One now routinely reads rote refusals of intentional interpretation and insouciant claims for the spectator’s prerogative in making meaning. Such refusals and claims may be right—that’s a question we may discuss today—, but their reexamination, which is to say this conversation, is overdue.
It is, typically, an aesthetic intuition. Aesthetic intuitions are first of all intuitions, in the everyday sense of hunch, in the psychological sense of an act of perception, and in the philosophical sense of an act of the imagination. What characterizes them not just as intuitions but as aesthetic is that they share with aesthetic experience their subjective, affective, non-conceptual nature, and with aesthetic judgments their reflexivity and their claim to universal validity, most often expressed as a claim to reflect factual truth.
All fluorescent bulbs will eventually go out; only Flavin’s intentions can make some of them also be about the fact that they will eventually go out. All of us may think of the ephemeral when we look at a fluorescent bulb flickering; only the belief that this (or something else) is what Flavin meant us to think turns our responses into interpretations.
As I try to make this out I may find myself hesitating among several possibilities: that Manet simply took advantage of the earlier painting’s meaninglessness; that he was in some way actively interested in the palpable discontinuity within the painting between artist’s intention and unrealized meaning; that his own painting stands as a reading of Velázquez’s, where reading means something distinct from but not without relation to interpretation.
The battle that Marx fought against “milieu theory” was against the idea that culture determined consciousness. His great achievement was to see that economics was not a matter of culture but of exploitation. Which is to say Adorno’s emphasis on domination and difference (how bourgeois culture shapes being), rather than exploitation and the proletariat, is pre-Marxist in orientation.
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.
This is what we might say about Philosophical Instigations, a collection of slips of paper in the nachlass of an important philosopher, Wittstein, that were taken to be paragraphs he wrote as expressions of a new philosophical theory, but which in fact were his collection of student in-class responses to the repeated assignment, “Write something short and interesting about language.”
In these terms, the account of the making of this photograph is a description of the more or less necessary historical conditions from which it (and many others) arose. These conditions did not determine the image, rather they made the image possible, and they made it possible in terms very different from those that made other artifacts possible. Every artifact has arisen and arises from such a concrete set of possibilities, and all of these sets of possibilities have their own histories.