The Artist's Intent

ART AND BEAUTY – creation and attractiveness – are two entities that are as inseparably linked together as they are curious to the pining soul. One’s definition of art might differ from another’s just as easily as what they call beautiful might differ from their best friend’s definition. Nevertheless, despite cultural changes and despite stretches through millennia and despite various styles and products and mediums being passed throughout all history, art and beauty are indissolubly bound together, connected by the fact that art cannot be art without layers of beauty, and what is beautiful cannot be beautiful if it is not in some way artistic. They are two sides to the same coin, one the entity as described by the quality and the other the quality given expression through the entity. When you begin to interpret these two things in conjunction with one another, you arrive at the point of purpose, what some would call “meaning.”

                 What is meant by the word “meaning,” of course, would be up to debate in modern artistic circles. If no two people can seem to agree on the definitions of “art” or “beauty,” it should be no surprise that their joint interpretation should likewise be divisive. As we view the “David” in its artistic beauty as it stands in Florence or listen to “Symphony No. 9” through our headphones, certain questions must arise within our minds: From where does meaning arrive, or does it exist at all? Can an artistic piece truly have purpose – a certain story to be told and message to be conveyed – and if so, can such a meaning be objective? Or must said purpose be defined through him by whom the piece is experienced? Dewey talks of this when he speaks of “experiences,” as does Berger when he talks of “mystification.” From cave paintings to Egyptian hieroglyphs to the art of the high Renaissance to surrealism and abstract expressionism, the interpretation of art has been highly debated, with the question ultimately bubbling down to that which lies at the root of it all: How much does the creator matter when it comes to interpreting the creation he has produced?

Allow me to explain with a few scenarios. Before I step inside Rothko Chapel, need I know the story Mark Rothko? Before I read Huckleberry Finn, need I understand the context through which it was written? Of course we do not always need context in order to appreciate a piece of art, but the rub is in that we might be doing the piece an injustice by not embracing its intended purpose and instead creating our own. Over time, we have spoken much about the “author’s intent” and have discussed whether or not the intentions of the artist truly matter when it comes to the audience interpreting the meaning of the work, and no one can seem to quite agree. There are those (such as Foucault) who proclaim that the author must die in order for the piece to be properly interpreted – in other words, that the proper interpretation of a piece is wholly reliant on the subjective interpretation of the viewer – but there are others (such as Aquinas) who think that the clay and the potter are inseparable, that the purpose behind the masterpiece’s creation must be understood before properly interpreting a piece of art. There are many people who fall somewhere in the middle of these two contrasting views, of course, debating that it is all really a gray matter; who is to say which is correct? Context, purpose, and objective substance are thus placed on the chopping block as people try to determine who provides source of meaning: spectator or creator? Where is meaning found, in creation or experience? The exclamation mark of the paintbrush or chisel or chord is thus contorted into a question mark in its stead, leaving people fumbling for meaning and struggling to determine if there is meaning after all.

And it is here that I must make my assertion. You see, I would like to consider myself an artist, enjoying everything from writing to drawing to painting to sculpting to designing to singing to playing instruments to learning and all that is involved in this thing called life, which I would argue is a piece of art in and of itself. This being said, in order to establish the foundation of my argument, I must first ask you to step inside my mind, and to do this we must first become momentarily philosophical. The way I see things, every moment we make a claim of value, we are making a stance on what we believe. When I tell a woman that she is “pretty,” I am appealing to some higher standard, an element that I will call Beauty, of which I think she shares a fair amount of qualities. When I call someone a “good” person, I am likewise appealing to this standard of Good, some entity matching perfection to which I think this person fares better than most. I cannot call the scene of a mass homicide beautiful, nor can I call Adolf Hitler good. And I am not alone in this; within each of our minds there is an inherent understanding of an objective standard: No sane person would call touching a hot stove good, nor would they call jabbing a toothpick underneath their toenail a beautiful experience. We each appeal to these entities – Beauty and Good, which I think can be understandably conjoined into the term Perfection – and whenever I make any value judgment whatsoever, I have in the back of my subconscious this ultimate expression of that value by which the subject I am judging must compare. I might not at first understand or be able to vocalize or even express what it is that epitomizes or embodies Perfection, but I know deep down that every single humane person on earth is bound to the same entity (though there might be some discrepancies into things of the subjective taste, such as whether avocados taste good or bad), and so come to the conclusion that there is one ultimate Source by which all things must compare, and with each further deviation from that Source, things become increasingly Ugly (not beautiful) and Bad (not good) – Imperfect.

When you introduce the concept of an Almighty Creator, this conundrum finds its solution, and it is with this in mind that I will begin to make my argument. You see, if we all inherently make value judgments of what is good and what is beautiful, it makes sense that these values were placed in us by our Creator, and that any false sense of beauty or goodness is made understandable by our inability to meet His established standard. For any person adhering to a monotheistic religion in which they believe the world to be governed by an all-powerful deity who rules over and created all things, we find the solution to ultimate expression, and it is to this Source – God – that we must appeal when we are to ask ourselves the questions originally hypothesized: What is art? What is beauty? What is meaning? Does the artist’s intent matter? You see, to us created beings, these answers might only be known by He who created us, for it is He who formulated the laws that govern our very existence.

