Intent and Interpretation
In most cases, when authors, painters, or composers set out to create something, they do so to fulfill an initial intention, either their own or the wishes of someone who has commissioned their work. For instance, the architects behind the construction of Greek temples like the Parthenon designed them the way they did partly because they intended to reflect ancient Greek principles of harmony and balance. Similarly, medieval Gothic cathedrals were built with soaring spires and stained glass windows because their height and light were intended to remind worshipers of heaven. On the other hand, the Baroque composer George Frideric Handel created his Music for the Royal Fireworks because King George II of England contracted him to compose a piece to accompany a fireworks celebration; in this case, the creator’s intent was to fulfill the specific wishes of his patron. Sometimes, a creator’s intent is fairly apparent—comedies, like The Colbert Report, are clearly intended to make us laugh, but they can also reflect other, less obvious intentions, like criticism of political figures. Knowing the intent behind the creation of a particular artifact can be important in enriching our understanding of its purpose and the success of the creator in achieving it. Likewise, it can help determine what message the creator is trying to communicate and whether that message has been presented successfully. Once we discover this, we can assess whether the artifact is meaningful for us.
So, how do we uncover intent? It can be difficult and requires us to do research, to gather knowledge and learn about the outside circumstances surrounding the creation of a work. If we are lucky, we have some sort of artist’s statement from the creator concerning his or her intention, though this can be rare, especially for works from long ago. And, frankly, for various reasons, creators often do not reveal their true intentions for creating something. Thus, it is up to us to try to reconstruct their motives.
We might look at what we know about the life of the creator and try to draw a connection to the intention behind a particular work. For example, once we know that John Keats was dying of tuberculosis when he wrote his poem “Bright Star,” we can see its yearning to be with his beloved forever as an expression of his fear of death. Yet, we may not have biographical information for some artists, or the artists may even be unknown. Thus, knowledge of the culture in which a work was created can be useful, since cultural influences can shape a creator’s intent. For example, the presence of racial discrimination in 1930s America led Ralph Ellison to write his novel Invisible Man. More recently, author Seth Grahame-Smith has gained notoriety for literary “mash-ups” (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) that revisit history and historical works of literature while adding in popular elements of horror and fantasy, such as zombies and vampires. In the case of The Invisible Man, the artifact creator (Ellison) wants intent to be part of the message—Ellison intended his novel to influence perceptions and bring about change in America. At other times, intention is less important to the “message” the artifact sends. Grahame-Smith, for example, explains that he wrote Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to explore his deep appreciation for the history of Abraham Lincoln’s life, while also appealing to his personal love of horror (Spitznagel, 2010). At the time of his writing, the Twilight series was also gaining huge attention and financial success in popular culture. However, it remains highly unusual for artifact creators to publicly assert that their primary intent is making money. Instead they might claim that they want to address the ideas of heroism and love or tell a compelling story.
Once we know the background or context of an artifact, we must still always look closely at the work itself to find specific evidence of the intent. If we believe Andy Warhol’s intention in creating his works was to turn everyday images from pop culture into high art, we have to find evidence for this, perhaps by pointing to his paintings of Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s Soup cans. If we think Ellison wanted to redefine racial perceptions, we need to find a passage in his novel that shows this. In the end, the proof must be found in the artifacts themselves, and a case must be made using this support. It is important to consider the relationship between the possible intent of a work’s creator and our own interpretation of its meaning. We must take care not to assume any intent that cannot be proven and remain aware that influences from our own backgrounds can sometimes lead us into seeing things that are not in a particular work, something we will explore in the next module.
The Role of the Critic
The term “critic” defines someone who judges the value of an artifact in the humanities. The critic’s role is to try to understand the meaning of an artifact and the intent of its creator. The critic then interprets these ideas for the general public and assesses the cultural value of the artifact. Critics need to make a case for their understanding of an artifact; they cannot just say any old thing about it. As mentioned in our discussion of intent, all claims about the work in question must be supported by evidence found in the artifact itself. If we are satisfied that a critic is knowledgeable about an artifact and has supported any assertions made, we may then accept the authority of the critic on the subject.
Professional critics—art critics, film critics, literary critics—have long occupied an important place in the humanities, but we too can engage in criticism. In Module Two, we learned about different ways in which one can examine an artifact. We may form our initial impressions by feeling a certain liking or disliking, but then we go beyond this to consider the work more deeply. We ask questions about it and try to determine the creator’s intent. In doing this, we become critics. Once we understand what the creator or the artifact is trying to communicate, we can form a judgment on the merits of its message for us either individually or as a culture.
Having an accurate understanding of an artifact is the goal of criticism, but personal assumptions, beliefs, and values always play a part in any critic’s interpretation. In Module Three, we discussed how personal experiences can impact subjectivity. The same principle is at work when we critique an artifact. It is natural that we should develop preferences and biases over our lifetimes, things we are predisposed to like and things we are inclined to dislike, which come into play whenever we judge something new. If we read a Harry Potter book during a perfect summer vacation but read Shakespeare with a boring teacher in high school, this might shape our perceptions of these works. Or maybe we just enjoy fantasy works in modern English more than plays from centuries ago because we are more familiar with the former. Culture also influences our interpretation of an artifact. In Japan, where white is the color of mourning, someone looking at a painting that uses a lot of white may associate it with death, whereas an American looking at the same painting may assume the theme is purity. Unfortunately, as well, much of Western history denied value to artistic works created by women and minorities because the dominant culture was sexist or racist; prejudices influenced the way these artifacts were perceived.
Since some form of subjectivity or bias comes into play when analyzing artifacts, it is important first of all to recognize this fact both in any reviews we write and in the works of other critics that we read. We can then acknowledge or work to eliminate bias in our own interpretations by finding objective support in the artifact itself or, in the case or others’ reviews, adjust how much weight we give the views of the critic.
Planning to Study Artifacts
By this module, you have likely narrowed down your choice of an artifact from the world around you, either something contemporary or something from the past. Your choice should be an artifact from the humanities that interests you and that you want to know more about, because it is easier and more fun to think and write about something you are interested in.
A recommended approach is to use the artifact chart provided. You can put in ideas as you brainstorm, creating a rough version, and then go back and refine your answers. Go back and consult the ideas of the previous modules as needed.
Spitznagel, E. (2010, February 26). Q&A: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter author Seth Grahame-Smith. Vanity Fair Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2010/02/qa-abraham-lincoln-vamire-hunter-author-seth-grahame-smith