The Question of Intentionality, an Investigation

*The whole notion of intent is one that fascinates me almost to the point of obsession; when looking at or making artwork I always wonder, what is the artist’s intent for this thing that they are making?; what effect, exactly, is it supposed by the artist to have on others?… what effect does making it have on the artist?… and so on.

This question of intentionality is strangely absent from most of what is considered to be critical thinking about Art. Probably the various art objects could even be meaningfully classified according to the various intentions and effects, but somehow this is never done.

It can be quite enlightening to try and arrive at a more specific sort of clarity about what our intentions for, and suppositions about, the specific things that we create actually are. Not in the sense of why do artists make Art and what is the purpose of Art?, but rather what are my intentions for this specific thing that I have made, and what effect do I suppose that it will have on others?

My personal opinion is that ambiguity is an essential quality of all really great Art.

I’m not taking the position that one should read words like “intent”, “understanding”, and “meaning” as if any piece of visual Art shouldn’t be just Art for Art’s sake, as opposed to Art with a message.

Speaking only for myself, and the intentionality vs. ambiguity question, my thesis is not contra ars gratia artis; rather, I’m saying that, on close examination, artists actually do have purposes and goals for these things that they make (whether they’re capable of articulating and/or admitting them or not), and these things that they make are worthy of being examined in terms of the artist’s own intentions.*

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding:

intent

Law:

the state of a person’s mind that directs his or her actions toward a specific object.

Adjective:

1.firmly or steadfastly fixed or directed. 2.having the attention sharply focused or fixed on something. 3.determined or resolved; having the mind or will fixed on some goal. 4.earnest; intense.

- The American Heritage Dictionary

(A propos: P.D. Ouspensky, and others, would argue that most of us only imagine that we have intent.)

*It strikes me that Art making may be the only organized human activity in which a lack of purposes or goals is considered by anyone to be a virtue.

Why is this important? Well, for example, try to imagine a major business, charitable, or government organization with no stated purpose or “core values”. No such thing exists. There’s a reason for that: an organization so completely rudderless wouldn’t survive for 15 minutes in the real world.

Recently I have initiated some discussions on the topic of “The Question of Intentionality”in a few artists’ forums on the Internet.

The Surrealists, as a group, are the ones that get the most upset at the very notion that artists (like everyone else) exhibit goal-directed behavior. Here are some typical responses:*

“Sorry, don’t have time to think, I just paint because I like it. Don’t want to know the reasons, I prefer mystery, as an open space for imagination.”

“…a drawing with the intention of creating images without having any intentions about what those images will be… the intention to create something unintentionally…”

*Certainly one can do this, Surrealists, in particular, often do. Nothing wrong with that.

However this only brings up other questions of intentionality, as if one were peeling an onion. First, one might ask, what was the artist’s motive (intent) for wanting to “create something unintentionally” in the first place? What result, exactly, did the artist hope to achieve via this method?*

“…to connect with deeper psychological and emotional levels.”

*And then, what is the purpose of that? Self-knowledge? If so, then why show it to anyone else?

Because if one makes something with the intent to show it to other people, it seems that there is implied an intent on the part of the artist to produce some effect on the viewer.

Artists working within the Abstract paradigm tended to have a different set of objections to the notion of art being intentional. Here’s a particularly articulate example:*

“…a reason for someone to dabble in the the arts has been called an addiction and the reason they do it (some artists) is to seek a particular state of being (mind) while in this process of mark making. This is the primary motive or intention of some artists and by using this method it may have been achieved, or not. The actual image, or images, created evolved as an accident. There was no intent to draw, let’s say, eyeballs but when the artist steps back and takes a look all she sees are eyeballs staring back at her.

The artist can’t decide whether to show anyone her art… Eventually… she decides to show it to her mom.

No matter what the artist does… her mom always says after looking at the daughter’s marks, “That’s nice dear, but why so many nipples.”

…Curiously the observer of the art sees images that are different than what the artist sees. There was no intention to create eyes nor was there any intention to create nipples.

After a while the artist gets up enough nerve and shows her work to many people. Each individual sees something different in this abstract piece of art. It appears that each viewer interprets the drawing differently. Perhaps that is another of the artist’s intent, a secondary intent to create mystery and the result was that she succeeded.

Bottom line, there was no intention to create eyes, nipples or toes or whatever one might see. The intent was to create ambiguity. Each viewer was allowed to interpret the marks without being told what they should see. The drawing becomes a sort of mirror and reflects back more about the viewer than the artist.