Speaking from a Judeo-Christian perspective, we need look no further than the first verse of the first chapter of the holy Scriptures. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” reads Genesis 1:1.  As made very clear from the very beginning (literally) of history, we see that God Himself is a Creator – an Artist, an Author – and so must ask ourselves, “If God is our standard-bearer, then how does He answer the questions previously posed?” And we see the answer to the questions as the rest of the chapter unfolds:

1. What is art? As the creation account of Genesis plays out, we see that immediately following God’s acts of creation, He surveys all that He has done and sees that it is “good” (1:4,10,12,18,21,25). Thus, art is defined simply as the act of creation, but there is a stipulation clarified that not all art is “good art.” It does not take much to be an artist, but it takes much to be a good one. When God creates, He is creating art, but He surveys it first before classifying it as “good.”

2. What is beauty? It is in those very comments of goodness that we see Beauty defined before our eyes, because as we have already acknowledged, beauty and art are forever linked and they are closely related to that which is Good. There is no mankind yet born to distort His creation or give vocalized appreciation for it, so as God surveys His inanimate and then animate creation and calls all of it good, He establishes beauty as that which is aligned to meet His design, or to a lesser extent that which points back to Him and reflects His power, His glory, His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Therefore the standard of Beauty is established as the Lord Himself, and everything pointing towards Him has layers of beauty to it, while each thing detracting from His glory must necessarily be considered less beautiful.

3. What is meaning? Meaning is established as the Lord works from day to day, building his masterpiece until He crowns it with His final design. At last the Lord creates man on the sixth day, the pinnacle of all creation and the reason for which the rest of creation was spoken into existence, as demonstrated by His giving of dominion to the man and his bride (1:26,28). We thus see that without man, earth had no meaning, for it was in man’s creation that the rest of creation could be appreciated by beings other than God alone. Meaning is found not in the landscape or the perspective or the background at all, but in the subject matter, for it is in the subject matter that we see the very reason for which the creator began creating, the very thought that brought genesis to the art. Further, the subject matter itself only finds meaning in the artist who created them, as we will see below.

4. Does the artist’s intent matter? We can discuss definitions of art and beauty and meaning easily enough as it is determined from a biblical sense, but all of this is hevel – meaningless, a vapor that passes through your fingers – if the intentions of the artist don’t really matter. When at last the time came for God to create man, we see a statement of purpose proclaimed matter-of-factly: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (1:27). The artist’s intent is thus specified as necessary, because without understanding the intent of the Author, the masterpiece is left without purpose. We see that when the Lord created man, He created man in His image, and so man finds purpose in one thing and one thing alone: reflecting the image of God. When man strays from this image and finds meaning in the things of the flesh, they will often succumb to the same despair as the Teacher: “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). According to the Bible, the artist’s intent not only matters, but it is the most important thing about the entire piece; without understanding the intention of the creator, the creation becomes meaningless, a living masterpiece reduced to a dead piece of aesthetic waste.

It is this very consideration of Genesis 1 that inspired my piece, “The Artist’s Intent,” where I photographed the process of the creation of a painting in which I worked through the six days of creation – from initial darkness to the formation of man and woman. When looked at as a standalone canvas, the piece is up to open interpretation, but it is only when you see the way in which I created it – looking at it step-by-step and comprehending that I formed the man in my own image – that true meaning comes to the piece and true understanding and purpose is comprehended and established. When you separate the Creator from the creation, you are left with the universe as a meaningless entity arriving from nothing, and so our entire human lives are rendered meaningless by proxy – we are the product of random chance, and our lives are without purpose. But if you look to the purpose for which God created, not only do we see that we are of value – the Artist built this entire world for us – but we also gain a sense of purpose: We were created to reflect Him. And so we see the mission of our entire lives. By returning the intent of the Artist to the masterpiece, we find objective purpose and so can interpret this creation with accuracy. When we try to separate masterpiece from master-builder, the handiwork is separated from its source of life and becomes nothing but an empty piece of distorted aesthetic, some mixture between Plato’s “Theory of Forms” and Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose.” When Foucault gets his “Death to the Author,” of course Danto would be correct in promoting art as an open door, because all of a sudden anything and everything is welcome into the classification as art – and good art, at that – and it is not long before everything can be labeled as beautiful, thus diminishing the value of the term and making the very quality meaningless.

If everything is beautiful, the quality of beauty is no longer a positive attribute; if everything is subjective to our own mind, everything is left meaningless; but if objectivity can be found in the universe, then true meaning will be determined when held up to the standard of that objective truth. I will agree with Aquinas and propose that art is defined by those seemingly mystical qualities that point back towards a higher power, a deity who matches our inherent awareness of Perfection. I can come to no other logical conclusion no matter how hard I try.