreme; but to leave audience3 out of the equation all together may leave us with an impressive lyricism but perhaps a weakened theory of art.
EJ you are wrong about Danto. Two entire chapters of Transfiguration are devoted to the rhetorical dimension of art.
I’ve just read a couple of his essays and some background commentary. I am willing to try and look up Transfiguration and read further.
‘Exercises,’ not ‘supersizes’ (where the heck did ‘spell-check’ come up with that?). Also, the present essay (which is quite well written, BTW) does glance slightly at audience influence, especially regarding the tea-cup and AI; I was not trying to be as absolutist as I came across there. Finally, I’m willing to read Danto further, I must say, because I think him an interesting thinker and writer, even where I don’t agree with him.
It’s full-on strange to me that you “dont know what this means.” I think you are being cagey, very coy actually. Is that how passive-aggressive psychology works? You are certainly doing a good job right now of not engaging in discourse. Confession is not my 1st go-to mode. So, Clarify your position as it is absolutely not clear. And, indicating you don’t understand what I expressed would seem very much below your professed intellectual prowess.
“one is expected to provide arguments and counterarguments.” No, they are not. They are expected to provide substance. Have you inspected your expectations recently?
So, I have to ask. Dante or Danto. Danto has little relevance. Dante? Possibly, depending on the perspective.
Arthur Danto was the most important person to work in Aesthetics since the Second World War and was the art critic for The Nation for decades.
This is the last of this sort of ignorant quip I will approve. Just letting you know.
Given your attitude — and excessive familiarity with people whom you don’t know — I have decided to not respond further. Carter has written a terrific essay, and I’m looking forward to seeing what others have to say about it.
The relevant chapters are chapters 6-7, in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.
I knew a very small amount about Yanagi, but these took my eye:
Kikuchi Y . Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory: cultural nationalism and oriental orientalism
And Kim Brandt  Objects of Desire: Japanese Collectors and Colonial Korea
If we are talking about the visual and plastic arts, especially “abstract”, I personally see a big chunk of aesthetics as being completely meaning free, and the intention of the artist no more than “look at this cool effect on those parts of the brain involved in unconscious sensuous cognition” and “meditate upon this cool effect on those parts of the brain involved in unconscious sensuous cognition”. Evocation of these cool effects can be the result of skill and acquired knowledge of human perceptual systems, or by recognition of where they have been generated by chance. Obviously this is just one small facet, but makes the aesthetic signification of an ostended object as its class a closed loop [if I understand the semiotics correctly].
EJ, I am so delighted you found my essay interesting! I have long admired your own work here and have been hoping what I wrote would be well received by you. You and Dan are people I regard very highly, so it matters to me what you guys think. So thanks for reading and for your response!
A few quick observations on art and its audiences. You are right to point out the difference between expression and communication. An audience is often lurking in both those corners. But not every artist intends their work to be communicative. And this sometimes creates a barrier to audiences. In some cases the art is simply its own excuse. The artist was compelled to make it because expressing this particular thing (intentionally) or simply manifesting what the medium has to say in such and such circumstances, is the whole of what matters. You cite a great example from your own life and your early novel writing, but novels are perhaps the least of the examples available.
I understand that there is something here that is troubling. But I’m not sure that “a weakened theory of art” is the worst that could happen. I’d rather have the art as it is, good, bad, understood, or incomprehensible, than a theory of art, however weak or strong. We don’t *need* a theory of art as much as we need the art itself (and I’m speaking here for both much of the public and for the artists themselves). But for some this can obviously seem like a settling for something lesser. It is perhaps something like the disappointment with Wittgenstein when he gave us family resemblances instead of essences. Not having an adequate theory can be a let down.
Inside specific arts practices this may not be such a big deal. One thing that visual artists understand is that they are often exploring things that no one ever thought of before or confronted physically/visually. And the means of exploration is like a new language. It is sometimes barely understood by the artist themselves. An audience will sometimes find these expressions so alien that the language spoken by the art is simply not understood, nor could it be without further contact points with one’s own life. On the fringes of exploration the language itself is often being invented on the spot. So how could it be understood? The artists themselves are often in the position of trying to figure it out. Why does *this* matter rather than that? What makes this better? Why is it interesting? Visual arts are simply areas that have fewer contact points with the daily meaning of a person’s life than, perhaps, other more institutionalized arts media.
