Intentionalism and the Arts


Post Reply
Forum Home > Human gesture and the Work > Colin Lyas' thoughts on the subject

Vittorio Pelosi
Posts: 21

Art is made by people (perhaps other things make art, but of the fact that people make it, we can be sure). What else can "art", with its connection to "artefact" (made thing), "artificer", "artisan", "artificial", mean. (Similarly for the Greek "poesia" - making.

Well years and years ago (1971) see Vesey(ed) Philosophy and the Arts) I thought that if art is made by people, then the person who makes the work leaves a residue, often highly visible, of her or himself in the work and that residue can be read there. We have no problem with this way of thinking when we think of the way people betray their prejudices in their remarks, their preferences in their choice of clothes and their sophistication (or lack of it) in their selection of the things with which they surround themselves. So, I wanted to say, if people make art they show themselves in the qualities of the art they make.

Here is Durrell in the Alexandrian Quartet (p. 382 of the Faber Omnibus Edition of 1958). A character looks at the oeuvre of an artist and reflects:

"I saw his paintings. . . . Through them I read his whole personality as one can read handwriting or a face. I saw weakness and poverty of heart and a power to do mischief". You need only think here, if you have written poetry, or painted or composed, in your youth, of how embarrassing the encounter with that youthful work can be because you can see the shortcomings of your then grasp of life and art). Think too, on the occasion of the death of Chabrol of the notion of the auteur, which seems to me nothing less than the view that the quality of the director permeates the film. As with film, so with all the arts. Dali, for example, for better or worse permeates his work. (I often think that a great work bears its master's signature, and that that is where originality is found. And I add as a corollary that the mark of a great original and of his or her great art, is the possibility of parody, imitation, forgery - where these take off the artistic character of a person).

So, I said, numbered among the qualities of art are the qualities of the people who make the art. Things like wit, sensitivity, perceptivity, pretentiousness, mawkishness Of course there are other value features, but those personal qualities are there.

And they have been excluded by virtually every theorist of the arts, either by inadvertent omission or more often by a deliberate fiat. The ways they tried to do this are set out in things I wrote, including my book on aesthetics.

 I have been trying to deepen all this in recent years by connecting thefounding thought of my work with things that arose from another book Iwrote, about Peter Winch (and, indirectly, about Winch's inspiration,Wittgenstein).

Here a central thought is that we are born into a world of blooming buzzing confusion and our lives consist of an attempt to make sense of that world. Science is one way, art and religion are, according to Winch, non-competing ways of trying to make sense.

So, when you make art, you try to impose a sense on things and what you impose is your sense of things. And if enough people see what you are up to then you speak for them, too. So art is, as Shelley said, the unacknowledged legislator for mankind.

Think of the way in which we say that a poet gives us a way of articulating our hitherto unexpressed inner lives, or a way an artist, say Turner gives us a way of seeing the world. So now we can say that a situation is Kafkaesque, a sunset Turneresque, a thought about Autumn Keatsian. And think, too, at times of most expressive need (in love, notably) we speak to others using poetry, because only that allows us to say what it is that we feel.

But that means two things. One is that the artist must impose his or her vision as a way of making sense (expression I'd say). But then, second, when we encounter this imposition of sense on the world, we judge it. But we judge the artist's gesture in so doing. We say, perhaps, that it is shallow, or trite, or hackneyed or banal. Or we find ourselves in it and we then endorse it as speaking to us and for us.

One last thing.

In my book I try to show how many theorists rejected artists because the artist was considered to be a dictator who tries to impose a meaning on the reader and in so doing impinges upon freedom. Others were, rightly sceptical that references to the artist were references to some kind of cartesian unitary soul. Others thought that to assign a single meaning to the work was insufficiently provisional and overly limiting.

I endorse all that sort of thinking. But I am untouched and unmoved by it. I do not believe that we have unitary souls but that we are like nations of personalities, and nations that, moreover alter over time. But nations can have an ethos or stamp, and the nation-artist can put that distinctive stamp on a work. Has to put it there, if I am right, since to make a work is to leave a trace behind. And we, the audience are each nations and we too evolve, so that what we loved as adolescents might not survive in our core of feeling as we grow and change, though we may still acknowledge its greatness. (And that is NOT an "anything goes" subjectivity). Sometimes, it might only be at the end that we see what, say, Mahler was trying to do, or what Matisse was grasping for, because only then are we ready for it.

At the moment I am working on another ramification of this. Winch says that art is one way (actually one set of ways) of making sense of the world, science is another and religion is another. But I want to explore the notion that all these, in being all ways in which humans make things that are ways of making sense, are all in the end forms of art.

