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Best Intentions

Cyril: “…surely you would acknowledge that Art expresses the temper of its age, the spirit of its time, the moral and social conditions that surround it, and under whose influence [the artist’s] it is produced.”

Vivian: “Certainly not!”


Provocative hyperbole?1  A considered view?  It’s hard to say, but Wilde does repeat the point at still greater length in “The Critic as Artist,” where Earnest and Gilbert are heard to trade fours on the tendency of critics to interpret Art and its mystery into submission, its meaning and value distilled without remainder, its source reduced, managed, rationalized.  Not that Wilde’s intended meaning is in either case any more conclusively clear than is that of his spokesmen, saturated as the exchanges are with irony and ambiguity.  But in keeping with his penchant for paradox, Wilde is arguably unfazed by the indeterminacy—he certainly seems to be less so than we are.  Determined to interpret our art, to reveal its secrets, indeed to make it mean in full, we would appear to be keen as can be about identifying not only an artwork’s meaning but the extent to which its source lies with its author’s intentions or social conventions.

Which frankly is fine as far as it goes.  After all, who among us doesn’t want in on what a work of art is about or what it is that makes it tick?  And who among us isn’t disposed to admit that that being so, intention matters, and necessarily?2 In fact viewed from this height, the radical ideologically charged anti-intentionalism of, say, Barthes (for whom the author is, as it were, “less writer than written”) or Foucault (for whom the “authored-text is dead, or should be”)3 might seem somewhat beside the point.  At issue isn’t whether intention matters (though of course outside Art there is the dreamer’s dream, the meaning of which is surely devoid of intention); given that inside Art it is thought to count, at issue is only how much, where and why (it is, after all, a work of art).  And holding the far side of this side of the field is the other extreme, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’ almost infamous anti-“theory” thesis, the thrust of which is that when it comes to critically interpreting artworks, the amount intention is to count is entire, such that to interpret a text is to have at what it means, and what a text means and what its author intends it to mean are “inseparable,” indeed “identical.”4 Needless to say, within certain circles (anxious about pluralism, truth, and the like) the thesis they advance—call it intentionalism—has been something of a lightening rod.  And yet in capable hands their argument for it has barely survived being struck—witness for one among others G. Wilson’s sustained short-circuiting of it.5 But if their argument for it hasn’t delivered, the thesis has nonetheless endured––if not as a default for fixing meaning, then as a touchstone for doing so.  And so by way of both setting our panel’s bearings and inching our way toward the middle from the margins the thesis calls home, what could perhaps bear review is the sense in which the thesis itself (generically speaking, as it were, and so before argument for it even begins) is suspect from the start.  Granted that the artist’s intention is a necessary source of meaning,6 alone it would hardly seem to suffice, either philosophically (semantically) or practically (critically).  Indeed, intentionalism so construed seems to be as counter-intuitive as it is contrary to fact; and below, in an effort less to prove the point than to fix ideas some, I briefly highlight why.

That though is only the half of it.  For there is reason to think that even if the thesis isn’t entirely off, its raison d’être might depend on a further, questionable assumption (often shared by the intentionalist and anti-intentionalist alike):  namely, that the fundamental task of interpretation is the pursuit of meaning, along with the corollary that the artwork aimed at has a meaning or set of meanings that’s there to be had, indeed had at.  Such an assumption, however, hardly deserves a bye, and it’s worth reviewing why, as it isn’t inconsequential.  Meaning, no less than intention, matters.  But to the extent it isn’t all or above all what interpretation, indeed appreciation, of an artwork aims at, or is in any event of a different, less linguistic order than those in search of it tend to suppose, then, their intentions notwithstanding, in a relevant sense both intentionalism and the do-or-die debate about it might not be all that any more than where it’s at.  Despite the urgency the issue has enjoyed, there might be more to meaning, on the one hand, and more to interpretation, on the other.  Indeed there’s a sense in which if broadly enough construed, our critical aim and interest in a work of art as the work of art it is shades from what goes by the name interpretation into a practice better billed as appreciation.7 Or so there’s reason to think.

That said, neither half of my brief pretends to break new ground, let alone to be the last word.  But given the attention the topics of intention and interpretation continue to command, along with the stream of increasingly sophisticated accounts that ceaselessly pour forth, either part might provide a welcome tonic.  Part One focuses on the alleged source of meaning (intention).  Part Two takes up the ostensible aim of interpretation (meaning).  In no case do I pretend to be comprehensive, exhaustive or definitive.



“Only—only art you can control.  Art and masturbation.”

 What then is—or rather, isn’t—the proper characterization of the nature of the relationship between meaning and intention?  In its most radical incarnation, that of Knapp and Michaels, the intentionalist thesis holds that as a matter of principle “What a text means and what its author intends it to mean are identical,” such that the source of a text’s meaning lies wholly in its author’s intention, which is nothing less than necessary and sufficient.  Moreover, to the extent that the distinction between “textual meaning” and “authorial meaning” that the thesis challenges is assumed to be an instance of the distinction between sentence meaning and speaker meaning, the thesis would appear to be buoyed by an implied structural parallel between sentence meaning and speaker meaning in conversation, on the one hand, and what a “text” means and what an artist meant, on the other.  If so, then taken together, the thesis seems to hold that from the start one should take an author-constructed text as a speaker-performed speech-act, and that with regard to the artwork’s meaning the amount intention is to count is entire—that not only the sentence meaning but the utterance meaning too is the utterer’s without remainder.  But then the thesis appears to be off from the first, and on each of two fronts.

First, authoring and interpreting a text or a work would appear to be activities different in kind from grasping a speaker’s meaning in (or the meaning of) a conversation (Lamarque, 128-9). As a matter of course, texts (including works)8 are not met the way we meet participation in conversation; they aren’t expected to engender that kind of response or to kindle that kind of interest, even if we do sometimes speak metaphorically of keeping company with a text as we do with a friend.  Nor on the other side do conversationalists typically jump in on a conversation prepared to interpret what they hear or to have deciphered what they say.  When Joan Rivers barks “can we talk?” she isn’t hurting for a hermeneutic.  In fact the conceit behind her bit that gives it bite is our shared assumption that—the “chitless” chat of an Ionesco play withstanding—in common conversation meaning is as a matter of course grasped without the toil of interpretation.  Common parlance is predicated on the very trust and transparency a text or its interpretation often lacks.

