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Lesson Plans

Re: Meaning/intention

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
R. Moore (ronmoore)
Mon, 1 Mar 1999 15:25:01 -0800 (PST)

Ayesha Jones has written recently to raise the issue of meaning and
intention. She reports that an artist acquaintance dismissed her
question about what he meant by a certain work, saying, in effect, I
intended it to come out the way it did, and I'm happy with it. It doesn't
matter what I meant or what it means. She comments that students
sometimes talk this way too.

Meaning comes into play in these contexts in two ways. First, there is
what a person means in saying or doing this or that. "I meant to pay you
a compliment." Then, there is the meaning that words, pictures, actions,
etc. may have independently of what we mean by them. "That black cloud
means rain." Sometimes it is useful to consider an artwork separately from
what the artist meant, especially if the work may have accreted
significant associations she or he didn't consciously contemplate in
making it. So, for example, in William Blake's Poem "And Did those Feet
in Ancient Time" (in Preface to MILTON), there appears a line that reads
"Among these dark Satanic Mills." Since Blake's time, that line has
become closely associated with the soot-darkened mills that sprang up all
over England during the early Industrial Revolution. But, of course,
Blake could not have meant the line to refer to them because he lived
before the Industrial Revolution. Does the line now MEAN something Blake
didn't mean? It depends on which sense of meaning we have in mind.

I think it's useful to ask students to consider the meaning of poems,
paintings, the Constitution, etc. apart from what their makers meant, and
then ask them whether they would be inclined to change their minds if it
should turn out that the maker actually meant something different. Do
artworks have a life of their own, or is their true meaning the captive of
authorial intent? This is a nice question to raise in class for open
-ended discussion.