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The question of intentionality, an investigation Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Carson, United States Feb 20, 2008
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The question of intentionality, an investigation The whole notion of intent is one that fascinates me almost to the point of obsession; when looking at or making artwork I always wonder, what is the artist's intent for this thing that they are making? What effect, exactly, is it supposed by the artist to have on others? What effect does making it have on the artist... and so on. This question of intentionality is strangely absent from most of what is considered critical thinking about Art. Probably the various art objects could even be meaningfully classified according to the various intentions and effects, but somehow this is never done.

It can be quite enlightening to try and arrive at a more specific sort of clarity about what our intentions for, and suppositions about, the specific things that we create actually are. Not in the sense of why do artists make art and what is the purpose of Art?, but rather what are my intentions for this specific thing that I have made, and what effect do I suppose that it will have on others?
My personal opinion is that ambiguity is an essential quality of all really great art.

I'm not taking the position that one should read words like "intent", "understanding", and "meaning" as if any visual piece of art shouldn't be just art for art's sake, but art for a reason. Speaking only for myself, and the intentionality vs. ambiguity question, my thesis is not contra ars gratia artis. Rather, I'm saying that, on close examination, artists actually do have purposes and goals for these things that they make (whether they're capable of articulating and/or admitting them or not), and these things that they make are worthy of being examined in terms of the artist's own intentions.

"An unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates

Here's to plain speaking and clear understanding:
the state of a person's mind that directs his or her actions toward a specific object.

1.firmly or steadfastly fixed or directed. 2.having the attention sharply focused or fixed on something. 3.determined or resolved; having the mind or will fixed on some goal. 4.earnest; intense.

(A propos: P.D. Ouspensky, and others, would argue that most of us only imagine that we have intent.)

It strikes me that Art-making may be the only organized human activity in which a lack of purposes or goals is considered by anyone to be a virtue. Why is this important? Well, for example, try to imagine a major business, charitable, or government organization with no stated purpose or "core values". No such thing exists. There's a reason for that: an organization so completely rudderless wouldn't survive for 15 minutes in the real world.

Recently I have initiated some discussions on the topic of "The Question of Intentionality" in a few artists' forums on the Internet. The Surrealists, as a group, are the ones that get the most upset at the very notion that artists (like everyone else) have goal-directed behaviour. Here are some typical responses:

"Sorry, dont have time to think, I just paint becose I like it. Don't want to know the reasons, I prefer mystery, as an open space for imagination."

"...a drawing with the intention of creating images without having any intentions about what those images will be... the intention to create something unintentionally..."

Certainly one can do this, Surrealists, in particular, often do. Nothing wrong with that. However this only brings up other questions of intentionality, as if one were peeling an onion. First, one might ask, what was the artist's motive (intent) for wanting to "create something unintentionally" in the first place? What result, exactly, did the artist hope to achieve via this method?

"...to connect with deeper psychological and emotional levels."

And then, what is the purpose of that? Self-knowledge? If so, then why show it to anyone else? Because if one makes something with the intent to show it to other people, it seems that there is implied an intent on the part of the artist to produce some effect on the viewer. Artists working within the Abstract paradigm tended to have a different set of objections to the notion of art being intentional. Here's a particularly articulate example:

"...a reason for someone to dabble in the the arts has been called an addiction and the reason they do it (some artists) is to seek a particular state of being (mind) while in this process of mark making. This is the primary motive or intention of some artists and by using this method it may have been achieved, or not. The actual image, or images, created evolved as an accident. There was no intent to draw, let's say, eyeballs but when the artist steps back and takes a look all she sees are eyeballs staring back at her.

The artist can't decide whether to show anyone her art... Eventually... she decides to show it to her mom.

No matter what the artist does... her mom always says after looking at the daughter's marks, "That's nice dear, but why so many nipples."

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An artist/ painter, Carson Collins describes himself as a "gently ironic, world-weary, post punk misanthrope". He has been working on a project that he calls "The Ocean Series" for the past 30 years. A Remodernist response to the color-field paintings of Mark Rothko; it appeals to serious art lovers, those who meditate, and ocean lovers as well.

R Kahendi | Mar 8th, 2008
Beautiful article and picture! You should write more often. :)

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