Art and Intention
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.