Second, and more important (as well as complained about):  even if the postulated parallel is granted a pass, the thesis that authorial/speaker intention is the necessary and sufficient source of the meaning of a work effectively collapses the distinction between speaker meaning and sentence meaning.  Nor could it be otherwise, if, as the intentionalist thesis holds, we’re never to speak of a case of “intentionless meaning.”  For as Lamarck among others reminds us, as much implies that for something to count or ever have counted as an intelligible, grammatical phrase in a language, an agent with an intention must have already produced it.  That though strains credulity, as it’s far from plain how speakers/authors/artists could ever manage to converse, convey or connote without presupposing shared, publicly accepted linguistic or artistic conventions that frame and inform the aims and interests of private intention (Lamarque, 119-25). To think otherwise is not only to saddle oneself with the similar sort of problems that plague a naïve expression theory of art9; it is as Alice observes, to fall prey to Humpty-Dumpty’s “way” of making meaning, wherein one can by fiat mean anything (and so nothing) at all.  Of course, merely pointing this out doesn’t yet disprove the thesis any more than one disproves the possibility of a private language.  But then is proof actually called for?  As even those inclined to fly the flag of a kinder, gentler intentionalism will admit, the objection as it stands is already pretty much “fatal,”10 given the radical result that follows from adopting a thesis that effectively undoes the necessary conditions for the possibility of a public language.

In any case, lethal or not, this much is certain:  the burden of proof surely rests on the shoulders of the intentionalist.  Then again, face to face with a reductio of this degree, advocates of intentionalism might well wish to modify their take and embrace a more moderate thesis, say, one that acknowledges the role of both intention and convention in the making of meaning, just as we do I should think with instances of irony.  Except of course that they (i.e., those on the fringe) can’t, for to go in for moderation is as the more moderate admit to allow that authorial authority isn’t all:  that the source of meaning isn’t the author’s or artist’s alone and that some sort or degree of non-intentional or conventional source of meaning is a possibility—in short, that the allegedly inseparable is separable.  And then the jig is up, for now the role authorial intention plays is at best only necessary, not sufficient.

So much, then, for semantics—not because there isn’t more to say (of course there is!), but because for our purposes enough has been said to draw out how far from center the thesis is.  That though still leaves untouched the practical domain of criticism, to wit: whatever might be, philosophically, are we on-the-ground interpreters even disposed to take “a text [to] mean what its author intends it to mean,” no more and no less?

It’s hard to see how.  Nor to see why, as Gregory Currie observes, do we need to make the proposed discrepancy depend on first drawing a contrast “between what an artist means and what a work means” (as that might be thought to beg the question).  Insofar as the artist/author can mean something other than what he intended to mean, a contrast can be drawn “between what the author intended the work to mean and what the work does mean” —just as we often observe to be the case in common-life when one’s intentions veer off track and one’s words or actions are made to mean other than what one intended:  hailing a cab when waiving goodbye—or more awkwardly still, asking, in Cuenca, “tiene huevos?” with the intention of ordering brunch, yet challenging your waiter’s manhood.11 To be sure, to understand or explain the attempted act (or utterance) as a failure we almost without fail need to take into account the agent’s (or utterer’s) intentions.  After all, the two are causally related.  Moreover, our ordinary understanding of action in intentional terms is so conventionally entrenched that we’re from the first disposed to describe the actions themselves in terms of intention—just as we are and so do with artworks.  (It is not just a grid of shapes and colors:  it’s “facile” or “forced.”)  But then, none of this is in dispute.  The point is only that as a matter of fact what one does can mean other than what one intended.

Nor should the intentionalist contest this.  Except of course that again those on the far side must—not because they’re blind to the fact that intentions sometimes fail, but because by hypothesis they can’t admit that the act or utterance can legitimately mean other than what was intended.  For to admit that is to admit a discrepancy, and to admit a discrepancy is, as above, to open up a space their thesis aims to close and indeed depends upon having closed.  Yet as with much else, here too closure proves elusive.  Even if it’s allowed that the interpretive quest for meaning is as they say a quest for what the author/artist means, that quest is surely more accurately construed as a quest for what the author/artist “did in effect mean,” and not for what she merely intended to mean (Currie, 299). Which obviously allows that our agent may have “intended one thing but achieved another.”12 Or alternatively, both:  she may have achieved more than just what she intended, the result of which may be an act or work that draws in different directions.

So for one observed Proust, when the likes of Swann or Saniette went into society, leading Robert Pippin to remind us that, “the public deed cannot be said to be exclusively owned by the subject, to have meaning that the subject insists on.  It is ‘up for grabs’ in a certain sense.  One’s self-image becomes a social fact through action, and its meaning can then no longer be tied to the intention or will of the agent alone.”13 It’s no less so with regard to the making and meaning of art than in the living of life.  An unaccomplished composer intends to score an ennobling piece yet by “external” standards writes a corny composition, inviting us to ask, who correctly understands what it means:  the performer who, failing to hear the pretense, performs the piece naively, or he who sends it up?14

