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Issue #6: Intention and Interpretation

This issue is loosely the result of a double session on Intention and Interpretation at the College Art Association meeting of February 2010.  (The original call for papers appears below.)  The line-up of speakers was somewhat different from the authors of this special issue, but these remarks describe the developments to which both sets of papers address themselves.  Thierry de Duve, Michael Garral, Stephen Melville, and Walter Benn Michaels were all participants in the sessions and contributed arguments substantially like those they present here.  David Summers was scheduled to take part, but was unable to attend the gathering in 2010.  Samuel Wheeler contributes an entirely new piece on the topic.

Also in this issue, Molly Warnock on the pliages of Simon Hantaï.

Intention and Interpretation

Session chairs: Charles Palermo and Todd Cronan

Is the meaning of a work of art just exactly the intention of its maker or makers? Does anyone (still) believe that? Yes. In fact, it has been argued that everyone does, but no one wants to admit it. Further, since the question will determine not just how you go about interpreting works of art, but what you think a work of art is and what you think an interpretation is, this question is fundamental to the practice of all art historians. So, if you don’t know how you’d answer the question, you don’t know what an art historian does. This session invites strong statements and arguments for and against intentionalism, and will look for their consequences. Papers should articulate a stance on intentionalism and defend it with a challenging example or an argument.

Inside the issue

Intentionality and Art Historical Methodology: A Case Study

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.

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Intention at the College Art Association (2010)

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.

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Intention, Interpretation, and the Balance of Theory

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.

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Intentionalism and Texts with Too Many Authors

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.”

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Re-Turning the Hermeneutic Circle

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.

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Best Intentions

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.

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We are all proletarians

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.

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