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What role, if any, do the intentions of the artist play in determining how his/her work should be interpreted?
How we understand the role of the artist's original intention in any complete work of art is an important notion, given that how we interpret the attitudes or ideas manifested in a piece of art will affect our overall judgement of the artwork's aesthetic merit, and given that our interpretation may not necessarily be that which the artist has intended. If this is the case, what is the relationship between the artist's intended interpretation of his work, and the way that I actually do interpret it? We should start by examining the position of Wimsatt and Beardsley, that suggests that the artist's intention, properly identified, determines the appropriate interpretation of his work. We will see that this position appears attractive, particularly when the question is rephrased in terms of aesthetic appeal. I will conclude that the 'actual intentionalist' position - that asserts that the artists's intentions, when properly realised, determine the correct interpretation of his work - fails to adequately characterise the intention-interpretation relationship, and that the artist's intention, while minimally involved in that relationship, cannot exercise constraint over the content of appropriate interpretations. We should begin,though, by making explicit what we mean by the term 'intention' in this context. Quite simply, the artist's 'intention' is that design or plan that the artist had in her mind when creating a particular work of art, and refers to how it is that the artist wants her art to be understood or interpreted, and what messages she herself wants her art to portray. To start, let us consider the position that the intention of the artist has no significant role to play in determining the interpretation of an artwork. Wimsatt and Beardsley put forward this position in The Intentional Fallacy, asserting famously that 'the intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work of art 1'. As the preceding quotation makes clear, the article in question deals specifically with poetry and prose, and says little of non-literary artwork - for now, let us do the same. Wimsatt and Beardsley assert that two kinds of 'intention' exist - intention for which there is internal evidence, and intention for which there is external evidence. Internal evidence for the artist's intention is discovered through semantics and the syntax of the poem, through our common understanding of language and grammar and all that which makes up a linguistic culture, whilst external evidence for the artist's intention is not part of the work as a fact of linguistics, but is found in revelations through external and separate sources - such as letters or documented conversations - about how or why the poet wrote the poem, or indeed why he wrote it as he did. The only means by which we may legitimately discern a particular intention of the artist, Wimsatt and Beardsley assert, is through internal evidence, which is to say only in cases wherein the author has made an explicitly clear statement of his intention through his writing, for example. So intention is relevant to interpretation only when that intention is uncovered through the language of the poem or novel, whilst the historical background to the author's creative process is not relevant to the audience's interpretation.
1 M Beardsley and WK Wimsatt, The Intentional Fallacy, in A Neill and A Ridley (eds.), The Philosophy of Art (1995)
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