01 March 2006

Intentionality in Art

Here's a question for you all: How much does the poet's or artist's intention matter in whether art is really art? I am a photographer, and while I know what to do to make an artistic photograph, sometimes I surprise myself by what comes out on film or screen. And sometimes I don't even recognize a photograph as good art until someone else sees it and comments on it. A photo I took on a recent trip to New Zealand (currently showing in the Lookout Gallery at Regent College, reproduced here at right) New Beginnings is turning out to arrest the attention of everyone who sees it. But I didn't recognize it as a winner when I first saw it. In fact, I didn't even notice it as one of the relatively good ones. But when I was showing my slides to an artist friend, she stopped at that one and told me it was incredible. And after looking at it for a while longer, I began to agree with her. Does the fact that this beauty came from somewhere outside of my intentional control change my relationship as artist to this work of art? Is it still art? Is this unexpected discovery of art an experience that other artists in other art forms (including poets, writers) have ever felt?

Art historian Laurel Gasque had a chance to view my photo in the gallery and commented on it thus:

Your work I would suggest is a Romantic take on the [German] photographer...Karl Blossfeldt. Art and nature are austerely and classically joined in his work. Painting and sculpture arrest my attention more than photography, but when the latter does, it does in a big way.

Blossfeldt's work which I first saw in Basel many years ago grabbed me in a special way that made me stop and honour the complete exquisite elegance of God's creation, its structure that makes all human design a footnote. Thank you for your work taking me back to this memory and kind of basic reflection.

I hope you find Blossfeldt's work of interest. You might find it static, but for me it arrests my attention, slows me down to consider God's amazing handiwork and consider it and mediate on it and relish all the inspiration it has given down through the ages to mostly anonymous artists who worked in the decorative arts, embellishing our lives not with the frivolous, but a reflection of archetypical form.

I located an online exhibit of Blossfeldt's Urformen der Kunst (Artforms in Nature). I do find it static, but I can see how Laurel saw my work as a Romantic take on some of his fern photos. Do you find that his work or mine better draws one's attention to God's handiwork? I am still trying to work out what my vocation is as an artist. One of my intentions is surely to bring glory to God and highlight his handiwork, but if I may take poetic license and apply Scott Cairns' thoughts to my photography, I would hope that I could create anew as well as merely showing a poor shadow of something that exists already in nature. Is photography as an art form inherently incapable of doing the former? What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment specifically on this photograph, even to critique it.


Christine Broesamle said...

What a gorgeous photo!! I thought it was something commercial and kept scrolling, and then realised it was YOURS! It's so luminous and the colours are amazing. I showed it to one of my work colleagues and he was fascinated. I don't know much about art theory but I just love the photo's luminosity and delicacy. It's lovely and I'd frame it in my home in a heartbeat...Congrats Rosie for a lovely stroke of artistry. The best art is the stuff that happens uncalculated, like this one... right out of your intuition. :-)

Iambic Admonit said...

Yes, Rosie, a gorgeous photo! I think, in a way, it silently answers today's question (see new post, above).

Michael, what about this issue of intenionality: You wrote a short story, "All That He Plants Takes Root," and when I said I didn't like the main character leaving the woman he loved, you said, "I don't like it either." How does author intentionality work with characters? Do they have lives of their own? Can they do things you don't want them to do?

Mehitchcock said...

Yes. The characters will do many things I don't like and don't want them to do.
However, I designed them that way, and their flawed nature is an essential component of the [hopefully!] perfect structure of their universe.

Rosie Perera said...

Dorothy Sayers would definitely say that fictional characters have lives of their own, and that the author often doesn't know how those lives are going to play out (see The Mind of the Maker).

An author has to respect the integrity of her characters. She might create a character who would never do a certain thing at some point in the story. That trait might not have been pre-meditated by the author, but discovered in the course of writing. So it would be a violation of that character to write into the story the character doing that thing which he would not have done.

This brings up the idea, mentioned by Tolkien and others, that we are co-creators with God. It seems God is actually doing part of the creating of these fictional characters, and using the mind and pen of the author to give them life. Of course the human creator does have a measure of control over the choices and destinies of the characters, but this intentionality is sometimes subverted by the higher Creator.

I'm not a writer of fiction, but I have had the experience, while writing in my journal or writing emails, of discovering things through the very process of writing. I might not have known what I thought about a particular issue or theological question until I started writing about it. Or I might actually find God revealing his direction to me through my writing.

