I am thus arguing here for an expanded view of aesthetic intentionality that comprises both the intentional and the immediately unintentional aspects of a work, since all of these aspects participate in the fundamentally intentional act of making an artwork. And the unintentional aspects include both the intentionally unintentional ones such as Cage’s aleatory results and real world contingencies, and the unintentionally unintentional ones such as my accidentally getting red paint on the brush when I’d meant blue (and my keeping the red blotch anyway in the final painting). Whether the materials are controlled or not, the overall action is intentional, and this is true no matter how aleatory or indeterminate its elements. An aesthetic action has two inalienably intentional moments, the beginning and the end: the decision to begin it and the decision to accept everything in it (no matter how unexpected) by signing, publishing, performing or showing it.
My proposal, then, is that we interpret artworks in the light of intention, that magic feature that turns cardboard into a box, A Modest Proposal into something cunning, and a bag of trash into part of an installation. But that intention is a display-intention. When it comes to generic aims, such as “making a work of art,” we could perhaps make do, in many cases, with conception-intentions; but when it comes to specific projects, like that of raising questions about agency or the aesthetic, display-intentions are going to be indispensable. Further, the display-intention is that of the postulated artist, not that of the empirical maker.
But there are many ways to be an intentionalist. Time is always limited, of course, but each of the various historical predecessors I sketched a moment ago offers distinct nuances, and mentioning them reminds us of the sheer variety of positions—about what’s possible, about where the challenges lie, about where the accent should go—that have been available to thinkers trying to understand intentions in a material world.
Meaning in art (what you have actually done and said) slips away from the artist’s ranges of control within the environment, for example, of the unprecedented circulation of commodities. But instead of allowing meaning and intention to be coopted, predictably and inevitably, the artists Michaels admires evacuate the work of emotional, affective, or personal forms of address preemptively, as though anti-pathos and anti-sentiment were a shield or defense.
We should be struck by the similarity between Davidson’s position and the Tractarian one that Anscombe rejects. Both positions depict the core of agency (either “willing” or “primitive action”) as on one side of a divide and the world (the results, the wider descriptions) as on the other, with the connection between these things depicted as something further that a human agent must presume but is powerless to effect. And this is exactly the opposite of Anscombe’s own view.
Michaels is confusing the issue when he says that a human artwork that looks like nature in Kant’s sense is participating in “the refusal of intentionality;” rather, it is the outcome of an overcoming of artifice, where the work achieves a naturalness that we could never find in the rest of nature, and so does not let us forget we are beholding something intended. Perhaps chimpanzee paintings fall into an obscure grey area between Kant’s two poles, not achieving the status of painting while—because we cannot but see some intimation of meaning in them—making it impossible for us to appreciate them in the way we do sunsets.
Do we really need Wittgenstein? It depends. I think that literary scholars today really ought to have a workable understanding of Wittgenstein’s vision of language, for it provides a vital and distinctive alternative to other views on the same matters, views that are widely taught. For the same reason, I think literary scholars really ought to understand Wittgenstein’s critique of theory (or, if one prefers, of certain standard notions of what philosophy is). For a literary theorist it ought to be as unthinkable to know nothing about Wittgenstein as it has been to know nothing about Saussure, or Derrida, or Lacan, or Foucault, and so on through the pantheon of more recent theorists. I wrote Revolution of the Ordinary to make this possible.
Consider looking at that cursive “c” through a microscope, the edges of the dried ink branching out in irregular furrows into the fabric of the paper. Could Dickinson mean that? Could any human mean that? Would ever more powerful microscopes uncover more and more layers of meaning? It made sense to me to think the answers here should be “no.”
Combine a deflationary theory of photographic agency with a richly intentionalist approach to understanding what photographers mean by making photographs. We are now equipped to make sense of Winogrand’s practice of discovery. The photographer takes a picture of a beggar on the street, not intending that the scene look precisely so. Its looking precisely so is his discovery—it goes to his credit, not the camera’s. At the same time, by making the photograph, he means to tell us something about the beggar and how we should see him. Maybe he also means to tell us something about being a photographer, who means by making, even as what he makes is not just what he means.
Likewise, if meaning is made by the reader, then the difference between the two texts could never be the kind that Borges’s narrator identifies which essentially derive from the difference between two authors and their intentions and not the difference between two contexts of reading, or two experiences of reading. Specifically, like in Cortázar text above, the differences would have to include everything that is part of the reader’s experience of them, including, for example, the typographical differences between Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Menard’s.