But other art forms often instinctively know the separation between what they do and where they fit in a community. Their purpose is not always meant to comply with the rules already established but to occasionally issue challenges. And sometimes those challenges will be to go beyond what makes sense. Art doesn’t have to make sense. Not all art is meant to be understood. Art has to be something more than simply a tool for communication. There is a nice quote from Arena Stage co-founder, Zelda Fichandler:
“I am not very strong on community giving, except perhaps when it represents only a small percentage of the total. I think we could well do without the hand that rocks the cradle, for the hand that rocks the cradle will also want to raise it in a vote and mix into the pie with it. For while a theatre is a public art and belongs to its public, it is an art before it is public and so it belongs first to itself and its first service must be self-service. A theatre is part of its society. But it is a part which must remain apart since it is also chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter.”
These are great juxtapositions. The idea she was exploring was the difference it makes for an art practice to become institutionalized, and how extrinsic purposes can come to influence and even define what art ends up being unless we take care to assert art’s independence. The audience simply needs to be ignored, at times, so that art can get on with its own business.
This has been a huge and divisive issue in the nonprofit arts sector for the last five or six decades. The for profit arts sector has a much more determinate relationship with appeasing its audience. The nonprofit arts were supposed to have a freedom that profit motivated arts didn’t have. But those lines have inevitably blurred. There is a confusion between the extrinsic value art has and its intrinsic value. Too often a nonprofit arts leadership that has been trained in a business environment, holds MBAs, and thinks money/funding first, makes concessions of art for outside reasons. It needs art to be relatable, and often this waters down art’s own attempts to break new ground or violate boundaries.
Artists who are sensitive to the invasion of economic interest (selling the arts as a driver of the economy, etc.) are quick to assert their own value regardless of public interest or whether communicating is necessarily a goal. They are willing to fail at these things because the art itself only survives when it can stand on its own two feet. Art that depends on landing in the soft hands of an audience will be crippled by its reliance on making nice with the outside people.
“Selling out” is one of the landmines that almost every artist is aware of, whether they embrace it or reject it. The further from public interest an artist is willing to go the more difficult it is to enfold them in a community’s identity. And this iconoclasm needs to be protected and nurtured, whether or not the art is ever understood….. That can’t be its point. Art has to survive on its own to fully be worth doing. Art has to matter IN ITSELF.
I’m starting to ramble, but I thought this might be an interesting addition to the ideas in your comment.
If I claimed to have found the lost ‘Fountain’ of Marcel Duchamp signed R.Mutt and all. If then at a later date it was proven not to be the original would I then be guilty of art forgery and perpetrating a fraud? Would not my effort be also a comment on the original and its theoretically limitless iterations and thereby have a conceptual inflection which would raise it to the standard of art. Or would I be taking the piss? What would Danto say?
Just a reminder to everyone — our regulars, of course, know this already — that this Webzine is moderated and that there are rules for commenting that are listed under the “For Readers” tab. Beyond the formal rules, however, I will enforce a certain kind of atmosphere here and will not permit people to flood the comments.
Mr. Hoggard has been banned. I apologize to Carter for allowing it to go on so long, but I try not to err on the side of not banning. As Mr. Hoggard would neither listen nor relent from flooding the comments, I reluctantly did so.
Thanks again to Carter for a terrific piece. I have invited him to do a regular arts column, if he is interested in doing so.
Carter: I once broke my leg rather badly, so I was in hospital on strong painkillers. I found myself waking up with short poems almost fully formed in my head. I had almost never written poetry before. The poems weren’t too bad, I thought. The inspiration faded as the need for painkillers receded. The episode made me appreciate the intensity and non-intentionality of at least some kinds of creativity.
I guess you couldn’t write a novel that way.