Bolder yet, I really would love to show that all or makings, including our sayings, are art. (That would make sense of much of what Beuys says). For I want so much to resist what some have said to me in the hope of excluding the creator of the work. That is, they want to say that, sure, the qualities of the artist are in the work, but they are not relevant to it as art. Here I can only hint on where I am going, since I don't know yet quite how to develop this.

First, though it is not as simple as this, I think we can make a distinction between art and nature, where the difference resides in the fact that art is what some human has mixed labour with. (Very hard this: a Californian mountain sunset is as it is because man-made industrial activities affect the atmosphere. Does that make the sunset art?). Second, if labour is mixed with it, then, as I said above, the qualities of the maker will be present in the work. But I do not see how on earth we can find a mark by which to divide the properties of the work between those that proper to it as art and those that are not. Concentration, as many do, on the undoubted aesthetic surface pleasurable qualities to the exclusion of all other merely reflects prejudice.

Last little teaser:

Can we distinguish three kinds of making sense in art. There is art in which the artist tries to make sense of the world, to express a way in which the world makes sense. Then there is art (almost philosophical or theoretical art) which explores the way in which art might go in making sense of the world (art about art). And third, there is art which does both, a kind of self-reflective making sense, informed by art and its history. I reckon (hope) all art is both, but Outsider art gives me pause on that.


September 17, 2010 at 6:38 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Dr. Sardonic
Posts: 3

What is to be inferred from Lyas' (et al.) implication of "proper appreciation"? (This is really the heart of the matter isn't it?) For within the very concept of "intentism," is specified a singular, ultra-subjective method of interpretation that is the privileged and secreted possession of the creative subject. If such is the case, what artist is this that is incapable of surprising himself? Where is the beauty in an aesthetic of self-confined enumerated equivalencies? Can this ideal artist -- to whom this supreme "intention" is to be conferred -- ever accurately and articulate this intention... or is/was it consigned to his mind as the event of the creation occurred?


I happen to appreciate the way spilt oil patterns, reflects, and swirls around in puddles after a rainy spell. Is my appreciation "improper" or incomplete if I don't know the precise means by which that oil was deposited there? whose car? their mood during the drive?

If the created object is indeed "an end" (and therefore autonomous), it assumes its own relative reality (i.e., it is expected to act and react).

October 29, 2010 at 9:16 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Posts: 68

Just a few ideas:

I think it can be difficult to find intention , but not impossible. In any case, the first thing to do is to decide whether meaning resides in the intention of the creator. If the answer is yes, even if we never get it omnisciently, this is still where meaning is found.

Secondly, if a creator lies about intentions, this does not invalidate the true authentic intentions.

Thirdly, intentions are not always conscious. We believe that if they sit under the conscious intention, then they are part of the bridge to meaning. (Eg when we consciously intend to read, we don't normally consciously intend to read each letter to form words, but this sits under our intention to read.)

Any other unconscious elements we separate as causes, not intentions and may well not effect the meaning of the work. So, I believe an artist's knowledge is never complete in this respect.

I'm a painter and I often surprise myself with some of the things you mentioned. (eg split oil patterns) In these instances, they become part of the intended work via editing. If you choose to keep them in, or to reject them then intention plays a part. The argument I believe of Luciano's that you talk of re; "not knowing precise means" is solely about 'meaning on Luciano's part. An artist's intentions and knowledge will never be exhaustive. You may not know how oil splits, but how you use it or edit it will imbue it with meaning.

Will be interested in your thoughts!

Also can you reiterate your last paragraph. It sounds very thought-provoking but I didn't quite get it.


October 31, 2010 at 2:08 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Dr. Sardonic
Posts: 3

I'm a writer and I seldom surprise myself... however, the one occasion when I am most likely to laugh at my own creation with true mirth is when I discover a mistake (of syntax, spelling, etc.) that creates an unintended meaning that is far more expressive than what was intended.

Does leaving it in rationalise or "post-validate" intention?

Calvino says something similar in a passing reference to E. H. Gombrich's "Freud and the Psychology of Art":

“It is the childish delight at combinatory play that induces the painter to try out patterns of lines and colors and the poet to attempt combination of words. At a certain stage something clicks, and one of the combinations obtained by its own mechanism, independently of any search for meaning or effect on some other level, takes on an unexpected sense or produces an unforeseen effect that consciousness could not have achieved intentionally. It is an unconscious meaning or at least the premonition of one.”

(in “Myth in the Narrative,” Italo Calvino)

To reply to your request for reiteration: 

I think it's fairly obvious that if a work is to be conceptualised as "autonomous" to any degree, its relation to its creator is not only circumstantial (supposed and manufactured by the artist in a spectacle of self-possession and deluded buffoonery), but drastically inappropriate (like a father taking an unsavoury or prurient interest to his own daughter).

But that's just me.

November 1, 2010 at 7:00 PM Flag Quote & Reply

You must login to post.