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Terrence Heath

The Artist's Intention

BorderCrossings, Vol. 8 #4, Fall 1989.
[ 1,628 words ]


For a critic to accept on face value what an artist writes about his or her art is a major failure of critical imagination. It is to succumb to the artist's narcissism to become a pawn in his or her game of self inflation.
Donald Kuspit, The New Subjectivism

For the past year I have been writing poems out of a poem, 'Cuento de dos jardines', by Octavio Paz. At first I was translating passages, which then escaped the Spanish and took on my English images and phrases. Then thoughts and dreams, particularly dreams, started in his poem. His words carried them around in their pockets like a boy with a penknife or a man with loose change. As I write and read, I find there is a great deal of room, unoccupied space, in this poem. I can move around inside it and, although I am never crowded, I find the places accommodating me. Sometimes, in reading the words, I can tell from the feel of the language that some inner restlessness is being quieted; I allow myself to be carried along. More often it is simply a place to work.

This experience has led me to think about art in a different way. Better, it has allowed me to see more clearly how I handle art. Most simply stated, I think I am conscious of entering into a poem, a painting, an installation, and attempting to recreate it and, more often, to make something out of it which is my own. I don't mean by this mining it for ideas, stories or techniques. It is not even a matter of inspiration. It is personal engagement with the work.

This personal reworking does not remove my interest in the intentions and circumstances of the artist. On the contrary, I see what the writer or painter is doing as complementary to my involvement. I wish the work to remain attached in some basic way to the artist and the larger context of his or her thought. The fact that Señor Paz wrote his poem on board a ship returning to Central America from India does not aid me very much in understanding its meaning, but it locates him for me in much the same way that a lover's description of where she is, what she is wearing, what she is thinking, what she has been doing, locates her for my body's yearning to be with her. I think something akin to this yearning is basic to participating in the art.

To see the viewer, reader or spectator as an active participant is a commonplace of 20th-century art. Actors sitting in the audience, or the audience following actors around, the choice of multiple endings in a novel, and the entry into the space of the viewer in many installations and pieces of sculpture; all are versions of this concern. In effect, the viewer becomes a co-producer, a participant in art making, even though the result is not simply an understanding of the art. The art object becomes the occasion for understanding, rather than the experience of understanding; it becomes the occasion for production, rather than the product. The viewer becomes what Joe Fafard has called 'the second participant'.

Similarly, the artist is also a viewer the first of his or her own work and a participant in the works of others. Although my writing directly out of a poem by Octavio Paz is a deliberate focusing on my part, all artists work out of the accomplishments of other artists and from the reactions and expectations of the viewers. No artist is original in any absolute sense. The very concept of art making is given to the artist by the culture in which it is produced. Why, then, the endless discussions about the role of the artist's intention? I.A. Richards's presentation of literary worth as arrived at through the anonymity of the author; Derrida's rallying cry of 'il y n'est pas hors texte'; the strong warning voiced by Donald Kuspit in the quoted excerpt at the beginning of this essay. And, on the other side, Warhol's artist as a star. The very need to look at the intention of the artist in dealing with the work seems to be a particularly sensitive area.

It's basically an issue of authority. How is the work to be understood? I have known many artists who feel that they have been misunderstood, but I have never met one who felt there was only one way to experience or understand the art work. (Well, maybe one!) In running a public gallery, I certainly became aware of the reactions of viewers to works with which they were not familiar. Usually, they wondered what the artist intended, or else made up a meaning themselves. In other words, both artist and viewer saw the artist's intention as neither definitive nor irrelevant.

Perhaps an artist's intention is a thorny issue only for art critics. The authoritative artist as opposed to the authoritative interpreter. It may have become a central issue in part because the role of the critic has changed over the past 30 years. There is a good deal of difference in viewing the critic as an evaluator of worth in art or as an explicator of meaning. In the former case, there is no doubt about the artist's intention to create a work which functions well aesthetically and, in any case, no one is going to take the artist's word that he or she has just painted a masterpiece. In the latter case, the critic's interpretation and the artist's intention can be contesting approaches, and there is a strong tendency among most viewers, I suspect, to side with the artist unless they and the critic dislike the work. The dismissal of an artist's intention may be no more than warring professions, or the critic's grab for the laurels.

The issue of intention does, however, activate a number of reflexes, which are part of our cultural inheritance. One of these is the Romantic image of the artist as an ecstatic genius, whose authority comes from inspiration beyond the ken of ordinary humans. Culturally, this figure is a derivation of our concept of Jehovah as creator. Both tend to place the act of creation in a separate and exclusive category of experience; the analysis of intention, of course, is central to both. In this perspective, the viewers are really onlookers, passive and more or less benighted. This view of art making, and of creation, invites rejection of both creator and intention.

Another stereotype of the artist sees him or her as a child or simpleton. Unencumbered by intellectual sophistication, the artist in this view creates simply and directly from the heart. They know not what they do, but they have, like children, a direct contact with the most basic and meaningful truths of human existence. Indeed, concern with complex, worldly problems is seen to corrupt the artist. Here, the intentions of the artists are not important, because they are really a conduit and not the originator of the meaning of their work.

A third view is of the artist as megalomaniac. The extreme phase of self expression is seen as the ego gone wild. Intention becomes, for the artist, the unrestrained assertion of self and, for the viewer, the contemplation of forbidden narcissisms. The intention of the artist is all but irrelevant for ordinary life. This stereotype leads ultimately to a view of art as either entertainment or therapy; neither the artist's intention nor the viewer's reaction is of any importance.

It is difficult to deal with our stereotypes, because they are never truly dispelled. They linger like shadows in the half light of our understanding. The reality of making art is of a different nature from any of these views. The artist is not separate from the viewer, nor the viewer from the artist. Not only do they both bring their creative ideas to focus on the work, but they are both the formative culture in which the art object exists and has meaning. The relationship between artist and viewer is neither communication nor connoisseurship. The former leads to art as propaganda, in which the artist's intention is definitive; the latter leads to art as taste, in which the viewer's judgment is definitive.

When a concept becomes intractable it is sometimes the language which is not functioning satisfactorily. As I look at the words I am using I realize that there is a triangle of terms which pins down our thinking about art. These are: artist, art object and viewer. Behind them lurk the stereotypes discussed above and behind them probably many others. They are separated, one from the other, by the very fact that they are nouns. None of these terms is easy to define in the culture of art making. I would wish that I could take these nouns which marshall my thoughts in these repetitious formations and change them into verbs. If we could talk about 'artisting', 'artobjecting' and 'viewering', I think we could more fruitfully discuss the dynamic nature of art making. We would be able to describe the interactions of the three components without attributing exclusive function to any one. So, the action of viewering could be seen as a part of artisting, the interaction of artisting and artobjecting could be explored, the artisting of viewering could be made sense of.

After a time of thinking in verbs, it is possible that the concepts would expand and adapt, so that the viewer could be co-creator, the art work accepted as unfinished and the artist seen as knowing in part. In the meantime, it seems we impoverish our understanding by stereotyped concepts, which do not give us back our own recognizable experiences.

BorderCrossings, Vol. 8 #4, Fall 1989.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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