The prospect of dealing with collaborative art forms compounds only further this potential divergence, between an intended and effected meaning.  Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are a case in point.  As the film critic Robin Wood once observed, at the limit these are authored “works in which the drive toward the ordering of experience has been visibly defeated” such that “ultimately, they are works that do not know what they want to say”—though they and their author(s) do still say and arguably mean something, albeit something that, for example, in the case of Taxi Driver, “fails to establish a consistent… attitude to the protagonist.”15 In the case of Taxi Driver this can be traced to “the Scorsese/Schrader collision,” which Wood provocatively casts as a contest between a “liberal humanist” and a “quasi-Fascist.”  Wood’s dig notwithstanding, it takes little to see that his larger point can be generalized across any and all forms of collaborative art, from the staging of Graham’s Night Journey to the erecting of Santiago de Compostela, from assembling the Septuagint bible to who does what and when in Rembrandt’s studio.  In each case, successfully bringing it off depends on a minimum amount of shared cooperative activity that may go unrealized when intentions conflict.  And then what?  “Whose intention,” asks Berys Gaut, “is supposed to determine the meaning?” (Gaut, 158). Worse, what if none is successfully realized—if all, as it were, are tied for last place?  Are we, standing in the shadow cast by the unhappily erected “Freedom Tower,” New York’s latest monument to defeated interests and deflected intentions, going to say that it by default is devoid of meaning?  Or consider Wagner, whose latter, metaphysically pessimistic self wanted the Ring to go in a way that his former, politically optimistic outlook wouldn’t allow, the libretti having been published before he had read Schopenhauer and before composing most of the music.  The result: an unresolved divergence between Wagner’s conscious intentions at different times, and between these and his artistic achievement—which to many aficionados succeeds despite the fact that, indeed because, his intentions didn’t prevail.  Yet are we again to insist that this too is a work that is therefore lacking in meaning?  Surely this is too counter-intuitive a conclusion to sanction in the name of preserving a critical identity between meaning and intention.  Surely it’s truer to say that in art as in life intentions can be defeated or deflected and unintended yet meaningful features inflected or instantiated, whether to no good end, as in the infamous pas de deux performed by Norman Mailer and Rip Torn in Maidstone, or more respectably as in Rashomon, which, as Gaut reports, Kurosawa expressly intended to be about moral degradation yet which is legitimately and almost universally read in terms of the relativity-of-truth theme.16

Finally, it would be remiss not to note that it isn’t just academics and critics at pains to entertain such claims.  Artists too are in on it—and not just because it’s understood that intentions can conflict or be deflected or defeated.  Also in view are the earlier alluded to conditions for the possibility of making meaning, of making the artwork mean—including that of the robust role convention plays in doing so.

To cite just one abbreviated example: the combined point is given dramatic expression in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, which can be read as articulating a general dilemma faced by the artist concerning the making of meaning, while at the same time representing his inability to resolve the very issue it raises (in this case, the extent to which he qua artist depends on the “external” conventions of genre and closure).  Intent on making a meaningful film, the protagonist, Sandy (Woody Allen), is manifestly compromised if not paralyzed by his express sense that the necessary conventions of genre and closure that undergird the possibility of comedy and drama in general are outmoded, even bankrupt.  Balking at Sandy’s subsequent attempt to resolve his dilemma by willfully resigning himself to a contrived and overly sentimental ending, Allen, the director of this film about the making of a film, does Sandy only barely better by “pulling back” from Sandy’s ending, cinematically revealing it to be but one of many generic possibilities.  Yet in this, Allen, far from resolving the dilemma, manages only to assert his own artistic will and presence in the face of frustration—which as it happens is as it should be, given that Memories makes manifest the extent to which tradition and convention delimit the artist’s ability to do or mean what he will.  Indeed Allen underscores the thematic insight by having an upset Sandy ironically ridicule the illusion of thinking otherwise: “Only art you can control,” says Sandy, only “art and masturbation,” an equivalence that in the context of the film ties onanism to the ideal of an autonomous or controlled site of meaning-making on the part of the artist (a practice, by the bye, that in Hannah and Her Sisters Allen characterizes as the cause of nothing less than infertility, artistic no less than biological).  Not that we need to go so far as to tie “hardcore intentionalism” to hardcore onanism.  In any case, Sandy has already done so; and given the role of his remark across the broader bent of Allen’s film, so has Memories.  That leaves only us to weigh in.  Yet who among us would deny that the artist is any less at the mercy of the conventions and traditions in which he works than the masturbator is at the mercy of her fantasy, with all its attendant tropes, motifs and genres, to say nothing of the overriding sense of an ending fueled by a narrative desire in which she and it together share?  We might even go on to note that in a sense we wouldn’t in fact want it any other way.  For who among us would wish to deny that at the phenomenological level artworks, or at least those such as films, like dreams and the fantasies that serve them, derive a share of the intensity of their meaningfulness from their impersonality, i.e., from their not being grounded merely in the intentions of those who make or have them?

I don’t of course suppose that pointing out as much goes anywhere towards determining what, when that critical issue is joined, the appropriate balance of intention and convention is.17 But to prescribe a standard of arbitration isn’t the present point.  The point, by way of Sandy’s and Allen’s example, is simply that if neither one is in complete control of his life or his art (or his dreams), that’s because neither one is the sole source—in fact or in principle—of the making or the meaning of either.  Which against the above backdrop of the rest is just to suggest, albeit more provocatively than syllogistically, whether we’re talking sex or text, wishes or works, intention alone won’t make.18



Mother: “What does it [A Season in Hell] mean?”

Rimbaud: “It means what it says, literally and in every sense.”


I turn now from consideration of the alleged source of meaning (intention) to an equally rich and open-ended issue, the ostensible aim of interpretation (meaning).  Given the debate above, intentionalists (and perhaps nonintentionalists too) would seem to assume that the fundamental task of interpretation is the pursuit of meaning—indeed it is presumably upon this assumption that the high-pitched search to identify its source is predicated.  But now, what if as critics meaning isn’t all or only or even mainly what we’re legitimately after—or in any case is of a different order than is often assumed by those who make so much of it?  What if as readers and viewers and listeners what it is to meet and appreciate a work of art as the work of art it is outruns what interpretation so construed can afford?  Note that to ask as much is not to imply that meaning doesn’t matter any more than it is to be “against” interpretation.19 It is, however, to invite reconsideration of what is broadly in play when we take to a work of art as the work of art it is.  It is to wonder whether, narrowly construed, meaning isn’t all or above all what interpretation of an artwork aims at; or, when construed more broadly, whether our critical interest in a work doesn’t shade from interpretation into an activity better billed as appreciation, the focus of which is less on getting a meaning out of the work and more on what about the work we’re into demands and rewards our attention.20 But lest we rush to judge, let’s look and see.

