PRINT February 1985


SURELY EVERYBODY KNOWS D.H. Lawrence’s dictum, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” or, to paraphrase for the visual arts, don’t ask the artist to explain the work. Still, I have a sense that in practice critics do this. Sometimes they transpose into their texts, unacknowledged, the contents of direct interviews with the artist; one can occasionally infer the interview from the syntax of the review, or one can think of no other means by which the writer could know such things. More often, the review incorporates hearsay that may or may not be traceable back to the artist. A writer can seem marvelously scholarly on the basis of press releases or background information provided by gallery workers who have gotten their knowledge from the horses mouth. These reviews then become part of the record used in subsequent reviewer’s research. Through this unreliable procedure, used particularly with difficult newcomers who are unknown quantities, the artist’s self-conception often becomes the official “interpretation” of the work. If it hasn’t happened already, someone clever is going to expose what a sham this can be by disseminating deliberately false information.

Shortcuts and hints have their place, but surely there should be some acknowledgement of sources, and maybe modifying criticism of them. It would make readers feel less hopelessly left out of some magic circle wherein everyone knows what’s going on without having to ask. (The ease with which images of esoteric places or personages, even those of the lowest resolution, are unhesitatingly identified is a case in point.) The air of certainty is antithetical to the spirit of critical inquiry, and this is the problem with a focus on the intentions of the artist—the “intentional fallacy.” Critics, studio visitors, gallery viewers are, quite rightly, terrified of the unresolved state of not knowing. They want to heal this wound, vault this gap, as soon as possible. But by short-circuiting the necessarily anxious, time-consuming route to understanding the work for themselves, they forgo the experience of the work altogether. Too fleet an acceptance, too premature a seeking of the artist’s fiat, trivializes the work. Like it or not, as W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Monroe Beardsley pointed out in 1946, the work of art “is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it.”

We shouldn’t put artists in the uncomfortable dilemma of trying to decide what is saying too little, what too much. Are they too dumb or too smart for their own good? It shouldn’t matter one way or the other. For instance, the element of timeliness, of when a work occurs, can raise the interest and metaphysical worth of a work beyond the possibly feeble guidance of its author, who may be trying to fill the needs of the time or may be following a preset, personal course. And, sometimes, bad timing can defeat the most intelligent and ambitious of intentions. That’s life. Such work, sadly, unfairly, has to wait for its opportune moment. It takes patience for the work of art or oeuvre to reveal itself. Many argue that we don’t have time, but not to take time means giving up the experience of dawning perception—the eureka phenomenon—which is what it’s all about. Nelson Goodman calls it “an increase in acuity of insight or range of comprehension,” and insight is self-revelation. No one else can give it to you. And why give up the marvel of changing ones mind on further acquaintance with a work?

On a more practical level, less reliance on the authority of the oracle opens up critical possibilities. Some of contemporary performance, for example, comes out of Allan Kaprow’s suggestions that totally private acts and thoughts can constitute a performance. When both performer and audience are one, there can be no difficulty with the intentional fallacy. But private acts have come to be offered posthumously as public artworks, through photographic or written documentation, and no one in the art world has bothered to question the fidelity of the evidence to the execution. The recent ordeal of Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano is an example. The completion of their period of self-imposed restraints was announced on the television news as I waited for a plane at Kennedy airport. The bare recitation of their intention not to touch for a year although tied together with a rope brought amused chuckles from the audience in the lobby; the assertion that they had successfully completed the task was received with suspicion: “Sure they did.” The point is not whether they did or didn’t do what they said they did. The point is, why not entertain the possibility that they did not? The present art world convention is that whatever the artist says is true, but how much richer, more speculative the discussion if we were less sure of that. I’m not suggesting that we abandon talking to such performers as Hsieh and Montano to find out their version of what happened, and I’m in no way impugning their characters or their reliability as witnesses. But their version of events is just one version, and a skepticism toward their word would cause interpretive possibilities to flower as they did in literature after the unreliable narrator challenged the Victorian omniscient.

There’s a dialectic involved, then, a sort of interstice between origin and effect, that both artist and audience often ignore. From the artists’ standpoint, what they intend is always there. The question is, do other meanings interfere with that intention, is its primacy less than absolute? It can be painful for makers to see their creations misconstrued, in their view, but response is a little like a poll—recurrent misunderstanding can show what kind of “noise,” if any, is interfering with the “message.” If it’s a useful noise, artists may opt to keep it. Or they may decide that the static is in the channel or receiver, not in the message. If people tell you you’re drunk you shouldn’t necessarily lie down. The critic’s abstinence from premature information provided by the artist has an analogue in the artist’s wariness of criticism. If the artist listens too religiously, he or she has no chance to work through a development, and whatever changes are made will never be profound. In a sense, artists have to ignore criticism, because they cannot arm themselves against hearing it and the useful remarks will make themselves felt only when the artist is ready for them. Criticism is not, in general, a way of making art behave. It is, however, crucial to art’s intellectual life.

Avoidance of the intentional fallacy may have gotten a bad name when formalists refused to listen to the Abstract Expressionists’ testimony about the emotional and mythic content of their own paintings. The connotation of “emotion” is surely clear in those works, but the precise kind—anger, sadness, grief—isn’t necessarily. But that just means that one must keep ones eye on the work, return to it for verification after a tour of its ambience. Close peering would have the advantage of fewer generalizations in criticism, fewer judgmental adjectives, and more individuated examination of the individual entries. It’s a hasty misconception that in lieu of judgment there is only description; there is also analysis, explication. Goodman again: “Discovery often amounts not to arrival at a proposition for declaration or defense but to find ing a fit.”

It is not contradictory to deplore the intentional fallacy and still to believe that art is defined as intention, an act of will open to all; nor is that belief threatened by acknowledging the truth of George Dickies institutional theory that “a work of art is art because of the position it occupies within a cultural practice.” The usefulness of Dickies definition is that it allows talk of the role of money, art world politics, and vagabond taste into the dialogue of questions and answers that constitutes the work’s life. The artist’s intention may involve many such factors, but the critic’s job is discovery of it as it survives or is born in the work itself. Lois Oppenheim echoes the phenomenologists’ claim that “art is . . . not an object but an act.” Acts are intended. But in the recovery of the artist’s intention, one both projects parts of ones consciousness onto the work and makes that consciousness accept the points and barbs of an alien mind set, resulting in a third “act” which opens everything up.

The result is that much more food for subsequent development by reader/viewers, and in this sense the critical work too goes out into the world independent of its producer. The fact that it itself is open to debate is a defense against the charge of relativism lodged at “reader-response” theories of criticism. Moreover, it’s possible to let these different gropings show, like pentimenti, in a review or article, which then has the advantage of being honest about its fictitiousness. What the artist says about the work can be, but need not and should not be more than, one of these ghosts.

Jeanne Silverthorne