Nice essay, Carter. A lot of interesting ideas being thrown around here. But more than ideas, you are also giving an insider perspective on creative states of mind and so on.
I shy away from the Romantic excess of the Tchaikovsky quote in particular. But your own view seems more down to earth.
I tend to agree with what you said about the subtleties of degrees of intention and your questioning the need for a (comprehensive?) theory of art.
” “Selling out” is one of the landmines that almost every artist is aware of, whether they embrace it or reject it. The further from public interest an artist is willing to go the more difficult it is to enfold them in a community’s identity. And this iconoclasm needs to be protected and nurtured, whether or not the art is ever understood…..”
A protected and nurtured iconoclasm? Sounds like a contradiction. But I guess what you are saying is that the iconoclasm should be nurtured and protected by the artist himself.
This raises another issue: the artist can never be entirely cut off from the culture. Actual iconoclasts draw their iconoclasm from elements of the culture in which they exist or within which they grew up.
Is there not a touch of the “Romantic rebel” idea in what you say? Do you embrace this idea?
“Art has to survive on its own to fully be worth doing. Art has to matter IN ITSELF.”
I agree that writers and artists sell out in all sorts of ways. Some don’t. Some works can be seen to have a special strength and power and integrity. But when the claims become general – i.e. are based on general ideas rather than on genuine responses to this or that painting or sculpture or movie *considered as things existing within a broader cultural context* – they often become empty, in my opinion.
Hey Mark, so great to converse with you!
I think what I meant in the idea of protecting iconoclasm is that as a society we have a duty to resist the absolute domination of conformity. Maybe another “general claim”, but it seems that creatives especially are always stretching boundaries and that if we don’t allow that to happen we end up with a very different picture of society from the one we enjoy now.
You are right, of course, that many artists draw their iconoclasm directly from a confrontation with existing norms, but not all. Some are simply motivated by what they see differently, wherever that is found. It can be unprecedented. It can be a break in the line of expectation rather than simply a bend or a turn where the expectation still explains much of what such a diversion is.
One artist/teacher once described to me the way that contemporary art is different from science by contrasting the growth of each. Science builds on itself, becomes an edifice. It expands outward by maintaining its roots, as it were. Art, in many contemporary instances, is perhaps more like a soap bubble. It expands outward from every point on its surface, but there is nothing underlying its growth that connects one manifestation to the next. The frontiers of art are disconnected. The hollowness inside is not a deficit, but a condition where art is allowed to have a certain freedom to exercise itself and not be beholden, not be held back.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but it describes an important difference, and also demonstrates the lack of necessary connection of some art with anything that preceded it.
Hope that helps explain things a bit. Obviously this isn’t an explanation of all of art, merely some. But it is important to recognize that it exists and that we would be poorer in its absence.
Hi David! I just love that poem!
I think I understand what you are getting at, and I agree that in some cases an art object would be something like a ‘closed loop’. The great thing about being human and living a human life is that most things other humans have done can eventually make sense to us. But it isn’t immediate in all circumstances and it cannot be taken for granted. We are not irrevocably cut off from all other cultures, for instance. But the differences need to be taken seriously. In my response to EJ I likened new art to something like a new language, and often our confrontation with that art has as little chance of being understood as an unfamiliar language. The beauty is that in human lives there are so many contact points that we eventually do make some sense of what others are doing. Art that is new can potentially be brought into that fold, even if it is we who must change to fit it.
One of the main obstacles, as I see it, is that from the outside we often try to get a handle on things through an act of ‘measurement’. The world makes sense to us in a certain way and we put unfamiliar things into a known context where their shape may ‘fit’ what we have in mind. This is a very Procrustean move. The problem is that what one person uses as a thing measured others might use it as the thing doing the measuring itself. It is simply a challenge to see the difference. And with art, especially unprecedented art, the closed loop, as you put it, simply doesn’t admit to being itself measured from the outside. (I’m drawing here on stuff Wittgenstein mentioned in On Certainty about the difference between empirical propositions and propositions that function in a way that does not subject them to testing or doubt. This is a BIG conversation, but one of my other pet projects 🙂 )
I’ve gotta run, but thanks for your comment!