Is a search for meaning—what it is, where it’s located and how it’s best obtained—the most compelling way to characterize the nature and aim of interpretation?  Put more pointedly, to what extent does it even make sense to ask what Jules et Jim or One Train Hides Another, let alone Where (by Morris Louis) means?  To be sure, a particular passage or progression (where we can appeal to speaker, sentence or utterance meaning) might well be asked about in this vein.  And then of course in many works there is the thematic play of ideas to speak of: no one thinks Wagner’s Ring is lacking in meaning, still less that its meaning doesn’t matter, least of all to its music.  But the work—let alone a nonliterary or nonrepresentational work—as a whole?  What does the phrase “the meaning of the work” literally even pick out?

The presumption behind such a search has at least to be the idea that an artwork has not only a meaning but a less than limpid one it stands to communicate and that an interpretation aims to render.  Never mind for now which one of the many possible meanings of “meaning” might here be being specified—we’ll come back to that below.  Insofar as the artwork’s purported meaning is construed as something analogous to a communiqué the artist (or her culture) has by way of the work consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly “sent,” if not “said,” it follows that the interpreter’s role, indeed goal, must be to “grasp” it.  Let’s say it is.  In what might grasping consist?  According to a skeptical Susan Sontag, it consists in “translation,” as in “Look, don’t you see that X is really—or, really means—A”21; and the contemporary film-theorist, David Bordwell, more or less agrees: “to interpret a film” (at least a narrative fiction film) is to move “beyond” mere “comprehension” of the “explicit” or “literal meaning” of its story “to ascribe implicit or symptomatic meanings to it.”22 Put one more way, to interpret is to render two different expressions identical in meaning: the artwork’s covert or indirect “message” and the critic’s re-articulation or explication of it.

Can this be done?  Not of course according to the old-school Oxbridge view of Bradley23 and Collingwood.24 And on the current front, Peter Lamarque more or less concurs, arguing for a version of form/content unity that puts the breaks on the prospects of paraphrase and the like.25 The details though need not detain us.  Suffice it to say that if they’re at end right it would mean that the quest to interpret qua grasp the meaning of an artwork, at least as Sontag and Bordwell construe the endeavor, would be off from the start, thereby obviating their respective complaints about interpretation.  But given its staying power, let’s say it isn’t yet off.  Let’s say it can be done, if only in principle.  Ought the interpretive quest, so construed, be pursued?

It might be thought that to venture forth in this vein is off from the start insofar as it risks treating an artwork along the lines of a problem it is the “translator’s” task to solve.  But what of it?  Don’t artists often take their art as the creative resolution to an aesthetic challenge?  Think for example of the neoclassical hurdles Balanchine’s Apollo aimed to clear and the levels of invention involved in his doing so.  Nor is dance the only instance.  If we’re to believe the likes of Greenberg (for whom the aim of art is aesthetic autonomy), let alone Danto (for whom the end of art is nigh), isn’t the entire arc of Modern or modernist art best understood as a problem in search of a solution or developmental conclusion?

Perhaps.  But even if for artists artworks are partly solutions to problems, as a matter of course—as a categorial matter—when artists present their works as works of art the expectation is that they’ll be attended to as such, and not in the first or last instance as puzzles solved.  Put another way, how an artist creates is one thing, what her creation might mean and how we might meet it is another.  Or so suggests experience.  When admiring Giotto’s The Massacre of the Innocents, or if lucky, how it hangs next to Bruegel’s and Rubens’s, are you given to regard it or its companions as a cipher the solving of which is your interpretive aim or end—say, in the vein in which you take to or on a Will Shortz?26 Indeed, are you inclined to read a Conan-Doyle caper in the investigative way Holmes sniffs out the overlooked clues of a homicide, or the way Le Carré has Smiley decode communiqués from Karla, his communist nemesis?  If you don’t meet these works this way—wherein their (aesthetic) success as the works they are is partly a function of their ability to get the reader to track if not solve a mystery—why would one think that this is primarily what the likes of Clark does when interpreting a painting by Courbet, or Perkins does when interpreting a film by Ophuls, let alone what we do with what they’ve done?  To be sure, we, like they, may rightly try to detect in an artwork its formal and generic features, historical norms, not to mention whatever trends it may be trying to buck, and whatever thematic reading it might invite, all of which encourages and requires on our part an active disposition to investigation.  But to let this part speak for the whole is surely to let our inner detective loose to take the lead, and so to address a work we intend to interpret not as an achievement to be appreciated in a certain sort of way, given the kind of thing (qua artwork) it is,27 nor as occasioning an appropriate experience to be undergone, again, given the kind of work it is and so in light of the sort of relationship it commands.28 Instead, it is to treat a work more as if it were first and foremost like a puzzle or problem to be solved—or in a related metaphor of Bordwell’s, as if the work were “a container into which the artist has stuffed meanings for the perceiver to pull out”; or to put it one more way, as if it were a stratified text “with layers or deposits of meaning” for the interpreter-as-archeologist with his eyes on the prize to extract, grasp, perhaps unmask (Bordwell, 2).

Whichever image we prefer, what’s important here is the extent to which artworks are at risk of being construed as nuts to be cracked (alas, another metaphor!) and interpretation in turn as having as its aim the recovery or translation or inferred ascription of the artwork’s implicit or symptomatic meaning.  Jim Elkins once speculated that what occasions what he claims is this all-too-modern tendency to dig deep is an anxiety pictures in particular if not art (including nonrepresentational art) in general have come to provoke, a primary sign of which is our tendency to see their instantiations “as things that pose questions and require solutions,” what Elkins in turn diagnoses as our “concerted resistance to [their] non-linguistic nature.”29

