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Friday, January 19, 2018

Artist Intent/Viewer Reading

There's been a mildly spirited discussion of artist intent in the comments of some previous remarks, which has in turn spurred me to think about artist intent in general terms. Therefore, some more or less disjointed remarks.

Insofar as Art is an act of communication, our goal is to bridge that gap between artist intent and viewer reading. That is, we're trying to figure out what this bloke is trying to say. On the flip side, of course, we take away whatever we find regardless of what said bloke had in mind. If Art is an act of stimulation, of evocation, then perhaps we don't give a damn what the bloke intended.

But let's stick to the communication bit.

At this point we're trying to work out what this person meant us to see, to feel, to hear, to experience. There are wheels within wheels here. For starters, nobody is all that self-aware. The artist could be lying, or unconscious. If we get a series of graphic suicide scenes starring the artist, and the artist's statement claims that it's about his love for his family, we can probably say "bollocks" with a fair bit of confidence. If it's a bunch of pictures of kittens playing with yarn, allegedly about the artist's fondness for cats, we are probably on firm ground believing her. Pretty much everything lands between these two.

It is rare that a person knows themselves well enough to be perfectly accurate on their intentions. But generally we have a pretty fair idea. We, in the role of artist, may or may not choose to share that idea, and we may or may not choose to be honest if we do.

We, in the role of viewer, are surprisingly good at working out what the artist might have been thinking. As social animals, we have enormous fat brains huge chunks of which are pretty much devoted to figuring out what other humans are thinking (or were thinking). It is probably fair to say that we are unreasonably good at working out what the artist was thinking, and detecting when they are lying, and so on.

We're by no means perfect, though. "Unreasonably good" doesn't mean error free, and in fact it doesn't mean all that good at all. All it means is better than one might, objectively, expect. I mean, what on earth could one expect to glean from a dozen bits of paper with smudges of silver compounds on them, about the mind of another human?

Finally, there's a big problem with language. We tend to say things like "Bill was thinking X" when what we really mean is "Looking at this sculpture, I imagine Bill thinking X as he made it" because that's the kind of thing we do. When we see a portrait, we more or less instantly start to build up a guess as to what was going through the sitter's mind "She looks sad" or whatever. When we see a painting, or a sculpture, or a book, we more or less instantly jump ahead to "boy, I wonder what they were thinking, I bet it was..."

For example, when I characterize Ming Thein's "Idea of Man" as more of a suicide note than a portfolio, I carefully couched it in the language of "let us assume that this is a serious statement" which, the attentive reader might have guessed, I do not. In that case, it's clear to me that Thein has simply found a motif that he's comfortable shooting (the strangers are safely distant) and which he thinks look cool. These pictures are the sorts of things which are a bit fraught, so it's easy to paint some meaning onto them. He paints one meaning, I paint another. I am certainly painting on the "suicide note" meaning after the fact, and I am pretty sure that Thein is painting on his "Idea of Man" meaning likewise.

So here we have several layers of interpretation of intent going on. My honest opinion about intent is one thing, and is largely baseless. Well, it's based on a lot of tiny details, a built up and deeply personal impression of the photographer in question. There is the intent the photographer explicitly ascribes to the work, which I assert is, whatever else is true, pretty obvious either false or at the very least painted on after the fact. There is a secondary intent I am willing to paint on to the work if I sort of method-act my way into imagining that I take the project seriously. And, finally(?) there is whatever you see in the work.

Some pieces are probably common throughout, there's probably something like an irreducible core of flavor that persists and exists more or less in all possible notions of intent.

To take another, perhaps more serious example, we can consider Diane Arbus. We have Szarkowski saying:

her true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed.

which statement I consider to be utterly asinine, and it tells us more about Szarkowski and his wishes for photography than about Arbus. My take is that Arbus did not give a single shit about the interior lives of these people, but was interested in the masks that they threw up between themselves and the world (and, as I have previously noted, I am not alone here). Arbus, I think, was fairly opaque on the subject of her own intentions. Her Guggenheim application just talks about the subjects she wants to photograph, and offers as a rationale something like preservation. I have found this, though:

You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. It’s just extraordinary that we should have been given these peculiarities. And, not content with what we were given, we create a whole other set. Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I’ve always called the gap between intention and effect. I mean if you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.

but, again, we have here a variety of ideas about intent. Arbus's actual in-the-moment intent is surely lost to us, apart from a few very vague hints. I am pretty sure that I've got hold of what she was up to, based on nothing more than looking at a bunch of pictures and thinking hard about what I am looking at. Szarkowski presumably performed more or less the same rite, and arrived at quite a different conclusion.