I hope I don’t offend anyone here, but I find the essay rather far removed from the world of art as I know it.
There are many players in the art world, and the artist is just one of them: artists, galleries, the public in general, the connoisseurs, the art critics, the art schools, the art magazines, the collectors and so on. A complex process in which all these players have their role, defines what counts as art. But what’s usually most important for an artist, is to find a good gallerist who wants to invest time and money in him or her. The intentions of the artist often play a minor role in this process, as they are confronted with the intentions of all the other players, and also with what I would like call “historical circumstances”.
I remember going to a museum somewhere in Belgium and visiting a vast room filled with geometrical things from the 1970s. They were made of thin metal rods by a German artist whose name I don’t remember. It was art, historically speaking, but nobody – absolutely nobody – who didn’t know a bit of art history would have recognized it as such. You didn’t need particular skills to make these objects, and even someone who knows his art history would be forgiven to think that this German artist brazed together metal rods with the main intention to make art as it was defined by the “art system” in the 1970s. I freely admit I don’t know what the intentions of the artist were, but I’m pretty sure they were less important than the intentions of all the other players that make up the art world.
(This obviously changes when you’re a recognized artist. Then, your intentions are a defining part of what art is. And if somebody doesn’t understand or see those intentions, an authority from the art world will explain it to him.)
I assume it’s true that an artist has intentions, but once he or she made his works, s/he doesn’t control the meanings that others find – in the relevant historical circumstances – in the result. But that’s true of every form of communication. It’s a banal observation. Not so long ago, “woman have XX chromosomes” would have been an uncontroversial statement. Now it’s a very delicate opinion in some quarters. The maker of art doesn’t control the reception of his work (although his gallerist will spend lots of energy to control it) and it happens that some works are only recognized as art long after they were made. They are art only because they were recognized as such by a major player in the art system. The artistic intentions of the “artist” – if any – are sometimes perfectly irrelevant.
Obviously, I’m using the word “art” here in the modern sense of the word, i.e. as something recognized as such by the modern art world. The author mentions the Kizaemon Ido tea bowl; I would like to mention the Opinel folding knife. For me, an Opinel is a beautiful piece of art on the same level as that bowl. But Opinels are classics of design (or “industrial design”) and that bowl is art. Why? Not because of the intentions of the makers. And my opinion doesn’t count, I’m not part of the art system.
Couvent2104, these are some great observations! And they truly speak to an historically dominant perspective on what counts as art and who the artists are. All of what you say is perfectly sensible and definitely adds to the discussion. The problem is that the arts sector itself is coming to terms with the incompleteness of this perspective. It is simply not as relevant for the whole of art as it has often been taken to be. That is, some art, much of art perhaps, is still run under these assumptions, but the ways folks are looking at it now, art is just too big to be confined by this attitude. The institutional perspective does not represent art as such, merely what it thinks art should be. And of course there are potent reasons to disagree with it.
The perspective you are giving us insight into is something that matters specifically to the gatekeeping institutionalizing motivations in some corners of the arts world. But not every artist is a professional artist. That’s why we can say that some artists ARE professional. The gatekeepers have one ball to play one game, but others have other balls and are playing other games. So a more full insight into the arts would need to include not just the people who sell their art and the world that this settles into, but where art is made that is separate from this. Amateur art is still art of a kind. Not all art is found in galleries, in museums, or in concert halls. And this needs to be accounted for. You can’t explain art simply by looking at its greatest accomplishments. There is a gap that needs to be addressed.
Perhaps you remember a few years ago when Rocco Landesman, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, declared there were “too many theaters”. The discussion boiled over into whether there were, essentially, too many art groups, too many artists in general, relative to the demand for art. And the idea that professional artists necessarily made their income just from art, there being a surplus of art, of course came under scrutiny. It was an eye opening and disturbing picture, once the stories were told and the data collected. Because the truth is that a majority of people making art have to cobble together a career out of fragments of many opportunities, not all of which are art related.