Along with the evidence he cites, one more sign that Elkins is on to something is how well it dovetails with reasons why the intention issue from above has held such sway.  For that debate’s raison d’être is the headlong identification of an artwork’s meaning—be its base authorial or cultural, psychoanalytic or Marxist, etc.  Nor would just any meaning of “meaning” appear to be in play.  Given that an artwork is thought to come more or less encoded and so to require “translation” (let alone “excavation”), the meaning of “meaning” in play would seem to be linguistic, as if the meaning of an interpreted artwork were being modeled on that of an utterance, the meaning of which is, at least according to intentionalists, determined by the utterer-artist’s intentions.30 So it is that Wilson charges Knapp and Michaels with tying what a text or work may be said to mean “too closely” with one such variety of meaning (namely, speaker-meaning).  And more recently, Berys Gaut has gone beyond Wilson to apply the charge to intentionalism in general, contending that the meaning of “meaning” being assumed is “semantic.”31 For his part, Bordwell goes further still, attributing the source of the trouble to interpretation as such, insofar as it “is accomplished by assigning one or more semantic fields to a film” or text, where “a semantic field” is understood to be “a set of relations of meaning between conceptual or linguistic units” (Bordwell, 249). It bears noting, in passing, that Wilson regards Bordwell as being as mistaken as Knapp and Michaels insofar as he too looks “to ‘meanings’ in linguistic contexts as models” of “what it is that interpretation explicates.”32 But never mind that for now.  Given the pedigree of the common charge about how meaning is being construed, let’s accept it (the charge) and ask in turn the more pressing question it invites: why think of meaning in this (linguistic) way?  Indeed, why think of interpretation as aiming at or beholden to this view of meaning?

If “meaning” is used to cover a range of diverse phenomena wider than the semantic sort being supposed, then it surely begs the question to assume (a) that what an artwork is about is what it means, and what it means is what it can be said to express linguistically, and (b) that linguistically construed meaning is that which interpretation aims to explicate.  As has by now been long acknowledged, there are other possible meanings of “meaning,” from Grice’s “natural meaning” (i.e., causal relations between, say, clouds and rain, fire and smoke) to the meaning of an historical event (the repeal of Glass-Steagall) to the meaning of marriage (including my marriage), to the meaning of her blanch or his blush.  To wit: might artworks, let alone movements (e.g., Cubism:  what does Cubism mean?), have meaning or mean if at all in ways other than linguistic?  And if so, what bearing might this have on how we construe the nature and aim of their interpretation?  Indeed, might what we call interpretation of a work’s meaning (broadly construed) begin to shade into something more along the lines of what Lamarque and others label “appreciation” of what the work achieves?

It’s against both a linguistic construal of meaning and an “excavationist” take on interpretation that V. F. Perkins once pointedly asked: when it comes to interpreting artworks such as narrative fiction films, “Must we say what they mean?”33 On the face of it, this may sound like a second helping of Sontag.  But Perkins isn’t running down the “hypertrophy of the intellect” or espousing an “erotics of art,” hedonic or no; above all, he isn’t against interpretation: far from it.  In fact his question is posed in reply to Bordwell, Sontag’s heir, who, as noted above, is against it.  Perkins’ answer: if “saying” means distilling or unmasking, then saying what they mean we must only if it is assumed that for a work of art to mean it necessarily expresses, implies, or somehow comes to signify some such propositional content, and then that as interpreters getting at it is our goal.  But why think that?  Why think the aim and object of interpretation is the cognitive appraisal of propositions?  We don’t do so outside art.  If a friend feels her professional life is meaningless, isn’t she off to think it’s so because its underlying propositional content is dark?  Does she even see through to a propositional content of which to speak?

Near the end of Stardust Memories, a by-now all but out-of-control Sandy throws down a litany of “unanswerable” queries about the presence of evil and absence of God to a crew of extraterrestrials in a vein attempt to locate the meaning of life.  To which they reply, “These are the wrong questions,” in fact the wrong outlook: other things being equal, meaning isn’t an answer, and life isn’t a problem.  “Want meaning?” they deride the stricken director of comedy: “Tell funnier jokes.”  The punch line notwithstanding, the apparent point is that in trying to assess or make sense of his life or the episodes in it, Sandy seems to expect to have revealed some subterranean, propositional content that it or they are supposed to express or imply or come to signify.  But as the aliens object, these are the wrong expectations.  As many philosophers have long argued in one or another way, it would be truer to say that what he (Sandy) really wants is to “grasp” an intelligible unity to things, to identify a proper pattern of understanding, a story if you will, that orders the whole—in this case, his romantic life or the arc of his artistic endeavors.34 Put another way: what he really wants revealed, as it were, is not the implicit meaning his life possesses—it’s not a linguistic nugget he can quarry that he’s after.  What he really wants made manifest is what his life’s interest and value is, in light, say, of understanding certain rhymes and repetitions, contradictions and configurations, as observed from a moral or aesthetic or psychoanalytic standpoint.

Might we say the same of art?  If life can be interpreted as having meaning (in the sense of making sense) without having a meaning (the way a sentence does), might the same or something similar be said of a work of art?  No doubt it’ll depend in part on the type in question.  At the limit, Zappa’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” might (the snow notwithstanding) prove as resistant to being-made-sense-of as has the plotless Agon.  So say to hand is a more handsome type of work the experience of which invites being made sense of, for example, Wagner’s Ring (where the concepts of text and music are woven into one), or if we’re to stick to cinema, a narrative fiction film, in which a more or less coherent narrative stretch serves as the site for dynamic human relationships to play out.  Then, writes Perkins, what’s called for is a conception of interpretation the range of which extends not only beyond a semantic paradigm of meaning but beyond “a view of the interpreting critic as a propounder of hidden…meanings held to be ‘implicit’ or ‘symptomatic’” (Perkins, “Must We Say,” 6).  What’s needed is a conception in which “a prime task of interpretation is to articulate in the medium of prose some aspects of what artists have made perfectly and precisely clear in the medium of film” (Perkins, “Must We Say,” 4).  He exemplifies the point with a scene35 from Max Ophuls’ Caught (1949):  “The camera cannot directly show what is in Leonora’s mind, but her aims and feelings are as much part of the narrative of Caught as the fact that she is sitting in a millionaire’s car.  The meanings…are neither stated nor in any special sense implied.  They are filmed.  Whatever else that means…it means they are not hidden behind the film” (Perkins, “Must We Say,” 4).  Not hidden?  Not stated?  Not implied?  Then at least in cases such as this, whatever one’s favorite critical stance—from intentionalist to constructivist—why construe interpretation as aiming to grasp or unmask an implied or symptomatic, above all propositional, meaning that isn’t already in view?

