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Lesson Plans

Re: meaning/intention (Tediously L o o n n n n g! ;-)

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Henry Taylor (taylorh)
Wed, 17 Feb 1999 21:57:10 -0700

>Certainly artists often are reluctant to talk about what they were
>trying to do, but to say "it doesn't matter" seems strange to me.

I can't say for sure when art ed added verbal skill and articulation to it's
curriculum. I'm imagining with DBAE and maybe in the rare case somewhat
earlier. While there may be a fair amount of this kind of articulation in US
schools today there are still any number of us earlier generationsof artists
for whom being articulate is (or was) the mark of the beast, as it were. Not
really to be aspired to. Hopefully it has been outgrown by a few of us.
(probably one or two of us have even gotten carried away in the attempt)

When someone over twenty five says something, I generally assume a fairly
large and necessary "fudge factor" in understanding. Uncertainty. Still I
can see why an artist might choose to claim that his intentions don't
matter. Several reasons in fact. I still remember a few classes where I
brought up the artist's stated intentions in a heavy discussion only to
experience a professorial shot across the bow to the idea that the artist's
intentions didn't count all that much or that they don't rule out the
validity of counter-intrerpretations.

This made an impression on me at the time to the extent that, for quite a
while, I chose to play with the notion that if my intentions as an artist
WERE so easily dismissed maybe I could get along without them entirely. It
worked. It was fun for a while too.

>First of all, there must be an intention to create something; otherwise why

When a chimp uses a long blade of grass to extract termites from a log
does it intend to create a tool or to acquire yummy termites? The quibble
here would be that the selected straw is "intended" for a purpose. It's a
quibble because we all know that the chimp is interested ONLY in the

Intention is "attached" through an interpretation derived from our culture
and its prefered methods of mentation. (Then of course I've lead you astray
with the unvoiced assumption that this was an "either/or" choice when
nothing requires it. Chimp Noamsky COULD intend both things but practically
speaking, it seems arguable.)

Another point, or actually an extention, should be included here. I can
point at a thing and you can chose, if you wish, to focus your interest on
the pointing finger.

I think I would have the right to argue that, should you do this, you would
be missing my point (no pun intended ;-) and that my finger didn't matter
nearly as much as the phenomenon I was attempting to direct your attention

Our artist may be in just such a situation. He has evoked what he hopes will
be a tasty meal and we keep turning to examine the cookware. Well yeah, the
cook- ware and the recipie were important to the end result but when we get
so excited about the process and we make little or no effort to appreciate
the subtleties the artist has labored on it's a real "downer." When we
choose to do this the artist would seem to have some right to complain that
the artist and the artist's work have been discarded in favor of something
the viewer prefered to engage.

To argue then that the artists work was probably poor for us to have missed
it in favor of something else could be the kind of patriarchal perspective
originally directed at "primitive aboriginal art." A thing appears "naive"
and simple when we fail to grasp its complexities or even the existance of
such complexities.

>Also I would be very surprised if there was not an intention to create some
>reponse or other.

Surprising it may be, but it is possible to imagine another case where an
artist might desire or choose to attempt to avoid thinking in behavioral
"stimulus/ response" terms--even while realizing that, in all probability,
it would be forced upon the work in any case. Certainly, now that I've been
inspired to consider this case I'll examine those possibilities further. It
is an interesting possibility in art. nu? What would such a form of art be

OH! I just remembered a cyber-friend on Artcrit telling me that he makes (or
made) works which he then located in places where he was (as I recall)
fairly sure they would never be encountered (never be experienced or
responded to). (Do you recall it at all, Joseph?)

>Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I am impatient with pure
>self-expression. If it exists, why should I bother with it?

OK. I agree completely, Still if I come upon a tribe of bearded or leotarded
gnomes in black berets and scarves playing bongos and painting naive AbEx in
the wilds of the Central Park Rainforest I may be impatient with their
rituals and ceremonial artifacts, BUT I'll accept that they have a valid if
not interesting to me POV. NO reason for ME to bother with it Still I
recommend it to any who might find it interesting--what THEY produce MAY BE

The uninteresting (to us) parts of the philosophical rainforest may yet
prove fertile to other generations. I tend to think that clearcutting isn't
called for in either the virtual mind of the philosopher or the biological
ecology of the organism.

