The Normative Functions of Artist Intentions in a Twenty-First Century Contemporary Art Practice

  • Lee Harrop

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    Intentionalism in art theory holds that a critical component of the meaning of a text or
    artwork is determined by the intentions and agency of the artist who created the work.
    Disagreements concerning when authorial intentions ought to be considered have led to
    conflicting views regarding how one ought to interpret and value works of art. To respond
    to proponents of anti-intentionalism, such as William K Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley,
    I examine the epistemic and moral roles of intentions communicated either by major
    contemporary artists or by my own practice-led research. The methodology of this enquiry
    is undergirded by iterative critical assessments of the data generated by my practice-led
    research, which builds from the feedback acquired through the peer-reviewing of forty-five
    published artworks and four peer-reviewed theoretical publications. The enquiry specifies
    three normative conditions that have scaffolded my artistic voice, which I term
    Countermodernity Intentionalism. According to the Virtuous Discovery Condition, a
    virtuous artistic interpretation ought to be aimed at discovering the meaning that was
    intended by the author. A classic objection to that condition is based on the thought that the
    author’s meaning is inaccessible. To refute this objection, I identify the harms caused by
    adopting this inaccessibility view as the chief standpoint by which to interpret a corpus of
    artworks about violence, law, mining and geoscience. Contrary to predictions suggested by
    the inaccessibility view, the explication of the corpus provides converging evidence that
    the interpretation of an artwork can accord with the artist’s intended meaning. The
    Audience Meaning Condition states that, if an interpretation dismisses or is devoid of the
    artist’s intended meaning, then that interpretation is ethically limited by its status as merely
    the interpretation of the audience member. In the case study ‘The decommission of I See
    Red’, I respond to an anti-intentionalist objection derived from the premise that meanings
    are directly and autonomously given by language or artworks. The study discloses how
    disregarding the authorial intentions of the artist can cause contested interpretations, which
    can ultimately lead to epistemic injustices. I conclude that if art is to be socially valued and
    have social impact, then audiences ought to consider the author’s artistic intentions. The
    article ‘I See Red’ expands the argument of ‘The decommission of I See Red’ in an
    examination of the ways in which art can contribute to truth-telling about colonial
    courthouses and Indigenous dispossession. The Agency Condition of Countermodernity
    Intentionalism states that any aesthetic value in an artwork is underpinned by artistic
    intention as a causal agent. I have been committed to providing evidence in support of the
    Agency Condition since ‘Here Lies Truth’, an article that uses my artwork Here Lies Truth
    to investigate whether art can negotiate contested conceptions of truth when contributing
    to debates of global significance. To avoid the promotion of misinformation or propaganda,
    this research abides by the moral rule that any messages I communicate through art ought
    to be truthful. The Agency Condition is also the impetus for the Still Lives – A Beautiful
    Science project presented in the ‘Still Lives’ publication. This project responds to an
    objection based on the premise that the author’s agency lacks epistemic authority over what
    the artist intends. I demonstrate that the strategies followed in Still Lives were aimed at
    ensuring that the messages communicated via my artworks were factual and verifiable. Still
    Lives incorporated the disciplines of art, law, science, philosophy and the humanities, in a
    three-day multiplatform event illustrating the multifaceted ways in which art can contribute
    to society. In summation, the thesis demonstrates that, despite their contested history, the
    principles of intentionalism can provide guidance for ethical and socially engaged artistic
    practices in the twenty-first century.
    Date of Award30 Sept 2022
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorNicolas Bullot (Supervisor) & Birut Zemits (Supervisor)

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