I see Alec Soth as a guy taking pictures of random crap that catches his eye, while idiots from Europe and the coastal areas of the USA see a Marvelously True Indictment And Portrait Of Middle America And Her Myriad Failures. Alec Soth might have an opinion, but there is no goddamned way he's going to do anything but nod and agree with the latter crew, because he's making a nice living at the moment.

But all through these things, as with the work of Dragan Novakovic, there is clearly an affinity, if not an actual affection, for certain things. We see Thein's fondness for shooting distant silhouettes in urban spaces, we see Arbus' fondness for the odd people out, we see Soth's tendencies, and we see Novakovic's apparent affection for these certain types of pictures in Northern England.

In all cases, these people aren't just snapping random crap, they're looking for something pretty specific, and they're finding it, and they're letting us see it. That much, we can be certain of. Beyond that, we're relying on the outputs of that big fatty social brain of ours. Unreliable, but fun, and sometimes surprising.

And, in the end, that's what Art ought to do, right? Does it matter if we get it right? Or is the point merely that we're enagaged and thinking and expanding?

Is it really about "communication" as such, or is it really about hijacking the machinery of communication to do something bigger, better, more interesting?


  1. For you, making art may be an act of communication, which implies there is a two-way dialog of sorts occurring between the artist and the viewer.

    But for others, art is more an act of expression, which I believe differs from communication in that it's more of a one-way thing: i.e., here's what I, the artist, had in mind (intended) and you, the viewer, are free to react/respond to my expression with your opinion, whatever that may be.

    The potentially awkward bit (for me, anyway) is when the viewer doesn't express their opinion as an opinion, but morphs it into a statement of fact and then imputes it to the artist.

    As you've noted, this may be merely a language issue, where the viewer is perhaps a bit careless in choosing their words. And sometimes, the focus of the viewer's comments are innocuous, such that even if they present their opinion as a statement of fact and then impute it to the artist, who cares?

    But what if the viewer sees, for example, evidence of rampant racism or misogyny or whatever politically incorrect idea de jour is trending at the time when the artist actually intended no such thing?

    Is it fair for the viewer to turn their opinion into a statement of fact and then impute it to the artist as evidence of their true intention regardless of the artist's denial? I think not.

    I know if I was the artist, I would react rather strongly if any viewer (or critic) ever tried to do that to me!

    So, circling back to the point I made in my comments on your previous post, I firmly believe that viewers are entitled to their opinions about an artist's work and in the absence of a formal declaration of intention by the artist, separate and apart from their work itself, it's also fair game to assume the artist did, in fact, intend exactly whatever the viewer divines from viewing their work.

    But when an artist clearly and unambiguously states the expression they intended to make with their art, the viewer must accept that -- unless they're a mind-reader, how could they disagree? -- and subsequently limit the scope of their comments to their opinion about whether the artist succeeded or not, as well how they reacted or responded to whatever it is that the artist intended to express.

    1. I have in mind next up some comments on how Art (properly) hijacks the machinery of communication, which might open things up a bit. I've been thinking too viewer-centrically, though, so thanks for reminding me about the artist ;)

      Yeah, I think it's basically rude to deny the artist's statement. I mean, I *do* it, and I think we all probably do when we react strongly to something. "No way!" we think, "that statement is impossible, it is SO OBVIOUS!"

      I'm not sure where to go with that, except to stand up, put on our pants, and admit that we're calling the artist a liar. Artists, like everyone else, DO lie. But at least as often, they're not lying, and it is us who is mistaken. For some reason, perhaps that extra level of remove, we're more willing to Get Into It "with" an artist over who exactly is telling the truth here.

      In general, the world would be a better place if people were more open to the idea that they themselves might be mistaken.

    2. "Don't trust the teller, trust the tale" -- D.H. Lawrence