>If someone wants merely to express himself or herself, why would he or she
>want the work put on display? The act of sharing what one expresses begins
to >be an act of communication---and communication implies some message
>however minimal.

Yes and no. If someone wants merely to express herself she may choose to
display that expression out of sheer cultural convention...everyone knows
that's what you do with a painting or a sculpture after all. Expression
(catharsis?) completed, what next? The fact that the convention is only a
few hundred years old is rarely considered.

In another time and place more practical possibilities could exist for pure
self expression. If we assume that a communication is intended where it
isn't the messages we receive may be appearing out of the pure ether and not
from some transmitter.

Mysterious "ceremonial objects" were probably fraught with meaning and
aspects of shared communication for their creators and their culture. A
modern anthropologist can't find the "frequency" and, try as hard as it
might, the happy object is going to communicate little if anything to the
good doctor. Implied messages may not be recoverable and there remains a
large possibility that the implications we perceive are simply projections
and assumptions.

>There certainly may be artworks that simply produce sensual
>pleasure, but to reduce all art to this is to demean much of human

To reduce ALL art to any condition runs counter to art's robust potential
for divergency and diversity. It would make just as little sense to reduce
"all" art to mere form, or simple function, or to establish it as subject to
an institution. The argument is still made for a universal definition for
art but I find it hard to accept that such perspectives have a significant
future. (Understood as ONE context for approaching art is another thing.
Such arguments meet human needs and retain their role in the larger
diversity that is, or could be, art.)

>To say that we don't have to care about what an artist who
>produces an altarpiece or sand painting or mandala is doing is to ignore
>cultural values as well as individual endeavors.

At the same time, to say that -we MUST care- is to take and prescribe a
singular cultural perspective. Again the problem of universalization... What
was the motto of T.H. White's ants? "Everything not forbidden is mandatory."

What you propose belongs to the -culture- of Humanism I think. Both popular
and powerful, Humanist perspectives have often tended towards universalized
values. Having grown up in a culture formed, in part, around the values of
Humanism I can see much value in it. At the same time I can recognize the
degradation to cultures which has occured where European Humanism has
replaced indigenous understandings.

It is larger than just art and art reaches beyond the artworld.

>I think we go to art for insights that artists have that we think are
valuable to
>"get"---everything from ways of thinking about human relationships to ways
of >thinking how oil paint reveals layers below. Otherwise, why bother?

"We", in general terms, may go for exactly that. But it's a fairly new
approach in the history of things, isn't it? Who's to say how long it will
last? Or what could come next. We can't expect it to continue unchanged. The
odds are against it.
Certainly aspects of much older traditions related to art exist but in
un-assimilated indigenous populations today there is probably a goodly
difference from indigenous populations of 80,000 years ago. Michael Jackson
is every where.

Why "bother" with all that intellection? Because we have learned that it is
enjoyable even "meaningful." Thinking can be entertaining; especially when
so much of the rest of the world is not.

Some paths of the artist lead one to believe that "meaning" can be fairly
arbitrary and relative. NOT a popular thought. When you play with meaning
and ambiguity, when you manage to transform meaning and find a context where
black is equivalent to white (so to speak) the concept of meaning itself
begins to appear to be a rather fragile thing to use as a foundation in
life. It may be the best thing we have, however. maybe. Arbitrary and
relative can be sufficient when it's the best thing going.

Why bother? That's the fascinating question, isn't it? Langer claimed a kind
of horizon, suggesting somewhere that the foundational questions of an era
are roughly answered, end-gamed, and finally abandoned with the appearance
of a "new paradigm" or set of questions, to begin the cycle anew. The answer
to "Why bother?" lies in the discovery of such new questions.

Langer suggested that we were coming up on a new era but had no idea what it
might be. I don't think that it's clear even yet.

Well if you made it this far, you are tenacious! Apologies to all. I just
really can't resist chewing on these things towards a conclusion even if it
isn't likely to be achieved any time soon.