But then what are we doing—what sort of explanation are we aiming to articulate when we talk of interpreting what the artist has done in the given medium of the moment?  Say we’re still with Caught, accompanied now by a copy of Film as Film in hand.  Watching it we might recall Perkins’ oft-quoted “‘How’ is ‘What’” chapter:  “Our understanding and judgment of a movie…will depend” not on making film become a “substitute for speech, a translation of verbal statements”; it will depend “largely on the attempt to comprehend the nature and assess the quality of its created relationships” as “seen in its organization.”36 What counts as “created relationships”?  In his own attempt to get at in what interpretation consists, Wilson (building on Perkins, in opposition to Bordwell) includes everything the work does or has going on, from dramatized narrative relationships between characters to the epistemic relationships of narration to the formal and tonal relationships of style, all of which are internal to if not “implicit” in the film (or if implicit, then merely so in the context of the given fictional narrative).37 In other words, on the alternative construal being sketched, an interpretation that aims broadly at making sense of a unified work as a whole need not be about getting at a meaning, let alone a meaning that lies beneath or below (over and above) the artwork—i.e., any more than making sense of an agent or her actions requires peeling away the visible layers to get to the “core” of her character.  If anything, what we’re aiming at might best be described as more along the lines of a work’s “global meaning”––and surely that which is global isn’t to be tapped the way things in it are.

There is, however, room to go further still.  For once we’ve graduated to talk of “global meaning” and all that it amounts to, we may in a “how”-is-“what” vein begin to wonder whether the interpretive center of gravity hasn’t shifted from a concern with or search for meaning and toward the cultivation of significantly conventionalized critical modes of aesthetic appreciation.  Inevitably this may sound highfalutin, but from Perkins’ and Wilson’s standpoint all that’s in view are those modes of understanding that, given the appropriate kind of artwork, might, for example, focus on the ins-and-outs of narrative and narration, or more broadly, the ways and means of tone, style, genre, and prosody.  Indeed an ability to describe how these sorts of features hang together, and so how they contribute to making an artwork such as a film affect us, is a large part of what getting a handle on it involves.  If we must, we can call this kind of understanding of it the interpretation of the meaning of the work.  But given how broad that notion must be in order to accommodate what goes into making sense of a work such as a film like Caught, it seems almost misleading to speak of analysis of these features or the patterns of organization to which it gives rise as amounting to what we as a matter of course have in mind when we speak of “meaning,” including “work-meaning” or “global-meaning” (and least of all, “utterance meaning”).  At best talk of meaning seems to be functioning here as a placeholder for “how” is “what,” and beyond that, to invoke the idiom almost seems out of place.

Rohmer’s Contes moraux and Comédies et proverbs are a case and point.  Far from their meaning being anywhere near of the moment, their critical draw has of late been cashed out by Lamarque and Goldie in terms of—brace yourself—their mode of “whimsicality.”38 In what does whimsicality consist?  Apparently not in anything propositional or anything implicit (i.e., hidden).  Then again, why would it be?  Replying to his critics in a Perkins-like vein, Rohmer himself writes of his films: “What I say, I do not say with words, I do not say it with images either…After all, I do not say, I show.”39 What does Le Genou de Claire show?  Not some meaning qua message.  It arguably shows…whimsicality.  It arguably “‘shows’ a sumptuous, dream-like, whimsical world of summer, holidaying, beautiful scenery, overlaid with a powerful erotic charge”.  Nor should this, its whimsicality, be thought “reducible to plot or character or setting or dialogue, but providing a unity to these.”  For whimsicality is a kind of “gestalt quality”, which its advocates describe as associated with the world Rohmer’s protagonists inhabit.  It is, they add, a fragile sentiment at the heart of which is an “innocence or love of innocence” (one resistant if still vulnerable to sentimentality or cynicism), an expressive quality arising out of the “cinematic techniques of naturalistic simplicity” on the one hand and an absence of “post-modernist self-consciousness” on the other.

Whether or not one agrees with this interpretive take is beside the point.  What’s important is the extent to which, in an effort to make comprehensive sense of the film and our experience of it, talk of meaning has been more or less superceded, foregrounding instead the significance of style and tone and the complex ways the film’s web of relationships and ordered patterns operate.  And it’s with this in mind that one might begin to wonder to what extent talk about what the meaning of the movie is, as I say, in any but the broadest sense secondary (I don’t say marginal), perhaps giving way in turn to a critical concern with what might be characterized as an “appreciation” of the film’s aesthetic purpose or achievement: with what and how it’s trying to do or be more than say or mean.40

But even if one isn’t yet ready to go so far, even if this—its whimsicality—is as it were said somehow to be the meaning of the movie, that should not be thought to issue in a meaning that the movie can be said to contain, let alone one in the form of a proposition.  The notion of meaning in play must as we’ve seen be broader—perhaps at the limit better construed as containing (thus the notion “global”) rather than being contained.  Nor should we suppose that an interpretation in which a narrower notion of meaning isn’t uppermost must in turn be limited to foregrounding what might be pegged as “merely” gestalt-like properties such as whimsicality (legitimate though these are).  In complex films and the like there are still other concerns, including structural ones, to fix on.  So it is with questions concerning point of view, as in: How is it that we know what is going on in the world of a film?  How is it that the film structures its subject and controls our access to information about that world?  What assumptions must we implicitly make about the medium to understand a narrative film of this rather than that sort?  And what does its exemplification of its means and modes of narration—its manipulation of point of view—tell us about the character of our ordinary perceptual interaction with the world or our habits of involvement in classical film narration?41 To focus on such questions is not to be deaf or blind to what a narrative fiction film might be about, thematically or otherwise; on the contrary, to attend to them can help on just this front, as for instance doing so does in Wilson’s “reading” of Lang’s You Only Live Once.  Nor, relatedly, does lighting on them imply upgrading form at the expense of content—as if the two weren’t mutually interdependent and it weren’t wished that every work could “only connect” form and theme the way the best of Forster’s do.  What it is to make such questions central is as above to shift one’s focus from an interpretive quest for anything short of “global meaning” (be it linguistic or implied, revealed or symptomatic) to something more along the lines of an appreciation of the film’s aim and achievement, from its inner construction and internal coherence to its particular embodiment of narrative possibilities and techniques, patterns and unities, an appreciation of which is part and parcel of (and indeed, corroborated by) the intellectual and experiential rewards such works afford.42

