Does The Artist’s Intention Matter? A Debate About Creation

A gorilla fighting a man on a jet-pack. That’s what I saw this morning when I looked up at the clouds. It was a sight to behold and I regret not taking a picture of the epic, cumulonimbus clash. I wasn’t the only one witnessing the sky-based, smack-down of the century, either. Just down the path was a young couple on a walk and they too had their eyes fixed upward. I’d have asked them who they were rooting for in the overhead battle, of course, they’d probably have no idea what I was talking about. They probably saw a horse-race or an ice-cream truck in those very same clouds. That’s the nature of interpreting the abstract and assigning meaning to the inanimate. It’s incredibly subjective and that creative freedom is what makes it entertaining. If everyone looked toward the clouds and saw the same picture, people would probably stop looking at the clouds.

My interpretation of those clouds was meaningful to me, just as that couple’s interpretation likely resonated with them. Neither of our interpretations are inherently better than the other’s. Neither of us have a basis for telling the other that they are incorrect. We saw what we saw. That seems fair enough… but let’s throw a wrench in it.

Let’s say God himself descended from the heavens and said, “Hey guys. It’s me, God. That’s all well and good, but it isn’t a gorilla fighting a man with a jet-pack. It isn’t an ice-cream truck, either. It’s a golden retriever playing poker. I would know. I’m God. I made the clouds.”

Does that mean that I was wrong to see a gorilla fighting a man on a jet-pack? Does that negate the amusement and joy I received from my initial interpretation? Did I need to hear God’s intention for the clouds to derive an effective meaning from them? This is the debate about Artist Intention and it’s a sticky one.

For starters, it has to be acknowledged that, yes, artists have intentions for the works they create. They mean to evoke certain feelings or send certain messages- whether or not those feelings or messages are received in the intended fashion is a different story altogether. Still, intention is necessary for the creation of art. Without a why there is no how.

The question is, does that original intention hold any weight once the art is released to the public? Does it matter beyond its necessity for the art’s creation? I had a discussion about this with my friend, Marc Anthony. It seems we always find ourselves in these conversations at the most inconvenient hours, consuming the most convenient of foods, and conveniently- we disagreed (and thank God for that because if we didn’t this would be a rather short post).

I sat firmly in the camp of: “The artist’s intent holds no weight post release.”

He sat opposite me, in the camp of: “Yes it matters, are you stupid?”

And the great debate began.

For starters, there are two reasons I believe that the original intention behind a piece of art holds little weight.

  1. It isn’t necessary for art to function.
  2. Artists have little control over what their art becomes or what it inspires.

It isn’t necessary for art to function. When Van Gogh painted Starry Night, he didn’t leave a manual explaining what it should make the viewer feel, nor what his intention for the painting was. We can’t ask him either, he died in 1890. Regardless, though, people view and revere Starry Night. It is effective. When I look at Starry Night I feel a sense of calm, a sense of wonder. Who knows if that was Van Gogh’s original intention for the painting. For all we know, he wanted me to feel abject terror at the sight of those stars. Still, the painting works without his original intention being known. Knowing the artist’s intention isn’t necessary for art to function.

Artists have little control over what their art becomes, either. Once I create a piece of art, be it a film or a painting or a book, it will be consumed by a (hopefully) ravenous public. They’ll interpret that art through the lens of their own life experiences. It will inspire each person differently. My original intention as an artist will likely get lost along the way. At that point, who is to say that my interpretation of the work is any more valid than someone else’s? Do my words carry more gravity because I created it in the first place? I don’t see what good that does, other than squandering the beauty someone else saw in my art that I might not have particularly intended. Once released, a piece of art is its own entity, inspiring others, out of the artist’s jurisdiction.

Ironically, Marc summed up MY position with a really strong analogy: Creating a piece of art is like raising a child. You can have big dreams for that child and you can sweat, bleed, and suffer for it. Still, the moment you send that child off into the threshold of adulthood- it is its own person and your intentions for it hold little water.

Now, the artist does have some control in their ability to convey their original intention during the creation process. The more abstract a piece of art, the more interpretation is involved. The more narrow a piece of art, the more clear the artist’s original intention is. So in this way, without directly commenting, artists do maintain a degree of control over the perception of their work post release.

Of course, Marc Anthony disagreed with me. Marc and I are both creators, and art resonates with us in different ways. I’m currently in college at Pace University, studying my BFA in Acting. He is headed out to Atlanta, Georgia to achieve his artistic, filmmaking pursuits. I really respect his input on these topics as I find Marc Anthony to be an insightful person- decisive with his words. Not a single word wasted. As such, in the spirit staying true to his original statement, I’ll try and relay his message as briefly and as clearly as he did to me.

To Marc, the artist’s intention holds an incredible amount of weight. He believes that, in order to properly connect with a piece of art, he has to know what the artist was trying to convey.

That’s his stance and, while I disagree with it, I understand it. Honoring an artist’s original intention for their work can provide a clarity about the piece in question. Trying to see what the artist intended and setting aside our own interpretations seems somewhat noble– an act of incredible empathy. The shirking of our own life experiences and, subsequently, the lenses which we view the world through in an attempt to view something clearly is a difficult but important exercise. There is validity in it.

So it takes me back to the clouds I saw this morning. Obviously, clouds aren’t art. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. (You can read more about what constitutes art in a previous post: What Counts As Art?) Still, what would it be like to try and view the morning clouds as someone other than myself? Maybe try and view them as God does? Or will my gorilla fighting a man on a jet-pack suffice. Frankly, I’m not sure. These things are incredibly subjective.

What do you think? Does the artist’s intention matter? Comment your thoughts down below and contribute to the discussion! If you enjoyed the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

2 Comments on “Does The Artist’s Intention Matter? A Debate About Creation

  1. I think y’all are both right

    You don’t need to know artist intention to appreciate or interpret art but knowing the intention does also enhance the experience. It’s like when you can see the whole puzzle but it’s still fun to put the pieces together

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree, I suppose it comes down to what you define the word ‘matter’ to mean. Essential to the function of art? Maybe not. Helpful in cultivating specific experiences? Totally.


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