Whitehot Magazine

Interview Between Intentists

Intentist Campaign Outside Tate Modern. Courtesy of the artists.

Gideon Parry  is a writer and painter and Intentist.

Vittorio Pelosi is a painter and founding member of Intentism.

Gideon: The movements called Intentism. What’s the reason behind the name?

Vittorio: The name reflects our belief that all meaning is the imperfect outworking of intention. In the last few years there has been a growing desire from artists to fight against the orthodox belief that the artist/author is dead and their intentions are not important.

Gideon: Why are you opposed to the notion that the viewer is entitled to interpret an artwork in the manner of their choosing as is common practice?

Vittorio: I don’t think anyone would argue that the viewer can interpret an artwork in any way they wish. Even Derrida who wrote of Deconstruction and that meaning is always ‘deferred’ said that although there is always more than one meaning, there are readings that are not possible. For example, am I able to categorically insist that a work is racist or homophobic without any attempt to understand the work or the artist? In fact, there are more nuanced beliefs in literary theory of late that give some framework to how a work can be interpreted. For example, Stanley Fish argues that we understand a work through the lens of our own ‘interpretative community.’ Intentists are against excluding the artist’s intention from the discussion.

Govinda, Sah, Dreams, Hopes, and Fear. Courtesy of the artist.

Gideon: What would you say to an art critic who doesn’t wish to cede their right to limit their reading of an artwork?

Vittorio: An important question by way of response would be to ask what the main functions of a critic are. Philosopher and author of ‘Art and Intention’ Paisley Livingston defined intention as a performance expectation. Intention becomes meaning if the work successfully realizes this intention. However, the quality of the work depends on the quality of the intention. A realized profound intention would be a more significant work that a realized meagre intention. Intentists would say that an important role of the critic is to critique the quality of the intention and the success or lack of it in its realization and the skill of the artist. We don’t believe that this is limiting.

Gideon: Doesn’t every viewer bring their own connotational baggage to an artwork?

Vittorio: Absolutely- and this is true for both artists and viewers. Roland Barthes wrote that all texts are a ‘textile of quotations’ and of course the baggage we bring to any work is unmeasurable.  E.D. Hirsch author of ‘Validity in Interpretation’ suggested that whereas meaning is the outworking of intention, the work can have numerous ‘significances’ to the viewer. For instance, if a couple consider a melody to be ‘their song’, the work would have significance to events in their lives but it wouldn’t be the meaning of the piece.

Gideon: Why is the intention of the artist more important than the interpretation of the viewer?

Vittorio: Quite simply because the intention of the artist frees the work from a possible hermeneutical tyranny. If you believe like Barthes and Foucault that the author is dead then the work can only have multiple meanings dependent on the viewers. However, Intentism offers more possibilities. If an artist decides to create a work with an open ended, ambiguous intention, then both the artist and the viewer are free to interpret the work. However, if the artist has a message to convey and wants to be prescriptive in his intention, then he can be. 

Gideon: The performance and installation artist Mona Hatoum’s work has strong, political undertones yet she doesn’t care to talk about her work, preferring the viewer to interpret her work in an open-ended way. What, in your view, is problematic with regard to this stance, common among many contemporary artists?

Vittorio: Both theoretically and practically there are problems.  Firstly, many theorists begin their interpretations too late in the creative journey and therefore neglect the artist. Firstly, an artist has an Internal Creative Act. This mental act has full meaning but no viewer will ever experience it. Secondly, the artist many make an External Creative Expression. Again this has full meaning but is private. An example would be the journals of Samuel Pepys who wrote sections in a private code. Finally, the artist might decide on an External Creative Gesture. This act can be interpreted by others. You can see that from the outset, the artist’s intention is present and important, but the viewer is only involved once the artist decides he wants to make a public creative gesture.

In addition, practically, Mona Hatoum’s stance has problems. Why do we regard her work to have political undertones in the first place? There must be a context to her work that guides us to categorize it this way. Moreover, Colin Lyas in ‘Aesthetics’ notices that when we try and describe a work in isolation we still resort to using language like ‘thoughful’ or ‘naive’ that refer to the human mind.

Luciano Pelosi, Big Breakfast. Courtesy of the artist

Gideon: Who has endorsed or supported your movement so far, and why?

Vittorio: Intentists include visual artists, writers, musicians, actors and philosophers. Professor of philosophy and author of ‘Art and Intention’ Paisley Livingston, Colin Lyas of Lancaster University and author of ‘Aesthetics,’ and Professor of Philosophy William Irwin, author of Intentionalist Interpretation are all members. We have also had fruitful dialogue and much agreement with linguist Noam Chomsky. We have been invited to give lectures in numerous art schools and the Royal College of Art organized a panel debate about the movement.

Gideon: Do you think that these ideas you’re espousing will gain momentum?

Vittorio: I do see a change in direction, partly sociologically fuelled from a desire for greater accountability. The Intentist manifesto says that confused, hidden or denied intention can lead to zero accountability.  (It is interesting at this time that people are asking whether the private lives of certain actors and musicians should affect whether we still watch and listen to the work, but they don’t realize that modern theory has killed off the creator and made their life irrelevant o their work.) Conversely, Intentists believe that an omission of artist intention can lead to enforced restrictions on the artist and even censorship. However, we still have a long way to go, partly because the students that were taught about the ‘Death Thesis’ in the 60’s and 70’s are the lecturers and art critics today. We have received a certain degree of hostile responses and a few years back we were forcibly removed from the Tate Modern when peacefully demonstrating.

For more information, please check out our website : www.intentism.org and subscribe to our Youtube channel. We regularly upload a short video called ‘Intentist Bites.’ WM



Whitehot writes about the best art in the world - founded by artist Noah Becker in 2005. 


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