Aesthetic Anti-Intentionalism: Art Tells Its Own Story

In “Art, meaning, and artist’s meaning”, Daniel Nathan (2006) offers a defense of anti-intentionalism, an explanation of various vulnerabilities that have been leveled against classic anti-intentionalism, and offers a re-formulation of anti-intentionalism, with several arguments laid out in its defense. Nathan’s argument is set in the context of art interpretation, interpretation that: 1- discovers or discloses meaning, 2- pertains to understanding “artistically pertinent properties” of a work (p. 282), and 3- is the ordinary activity of the everyday appreciator of art (as well as the professional critic). The question is simple: are an artist’s intentions relevant (and/or limiting) in our interpretation of their work? We will here look at how anti-intentionalism is characterized, and at Nathan’s central argument on its behalf.

The classic anti-intentionalist argument is straightforward. An artist intends something with her work. These intentions may be successfully embodied in the work, or not. For instance, an artist may intend a poem to be a treatise on death, but the work is usually interpreted as describing a birthday cake, because there are no indications in the work that suggest “treatise on death” as a possible intention. In this case, the artist’s intentions are not successfully embodied in the work. If the artist is successful in embodying her intentions (for instance, if we readily perceive her intentions regarding “death” as encoded in the work), we do not need to look elsewhere for meaning. If she is not successful (as in the birthday cake example), when we look at things other than the work itself (like the artist’s notes about writing a “treatise on death”), we are being taken away from the art and toward what is irrelevant—we end up reading into the work rather than reading the work (eisogesis, rather than exegesis). It is no longer the art that is speaking to us or that we are interpreting: it is the artist, or the context, or something external to the work. While artwork may be evidence of original intent (p. 287), original intent found outside of the encoded work (such as in an artist’s interview about a poem) is irrelevant to our interpretation of the work. At its heart, anti-intentionalism emphasizes what the artwork means rather than just what the artist means.

Nathan offers a slightly different approach. His anti-intentionalism is built on distinctive features of art that seem to be different from ordinary experience (and that make intentionalism seem out of place): causal explanations do not help us interpret art, our response to representational objects in art is often different than our response to the objects they represent (we fear a stalker, but we do not fear a painting of a stalker), we are looking for aesthetic excellence in art but not in ordinary objects, etc. Nathan’s central proposal, linked to the idea that art is different than a conversation and ordinary experience, is that there is a paradox of intention: works of art are intended by artists to be publicly appreciated and interpreted. An artist intends for his sculpture to stand on its own two feet, so to speak, and explain itself to the world (without any outside help). There is a hierarchy of intentions going on here: the artist intends his work to mean something (and this meaning is relevant to our interpretation in the intentionalist account), but the artist also intends for his work to not require outside information for its interpretation—it should tell its own story. The first intention is a first-order intention, the second is a second-order intention. And the second-order intention (for the work to speak for itself) is claimed to be a “necessary presupposition of the artistic endeavor” (293), whether the artist is aware of this or not. The force of Nathan’s argument is this: artists intend their work to encode the artists’ intentions: if we are charitable, we must interpret those intentions from the work itself (rather than deriving those intentions elsewhere). This is not meant to downplay the importance of original intent or context, but to argue that the work itself is a unity, and is the public embodiment of the meaning. After the work is sent out into the world, it succeeds in telling the story the artist intended, or it fails and tells a different story—either way, according to the anti-intentionalist, it tells its own story. Any external story is just that: an external story (and not the story of the work itself).

Nathan, Daniel O. (2006). Art, meaning, and artist’s meaning. In Matthew Kieran (Ed.), Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Art. Oxford, UK: Blackwell’s Publishers.


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