The idea that we can only speak about art as if it were some entirely ‘professional’ aspiration is now null and void. It is a fantasy promoted by the gatekeepers who have a vested interest in guiding the public in what counts as art and who the real artists are. The reality is that art is made by and participated in by a wide breadth of people who might not even describe themselves as ‘artists’. The fully professional artists are the true outliers……..
You may also be aware that the old model of museums has been thrown overboard by much of the museum community. The idea that art is what artists do and that it is somehow separate from the general public, encased in glass, cordoned off behind ropes, set on pedestals, is seen as a relic of an attitude that no longer has the same viability. Participatory museums are where the focus has shifted. Nina Simon, who ran the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, has been a huge proponent of the idea of relevance. Her writing and her blog and the work she has done in her museum have been game changing. She now runs an organization titled OF/BY/FOR ALL. This is the direction that the arts sector is trending towards. Artists are not the alien geniuses that stand outside the normal human sphere. Artists are you and me, should we choose to engage the world creatively.
The discussion of art as some sort of commodity has hampered the understanding of art for too long. It puts the product front and center and (mostly) ignores the process. It also either binds itself to the particular artist or, paradoxically, disowns them. Somehow a scrap of napkin with a doodle by Picasso buys him a meal, or the farmer toils in poverty while his bowls grace halls of the finest collectors….. Or a recording of an orchestral work mentions the composer, the conductor, maybe the first violin, but none of the dozens of others who made that music happen. How can that be? It’s almost schizophrenic. Far too much focus has been on the art as a product, and especially as a commodity. When looked at this way of course the artist either has to be embraced as defining or cast aside as unessential. This is fundamentally twisted.
Or so it seems to me…
Hope that adds some context. Thanks for adding to the discussion! Maybe some of this made sense.
Thanks for the reply.
“It puts the product front and center and (mostly) ignores the process.”
I entirely agree with this, and that’s why I dislike discussions that focus on “the product” – the art work – as an embodiment of the intentions of the artist. The process is missing.
I remember studying Magritte, and more specifically the bankruptcy of his gallery, Le Centaure. Edoudard Mesens bought about 200 of his works and – very cleverly – didn’t throw them on the art market. This kept prices – and the reputation of Magritte – high. Other artists connected with Le Centaure were not so lucky. They were sold for bargain prices and it took several decades before their reputation recovered. A beautiful example of “the process”.
That was the 20th century of course, and processes change, even in the art world. But the lessons of Le Centaure remain relevant, I think. A genuine insightful discussion about art is impossible without a discussion of the process.
like the Bellamy portrait
“Something can be judged a work of it art if its arguments are rendered with an idiosyncratic subtlety beyond what is necessary to communicate its ideas, and which may even oppose them, but which so colors our perceptions that we can not separate the sensibility from the idea without feeling a loss.”
Novels are art. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is art. If you love reading Hegel’s German then The Phenomenology of Spirit is art. You don’t need to be a Christian to think about and with Michelangelo’s Pieta or Sistine frescos. It may even get in the way. Duchamp’s urinal was a factory-made porcelain cast from a form made by craftsmen, the exact same process used at Sèvres. Duchamp’s “intention” was a riff on Courbet’s Origin of the World. In place of a nymph he gave us a pussy.
Duchamp was’t a “conceptualist” any more than TS Eliot. He was a symbolist poet who used objects instead of words.
The absurdity of discussions of “art” referring only to “fine art”, the culture of object-making for the rich. Fine art is linked to philosophy because both are rooted in church and monarchy. Art is “truth” as opposed to storytelling, fiction, which is mere oratory and lies, the culture of democracy and the masses. “I am not sure that the structure of rhetoric and the structure of philosophy are of a piece, since it is the aim of philosophy to prove rather than merely persuade.” Danto was a putz. All philosophy is oratory.
“Today there is no denying that narrative films are not only “art”—not often good art, to be sure, but this applies to other media as well—but also, besides architecture, cartooning and “commercial design,” the only visual art entirely alive.
Erwin Panofsky in 1934. Smart man.