Needless to say, the above is but the barest outline of an alternative way to characterize the aim and endeavor of what is commonly called interpretation.  But by way of leaving off and pointing forward, it is worth recalling how typical we in fact take that aim and endeavor to be.  After all, insofar as our sustained interest in artworks as artworks typically derives primarily from what they are or do, over what they say or mean (in any but the most diffuse or global sense), to speak of interpretation as aiming at an artwork’s meaning seems, as I say, more a manner of speaking.  It seems truer to say that our overriding critical interest in works of art is one of appreciation, wherein the aim at meaning(s) gives way to an attempt to deepen what—to return to the top—Wilde at one point has Gilbert baptize a work’s “mystery.”  This is not to say that interpretations ought to obfuscate but rather, as Gilbert adds, that they ought to aim to reveal a work’s “mist of wonder,” complexity or achievement.  Perhaps in this an appreciation of Rohmer again comes to mind.  If so, it does stand to reason, given that Gilbert’s point is that what fuels our continued interest and value in art as art isn’t so much a less than global meaning gleaned—that note inevitably grows old, as do debates that depend upon it—but rather whether the work we’re into demands and rewards revisiting.  Otherwise, as Wilde elsewhere teases, what’s the point of visiting with it in the first place?  The quip has to be hyperbole—otherwise the one-night stand and the one-hit wonder wouldn’t make the grade.  But given all of the above it isn’t altogether off either, if by it what he too is hinting at is that there may be more—legitimately more—to meeting a work of art as the work of art it is than that dreamt by those moved only or mainly by meaning.