Abstract art is curious in this way and perhaps why it leaves many people baffled as to the artist’s intent. They want to see the artist’s intentions, they want to know what it means. Are they being put-on? They may feel that way but few artists apply their art just to make fools of people, maybe."

*That’s a chain of events that I find plausible, although I find it disturbing.

Not the part about the artist’s intention to “seek a particular state of being (mind) while in this process of mark making.” – that’s something that I’m intimately aware of, and it’s certainly one of a multiplicity of intentions that I ascribe to myself.

What disturbs me about this hypothetical anecdote is that it seems to imply that important Art can somehow be made by accident, or, even more disturbingly, that the critic’s rationalization after the fact is somehow more important than the artist’s original act.

This was precisely the initial point of contention, reflecting back to a seminal conversation that I had with David Cohen in the September, 2003 issue of Art Critical .

Assigning meaning or value to such an object beyond the intentions of its maker seems to me a rather questionable idea.*

“…”If a herd of pigs knocked over a table of paints and smeared a canvas, and you liked it, then you’d have to call it art…"

*We do often find beauty or significance in the chance arrangement of things, whether done by an artist or an accident; an historical accident, in the case of some museum pieces.

And, as Carl Jung pointed out with his concept of Synchronicity, this is far from trivial – it tells us something important about ourselves (and nothing in particular about the object).*

“…do you think people need to know what your intentions are to understand your paintings? Do you not think something is lost by explaining it? If they don’t get it without it being explained to them, have you failed?”

*I don’t think there’s anything to “understand”; I’m more interested in having the viewer experience a certain state of mind, of emotion, a profound and lucid calm. If they don’t experience that state when looking at my paintings , I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by “explaining” my intentions; insofar as that particular viewer is concerned, my work has failed utterly.

To quote David Cohen,* “…I wouldn’t want to participate in a criticism the function of which would be to award brownie points for good intentions.”

*One’s paintings might work for some people and not for most people, regardless of any intentions. The fact that some viewers understand and appreciate and others do not has absolutely nothing to do with the question of intentionality.

Intentionality is about one’s own purposes and goals, not about the reactions of others.

An artist of a mystical/Symbolist bent had this to say:*

“…consciousness reflects reality, thus if you alter consciousness, you alter reality… Intent is simply a concentrated, intense energy that we apply —to whatever. As bodies of energy ourselves, we certainly can manifest many things. It is the same with prayer, per se, or meditation. It’s all energy.”

And a very pragmatic artist shared this point of view:

“…Intent has to do more with Preparation. Even Improvisation requires some sort of preparation. Spontaneity requires also preparation.

The very ability to approach a blank page, a blank canvas or a computer screen is contingent on our inner preparations… contingent on the alignment of our heart, mind, and hands… in the direction of the task."

*In conclusion, here is an interesting area of thought: i.e., the historical relationship between Art and ceremonial magick. Arguably this may have been the original (prehistorical) reason for the invention of representational Art.

Perhaps Art is something that exists in a realm beyond intentionality, more akin to instinct. It seems to me that the impulse to make Art is both necessary and inevitable, an inextricable part of human nature.

I refer again to P. D. Ouspensky:*

“Man is a machine, but a very peculiar machine which, in the right circumstances, and with the right treatment, can know that he is a machine, and, having fully realized this, he may find ways to cease to be a machine.

First of all, what man must know is that he is not one; he is many. He has not one permanent and unchangeable “I” or Ego. He is always different. One moment he is one, another moment he is another, the third moment he is a third, and so on, almost without an end…

In reality there is no oneness in man and there is no controlling center, no permanent “I” or Ego.

Every thought, every feeling, every sensation, every desire, every like and dislike is an “I”. These “I’s” are not connected and are not co-ordinated in any way. Each of them depends on the change in external circumstances…"

(from “The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution”, Chapter 1)

*Finally, it occurrs to me that Intent plays no role in “evolution” as defined by Charles Darwin; evolution is the result of environmental factors acting on random mutations. In other words, blind chance.

Does Art “evolve” in an analogous manner?

Or is it, more properly, the intentional product of work done by sentient beings?

Heartfelt thanks to all of the thoughtful artists who have taken the time to participate in my ongoing investigation of the Question of Intentionality, and to David Cohen, art critic for the New York Sun, who started me down this path back in 2003.

I sincerely hope that readers of this essay will contribute their thoughts to my investigation.*

Journal Comments

  • Karo / Caroline Evans (Caux-Evans)
  • Virginia McGowan
  • REDREAMER
  • James Lindsay
  • Margot Koefod
  • Carson Collins
  • mufa
  • James Lindsay
  • theBetty
  • Angielarts