Intentionalism and the Arts

Intentist Interview with Professor Hans Maes, Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Art, University of Kent 

Vittorio Pelosi: Many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by the arts movement Intentism.  Isn't the mind altogether unknoweable and so intention impossible to find? Furthermore, if we find intention through sketches and interviews, aren't these further 'works' in themselves that we need to find intention for? Would we not be left with another kind of hermeneutical circle?


Hans Maes: Let's have a look at the first part of your question. The problem of ‘other minds’ has a long history in philosophy, but it’s good to note that in everyday life this doesn’t seem to be a problem at all. For instance, when I take the bus to campus, which I do on a daily basis, that’s only possible because the bus driver and I are able to correctly assess each other’s intentions. Also, while there are sophisticated – but ultimately flawed – philosophical reasons for doubting the existence and knowability of other minds, it’s interesting to see that the reasons that art theorists usually provide are not that sophisticated. We can’t look directly into someone’s head and that’s where intentions are, they argue, so we can’t know intentions and should abandon all talk of these mental states. But if that’s true, than one should also abandon all talk of beliefs, ideas, emotions, passions – which are also ‘in the head’. Yet, these are mental states that art theorists and artists precisely love to talk about. Of course, people can be mistaken about their own or other people’s intentions. But it would be ridiculous to jump from the fact that we are sometimes mistaken to the conclusion that we never have access to, or reliable knowledge of intentions.

The second part of your question suggests a hermeneutical circle where we need the work to interpret the sketch and the sketch to interpret the work. In addition, it nods to the idea of an infinite regress where we need intentions to understand the sketch and then intentions to understand the source of the previous intention, ad infinitum.  Again, it may be helpful to look beyond the sphere of art. Think, for instance, of a suspicious car accident where a woman is run over by her ex-husband. At the subsequent murder trial one will try to determine whether the car crash was accidental or intentional and, to this end, one will likely investigate the perpetrator's preceding actions. It may turn out that the husband took the day off from work, waited for hours in an alley and then sped up when he saw the victim crossing the road. His preceding actions will then illuminate his intentions at the moment of the car crash – yes, it was murder! – but the reverse is also true: the fact that we have good reason to suspect foul play will illuminate the preceding actions. For now we understand why he unexpectedly took the day off from work, why he was waiting in that alley etc. If this sort of ‘hermeneutical circle’ is experienced as unproblematic and helpful in everyday life, then why would it be any different in art? For example, in order to better understand Picasso's Guernica it will be illuminating to study his preceding sketches, and vice versa.


Vittorio Pelosi: Why do we generally speak of past speech in the past tense, but written work and paintings in the present? E.g. 'Derrida writes the following..,''Leonardo repeats the image...' Aren't we giving the work a 'presence' beyond the life of the deceased author, indicating that our authority comes from this present tense work, rather than the author?


Hans Maes: The first thing to note is that we also use phrases like 'What Leonardo was aiming for is …,' etc. However, it is true that works of art and literary works live on after the author or artist has died. And when we’re in a museum or in a library, we should be, and typically are, primarily interested in the work. But from this it doesn't follow that the intentions underlying these works are irrelevant. Suppose you see a nude painting in which a woman is represented in a seemingly objectifying manner. One can easily imagine how this painting can be interpreted in two completely different ways, depending on the intentions of the artist. It may express the sexist view that all women are just objects for male pleasure. But if we know that the artist has strong feminist sympathies we will more likely interpret it in the opposite way, as a protest against the objectification of women. So, it seems that in such cases we have to look beyond what is present in front of us and try to figure out what the artist was aiming for when she was creating the work.


Vittorio Pelosi: Do you believe that intention can fail and so the work may not mean what was intended?  If so, would this not normally be decided by the critic (viewer) which would essentially be the death of the author and the birth of the viewer through the back door?


Hans Maes: Yes, I believe that intentions can fail to be realized. When that happens, the work will have a different meaning than the one intended by the artist. So, I am a moderate intentionalist. Let me illustrate this with an example. Suppose that an artist receives the commission to paint the archbishop of Canterbury and intends to portray him as very dignified. Suppose further that, while she was once told that a purple robe is a classic symbol of dignity, this fact gets twisted in the artist’s memory and she ends up depicting the archbishop in a pink tutu. It is very likely that her intention to portray the archbishop as dignified will have failed in this case. Now, it is certainly true that this can be pointed out by a critic. But that does not mean that we should subscribe to ‘death of the author’ thesis. Quite on the contrary. It seems to me that a critic will only be able to decide whether or not the work is a failure by referring to the artist’s intentions. Just imagine that the artist had the intention to mock instead of glorify the archbishop… In that case, the painting with the pink tutu would be probably be a success, and not a failure. Incidentally, I think that this is one of the reasons why contemporary artists are sometimes coy about revealing their intentions; because if they were to do that, it would be much more straightforward for critics and viewers to evaluate, and possibly criticize, their work.


Vittorio Pelosi: There has been much more written about authorship and intention in regards to texts than to visual art. Do you think the same broad intentionalist theory is applicable to both, or do the visual arts have certain qualities that make intention and singularity of meaning less possible?


Hans Maes: The majority of what has been written about the relation between intention and interpretation does focus on literature. In a sense, this is surprising because issues of interpretation often seem more pressing in visual art. Whereas the average reader of a contemporary novel will have a good general idea of what the novel is about, many visitors to a contemporary art gallery will have no clue whatsoever about the meaning of the works on display. Can information about the artist’s intention help to clear up the confusion of these visitors? I think it can, and in a recent article for the British Journal of Aesthetics I have tried to defend a particular version of intentionalism with regard to contemporary visual art. So, yes, I do think that intentionalism is the right theory for visual art as well as literature.


Vittorio Pelosi: On behalf of the Intentists, many thanks.


For more information about Professor Hans Maes, please look at his personal staff page by clicking on the link below:

Furthermore, click on this link for an excellent article on intentionality and art written for the British Journal of Aesthetics: