Artist's Intent

I’m intrigued by the notion that the intent of the artist should be taken into account in evaluating his work. Well, not really intrigued: I’m opposed to the idea. This is not to say that an informed viewing is irrelevant. To know to look for subtle shifts of light in Monet’s water lilies can enhance one’s appreciation of that series of work. But the art piece itself has to stand on its own merits. Is it engaging, imaginative, skillfully rendered? Regardless of an artist’s intent in its creation, the piece simply is what it is. For the traditional art forms I’m talking about, it’s a physical object. Who cares what the artist intended? Maybe it was to make a political point, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the artist just wanted to hone his drawing skills and decided to copy an image from a book or magazine. Maybe the artist had no intent except to paint an image that popped into his head. Who cares? So what? The piece is what it is. All the intentionalities and narratives in the world cannot change or enhance it.

Besides, intent can be tricky. If or when it exists, is it conscious – or subliminal? A little of both? Maybe the intent occurs to the artist only after the painting or sculpture is completed. Maybe he just went into the studio, picked up a brush, and applied paint to a canvas. Maybe he has no idea why he created this work: Why he did it is something for a shrink pursue – not for a viewer or critic to evaluate.

It’s understandable that viewers who insist on knowing an intent are uncomfortable with strictly visual language. They want narratives that “explain” the work – text panels. But when anyone asks, “What were you thinking when you painted this piece? What was your intent?” the only honest answer is “You’re looking at it. What do you see?”

Art professionals have a complicated mission, and their perceptions can be tainted by the artist’s background, degrees, location, and more. Sometimes the reputation or personality of an artist is just too juicy to resist. But, as one curator told me, “I have to remember that although hosting an exhibition involves a lot of necessary considerations – the budget, the exhibition schedule, the PR, the intended audience, the this, the that ­– the truth is, it’s all just about the art.”