This reminds me of Jeremy Begbie, British theologian and musician extraordinaire, who heads up a project he created called Theology Through the Arts (, which aims to foster new theological insights through the arts. That does not mean using the arts merely to illustrate truths already grasped. It means that by engaging in the arts, the artist-theologians themselves discover new things about God. I think Begbie is onto something there!

Iambic Admonit said...

All right, I've been pondering this intentionality question for a while now, and I have some thoughts. They are just first ideas, so let me know what you think of them. I may be wrong!
First, I think the artist's intentions matter in the quality of the art, and more so depending on how much the work comes directly from the artist's own imagination. Let me explain.
If a work does not build on a previous work, I doubt that it could be better than what the artist intends. These sorts of works would be poems (almost all writing, really), paintings, sculptures, pieces of music, choreography, etc. These come straight out of the artist's mind, and rely on his (her) skill and imagination.
My students often write poems that are quite vague and prompt discussion like, "Well, do you think she meant this or that?" When asked, she says, "I didn't mean either. I didn't think of either." That's a case of lack of intention spoiling the final work.
However, and this is a new thought for me, I wonder if works that rely on previous works can transcend the author's skill or intention? Works such as a dance done on pre-existant choreography, a musical performace of a composed piece, a film of someone else's acting, a dramatic presentation of a written play, or a photograph a God's already beautiful nature? In those cases, as happened to Rosie, it seems that some quality can come through that the mediating artist did not intend.
I would love it if some of our actor/director/musician friends would comment here. Have you ever played a piece or performed a play and had audience members "get something" out of it you didn't put in, but you think the original artist probably did, and it came through in spite of you?

Rosie Perera said...

Sorry it's taken me so long, but I have to disagree with your latest proposition, Sorina, that a work of art can never be greater than the artist intended unless it builds on another work of art. You are forgetting that the reader (or listener, or observer) of a creative work also brings his or her imagination to bear on the interpretation. So, for example, when someone says to the poet, "I see such-and-such in your poem; is that what you intended?" and the poet says "No, I never thought of that," it is not a sign of "lack of intention spoiling the whole work." Rather it is the very nature of good poetry (or any art) to open itself up to multiple interpretations limited only by the experiences and imaginations of the readers/hearers. I have heard none other than Luci Shaw describing just such an exchange with readers of her poems, and I would not say that she suffers from lack of planning or intentionality in her poems. She actually enjoys it when people see something else in her poems that she hadn't intended, and she's mature enough and has gotten beyond her ego enough not to mind even when they see something in it which she doesn't like.

Now, it might be that this phenomenon of seeing more in a work of art than the artist intended could only happen when a work is based on something common to human experience (such as God's creation), but most art is, even if subconsciously so. Otherwise it wouldn't be understandable to anybody. So I don't think your distinction between original/imaginitave work and derivative work is relevant here.

Your implication is that art can never be greater than the work it is derived from. But clearly we have seen development over the centuries from more primitive types of art (e.g., cave paintings, simple reed instruments that can only play one note at a time), which, though beautiful in their simplicity, are limited in the richness of possible interpretations. This doesn't mean that everything claiming to be art now is better than its predecessors. Most certainly not. But I don't think we need to be limited by what came before. I think our God-given imaginations are capable of soaring to new heights, and creating things so intricate in their beauty that even we, the artists, have no idea how much lies therein.

Iambic Admonit said...

Hum, OK. I wonder. I think I hear two threads in our discussion. One is about quality, which leads back to the other discussion about what makes a good work of art -- that endless conversation! This would be skill, technical achievement, such things as correct scansion/rhyme scheme/formal elements in traditional poetry, correct voice leading in a four-part chorale, correct exposures and development in a photograph, etc. Those, I suppose, cannot be better than the artist's intention. I will hardly write a more accurate line than I intend.
But that's not the foundational issue here. And you are probably right. The more important issue is that of "greatness." This is connected with "seeing things" in the work. Sure, audiences "see things" that were not intended in a work of art all the time. And these might make it greater by adding to its interpretation. Such reactions can in themselves be acts of subcreation. Good literature sparks literary criticism, and each good work of criticism fuels works agreeing with or challenging them. In some ways, the greater the work, the more and more varied resonances can be gotten from them. But in another, just as true sense, the more skilled the artist is, the more clearly and particularly his/her own vision and intention will be communicated. Both are true. I applaud your final statement, about the God-given imagination soaring to new heights. One would think that the Christian imagination would be able to soar the highest, given its heavenly origin and destination!