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  • Imagine you and a friend are strolling through an art exhibit and a striking painting catches your eye.

  • The vibrant red appears to you as a symbol of love, but your friend is convinced it's a symbol of war.

  • And where you see stars in a romantic sky, your friend interprets global warming-inducing pollutants.

  • To settle the debate, you turn to the internet, where you read that the painting is a replica of the artist's first-grade art project:

  • Red was her favorite color and the silver dots are fairies.

  • You now know the exact intentions that led to the creation of this work.

  • Are you wrong to have enjoyed it as something the artist didn't intend?

  • Do you enjoy it less now that you know the truth?

  • Just how much should the artist's intention affect your interpretation of the painting?

  • It's a question that's been tossed around by philosophers and art critics for decades, with no consensus in sight.

  • In the mid-20th century,

  • literary critic W.K. Wimsatt and philosopher Monroe Beardsley argued that artistic intention was irrelevant.

  • They called this the Intentional Fallacy:

  • the belief that valuing an artist's intentions was misguided.

  • Their argument was twofold:

  • First, the artists we study are no longer living,

  • never recorded their intentions,

  • or are simply unavailable to answer questions about their work.

  • Second, even if there were a bounty of relevant information,

  • Wimsatt and Beardsley believed

  • it would distract us from the qualities of the work itself.

  • They compared art to a dessert:

  • When you taste a pudding, the chef's intentions don't affect whether you enjoy its flavor or texture.

  • All that matters, they said, is that the pudding "works."

  • Of course, what "works" for one person might not "work" for another.

  • And since different interpretations appeal to different people,

  • the silver dots in our painting could be reasonably interpreted as fairies, stars, or pollutants.

  • By Wimsatt and Beardsley's logic,

  • the artist's interpretation of her own work would just be one among many equally acceptable possibilities.

  • If you find this problematic, you might be more in line with Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels,

  • two literary theorists who rejected the Intentional Fallacy.

  • They argued that an artist's intended meaning was not just one possible interpretation, but the only possible interpretation.

  • For example, suppose you're walking along a beach

  • and come across a series of marks in the sand that spell out a verse of poetry.

  • Knapp and Michaels believed

  • the poem would lose all meaning if you discovered these marks were not the work of a human being, but an odd coincidence produced by the waves.

  • They believed an intentional creator is what makes the poem subject to understanding at all.

  • Other thinkers advocate for a middle ground,

  • suggesting that intention is just one piece in a larger puzzle.

  • Contemporary philosopher Noel Carroll took this stance,

  • arguing that an artist's intentions are relevant to their audience;

  • the same way a speaker's intentions

  • are relevant to the person they're engaging in conversation.

  • To understand how intentions function in conversation,

  • Carroll said to imagine someone holding a cigarette and asking for a match.

  • You respond by handing them a lighter,

  • gathering that their motivation is to light their cigarette.

  • The words they used to ask the question are important,

  • but the intentions behind the question dictate your understanding and ultimately, your response.

  • So which end of this spectrum do you lean towards?

  • Do you, like Wimsatt and Beardsley, believe that

  • when it comes to art, the proof should be in the pudding?

  • Or do you think that an artist's plans and motivations for their work affect its meaning?

  • Artistic interpretation is a complex web that will probably never offer a definitive answer.

Imagine you and a friend are strolling through an art exhibit and a striking painting catches your eye.

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B1 US TED-Ed artist interpretation art painting intentional

Who decides what art means? - Hayley Levitt

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    shuting1215 posted on 2018/12/02
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