1. Originally delivered at the CAA 2010, the essay’s informal, lecture-like format has been left to stand.  The substance of Part Two is also largely as it was (plus or minus some examples and refinements).  Much of Part One, which in the interest of time was relegated to the purgatory of footnotes, has since been reincarnated into the body of the text.
2. Of course this leaves open what it is one is doing when one interprets, along with what the object is one’s doing addresses, a reply to which depends on how one conceives of both the act of interpreting as well as the nature and identity of the object of interpretation.  But say one takes interpretation to involve the attempt to grasp or discover truths about a work that is presumed (a) to exist and (b) to possess properties before one’s interpretation starts.  If the features of the context in which the work was created (including the artist’s intentions) are thought essential to it being the work it is, then one will not be disposed to think that one’s interpretation either significantly imputes properties to the work (effectively making the work more complete) or somehow constructs its meaning (thereby creating something new).  Instead, one should favor accounts that recognize the role and relevance of an artist’s communicative intention(s), and necessarily so if one is to recognize among other things the likes of irony, allusion, parallelism, imagery, and symbolism.  Robert Stecker, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, second ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), 125-126.
3. Peter Lamarque, The Philosophy of Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 104-13.
4. Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry 8.4 (Summer 1982): 723-42.  Expanding in their “Reply to George Wilson” (Critical Inquiry 19.1 [Autumn 1992]: 186-193):  “We think that all interpretive questions about a text can only be answered by an account of the author’s intended meaning.”  Indeed “an interest in the meaning of any text…can never be anything other than an interest in what the text’s author or authors intended it to mean”; for “the relevant object of inquiry is necessarily the author’s intended meaning,” and “it can never make sense to disregard…or to supplement the [latter]” (187-9).  In short, when it comes to interpreting a text, the aim is its meaning and its source lies in its author’s intention, which is nothing less than necessary and sufficient.
5. It’s a complex one-two punch.  Boiled down, the first holds that at best the scope of their thesis is undefined, resulting in a “dilemma”:  if “restricted,” their view is too weak or too narrow to matter; if “unrestricted,” then they proffer too little defense for what is a counterintuitive thesis.  The second hit holds that at worst their argument is simply a “travesty,” insofar as it depends on the “unargued dismissal of a range of substantial questions…within the philosophy of language.”  George Wilson, “Again, Theory:  On Speaker’s Meaning, Linguistic Meaning, and the Meaning of a Text,” Critical Inquiry 19.1 (Autumn 1992): 164-185.
6. And in what follows, nothing much should hang on the subdivision of actual v. hypothetical intentionalism, let alone the still nicer distinctions they invite.
7. Peter Lamarque, “Appreciation and Literary Interpretation” in Michael Krausz, ed., Is There a Single Right Interpretation? (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2002), 285-306.
8. In what follows I don’t make much of this otherwise important distinction.
9. Which, on the one hand, assumes that an emotion is an internal, private something (qua sensation?) that exists apart from the public artwork and that can be understood independent of a publicly communicable interpretation of it; while, on the other hand, it struggles to explain how a private feeling or experience can ever be got into the public art object.
10. Noel Carroll, On Criticism (New York: Routledge, 2009), 141.
11. Gregory Currie, “Interpretation” in Jerrold Levinson, ed., Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 299; Berys Gaut, A Philosophy of Cinematic Art (New York: Cambridge, 2010), 166.  The “tiene huevos?” case is Murray Smith’s, from his review of Paisely Livingston, Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman: On Film as Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), in Notre Dame Philosophy Review, (Accessed June 22, 2012.)
12. What Carroll calls the “achievement argument” (70).  For his attempt to reject it, see Carroll, 77.
13. Robert Pippin, “On ‘Becoming Who One Is’ (and Failing): Proust’s Problematic Selves” in The Persistence of Subjectivity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 318-19.
14. Roger Scruton, “Wittgenstein on Music” in Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (London and New York: Continuum, 2009), 33-42.
15. Robin Wood, “The Incoherent Text: Narrative in the 70s” in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond, revised ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 41-49.
16. Gaut, 156.  For Maidstone, see  (Accessed June 22, 2012.)
17. Still less do I think it addresses the kind of problems that can plague a “convention-constrained intentionlism,” which can be “too restrictive” in that, as with irony, the artist’s realized intention “extends or departs from” conventional literal meaning, or “too broad” in that the artist’s intention may ignore context when fixing meaning, even as the context may supply “a referent independently of my intention” and the conventions that inform it (Stecker, 150).  Nor have I compared and contrasted, let alone critiqued alternative versions of intentionalism that don’t identify the meaning of a work with what the artist intends, and that perhaps try to prescribe an appropriate balance between intention and convention.
18. Nor, by the bye, does either Knapp or Michaels manifestly limit their respective and indisputably top-shelf literary criticism to their intentionalism.  It’s not just that it’s of no concern, say, in Michaels’ reading of Venus in Furs.  It’s that even where the role of intention is critically of the moment and anti-intentionalism is the target—as in Michaels’ post-panel piece, “Neoliberal Aesthetics:  Fried, Rancière and the Form of the Photograph,” 1 (February 2011), intentionalism’s radical claims about meaning play no role.  There intention functions as a touchstone for interrogating the dynamic relation between Friedian absorption and theatricality, enabling Michaels to trace out what the value of an artwork is at risk of becoming when the latter are “radicalized” and the anti-intentionalist leads the way: on the one hand, absorption’s aesthetic indifference to the beholder is transformed “into a total appeal to him,” while on the other, as in John Cage’s 4’33”, recognition of the artist’s intention becomes crucial if mere accidents aren’t all that the work is taken to afford.  That is, as the audience’s actual experience risks becoming “irrelevant,” all that matters vis à vis the artwork is that they recognize the intention qua point behind it.  This is a brilliant critique of the anti-intentionalist’s attitude toward the value of art, from what about it matters to how it is we meet it.  But so far as I can see, it doesn’t depend at all on intentionalism per se.  Then again, why would it?  As Knapp and Michaels insist, intentionalism isn’t designed to be a methodology for critiquing a text so much as a necessary and sufficient presupposition for figuring out its meaning.  That though pretty much leaves only the logic of semantics to recommend it—which is where we came in.  In which case their line would appear to be at risk of being either irrelevant (in practice) or incorrect (in theory).  Or both.
19. Nor is it to assume (though one may), say, that interpretation is about cognitive content while appreciation is about affective response, a proper account of which would explain how the latter arises and what warrants it.  See Susan L. Feagin, Reading with Feeling: The Aesthetics of Appreciation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
20. Thereby giving substance to what would otherwise be but a verbal distinction.  See Lamarque (as above) and Stein Haugtom Olsen, The End of Literary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) and Malcolm Budd, Values in Art: Pictures, Poetry, and Music (London: Penguin, 1995).
21. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,1966), 5.
22. David Bordwell, Making Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1989), 1-4, 249.
23. “Hence in true poetry it is, in strictness impossible to express the meaning in any but its own words, or to change the words without changing the meaning.”   “…if we insist on asking for the meaning of such a poem, we can only be answered, ‘it means itself’” (A. C. Bradley, “Poetry for Poetry’s Sake” in Oxford Lectures on Poetry [London: Macmillan, 1917], 19, 24).
24. If the internal meaning of the poem is unique (expressive), while words for saying what it means are general (descriptive), how can we say what it means?  R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938).
25. On his watch, poetic meaning eludes paraphrase not because it’s devoid of abstract thought and the employ of general terms, nor because poems inform their subjects thematically not argumentatively, but because what the poem is about (its content, not just its subject, as he puts it) is given “under a particular description” or “mode of presentation,” such that its content-identity can only be expressed in this one way.  In short: a version of form/content unity.  Admittedly, up to a point Lamarque’s line is moot; what it isn’t, however, is the exclusive province of the hidebound.  See Peter Lamarque, “The Elusiveness of Poetic Meaning,” Ratio 22.4 (December 2009): 398-420, and “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 33.1 (September 2009), 37-52.
26. Such that as each “piece” falls into place the whole is made complete.
27. Kendall Walton, “Categories of Art,” The Philosophical Review 79.3 (July 1970): 334-67.
28. As in Lang’s M, the success of which depends in part on how the viewer experiences not seeing the murder:  she isn’t expected to figure out how it was done, but rather to be affected by virtue of how she imagines it in virtue of how she engages the film.  See Gaut, 178.
29. James Elkins, “Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?” New Literary History 27.2 (Spring 1996), 285, 271.
30. Which again goes hand in hand with their construal of the meaning of a work along the lines of an utterance—thus the structural parallel noted above between sentence meaning and speaker meaning, on the one hand, and what a text means and what an author meant, on the other, from which they read the author-constructed text as a speaker-performed speech-act.
31. “Since to interpret a work is to discover its meaning, and since meaning is a linguistic property according to the semantic paradigm, the proper way to interpret all aspects of artworks is via the model of understanding linguistic meaning.”  To intentionalists “linguistic meaning is fixed by speakers’ intentions.  Hence to interpret a work is just to discover the intentions with which it was created.  So, according to the paradigm, intentionalism is true” (Gaut, 181).
32. George Wilson, “On Film Narrative and Narrative Meaning.” in Richard Allen and Murray Smith, eds., Film Theory and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 226, 232.
33. V. F. Perkins, “Must We Say What They Mean?” Movie 34/35 (Winter 1990): 1-6.
34. George Wilson, “Interpretation” in Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga, eds., The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, (Oxford: Routledge, 2009), 162-72.  See also Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Motion Pictures, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), chapter five.
35. Beginning around minute 14 and going on almost until minute 18.
36. V. F. Perkins, Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1972), 118.
37. Wilson, “On Film Narrative.”  See also the “Introduction” to John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, Style and Meaning  (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005), 10.
38. Peter Lamarque and Peter Goldie, “Whimsicality in the Films of Eric Rohmer,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34.1 (September 2010): 306-22.
39. Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, trans. Carol Volk, Cambridge Studies in Film (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 80, quoted in Lamarque, 317, note 42.
40. Here I lean on Lamarque.
41. George Wilson, Narration in Light (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
42. Here again I draw from Lamarque on appreciation (168-173).  See also Feagin.