Who assigns meaning to art: the artist or the audience?
La Lagunilla is one of the largest and oldest markets in Mexico City and is certainly its most famous. Located just north of the city’s main square, it attracts thousands of tourists each year but remains a market for local people. Principally known for its antiques and counterfeit clothes, La Lagunilla mixes the specialist with the generic. Walking down its hallways of bridal gowns and designer knock-offs, you’ll be stared down by the stoic faces and folded arms of the legions of vendors. Maybe you’ll track down that My Little Pony onesie you wanted, or maybe you’ll find yourself somehow caught in the midst of a bargaining dispute. Folkloric tales of a given item’s history are epically and painstakingly relayed by gesticulating old men in Adidas tracksuits, and no matter how starkly improbable they may sound, you’re always inclined to indulge the fantasy. Art and oddities line the aisles: objects of intentional meaning or just tokens waiting for meaning to be attached to them.
No such sales pitch accompanied my most recent purchase — a simple wooden cross that had light marks where you could see that the Jesus Christ had come off — only a frown at the strange güero who for some reason was interested in purchasing such a meaningless object as a broken crucifix.
Propped up against a Mickey Mouse alarm clock, it was unlikely that they’d shared the view that such an item could hang, profoundly, on one’s bedroom wall as a symbol that reflected on the loss of spirituality in the modern world. To me, though, it could. That’s all it was: a piece of art waiting to happen.
The key thing here is the idea of potentiality. The crucifix without the crucifixion could represent these ideas, but that’s not to say that it already did inherently. To the man who sold it to me, it was just a damaged (though perhaps salvageable) artifact. There was no intentional meaning to the absence; in fact, the absence of Christ negated the original intentional meaning: to represent his sacrifice.
And so I ask you: does an object have to have been intended as an artwork for it to count as one?
Reframing or repurposing an object to make it art — from potentiality to actuality — is not my idea but dates back to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, grandfather of conceptual art. In New York, 1917, Duchamp anonymously submitted a signed urinal titled Fountain to an exhibition hosted by the Society of Independent Artists. Even though he was on the committee that decided what would be displayed, it was rejected by his peers as not truly an artwork and therefore not qualified to be shown. Despite its initial failure, Duchamp’s piece was game changing and eventually paid off. Since then, artists and critics alike have come to recognize the work’s brilliance for its ability to question the very basis of what indeed counts as art. There are now official replicas shown in galleries around the world, testifying to its innovation and foresight. Old-skool meta, dude.
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
From Duchamp to the present day, people have continued to debate whether something is art or just an artifact and, indeed, intentional meaning in art. Another milestone in this history is the publication of an essay called “The Death of the Author” (1967) by French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes argued that the meaning of a given work of literature was determined by the reader — that whatever ideas come to us when we read a novel is precisely what that novel means. “The text,” he wrote, “is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.” Barthes thought that pieces of literature are vast collections of signposts directing people out to the world, but in different directions too innumerable to account for in a singular or objective way. The intentional meaning of the Author-God was a myth, and “the birth of the reader” was to replace it. Though Barthes was writing about literature, his ideas were adopted by many other theorists who thought the same could be said of art in general.
Not everyone agrees, however. On the other end of the spectrum, Walter Benn Michaels, a contemporary critic and cultural theorist (though he would definitely object to the latter title), famously claims in his essay “Against Theory,” coauthored with Steven Knapp, that the meaning of an artwork is only ever exactly what the author intended, no more, no less. The reason for this, they argue, and as Benn Michaels has spent a career defending, is that if language always has intentional meaning and art is made up of language, then art must therefore always be intentional and can only mean what was intended.
Both theories of art and intention were responding to particular problems they saw in previous approaches to the issue. For Barthes, overemphasizing the author’s intentional meaning encouraged some mystical valuation of an absolute truth contained in whatever the writer had in mind, regardless of the historical context of the book’s composition. For Benn Michaels, the problem of not seeing intention as equivalent to meaning, and overemphasizing the reader’s response, such that even totally contradictory interpretations of a work of art could both be considered true, is that this comes uncomfortably close to a kind of moral relativism. He takes issue with the idea that any individual’s belief about an event is automatically true simply because the individual believes it regardless of any potential social impact. An example would be the white supremacists’ belief that white people are superior, despite the fact that it’s clearly bullshit.
Problems arise out of both Barthes’ and Michaels’ theories too. On the one hand, Benn Michaels’ argument is forceful for its concern with social responsibility in a world where beliefs have consequences, but it rests on certain assumptions about the nature of language. For instance, surely he can’t imagine that whatever answer an artist gives to the question of what their artwork meant is precisely and exclusively what it means? Do artists necessarily know what they intend?
Bob Dylan performing in London, 1965. Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images
There are numerous accounts of works of art being made with very little conscious thought surrounding their production. As the story goes, Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes. Are we to accept that, asked at the moment of its composition, if Dylan hadn’t claimed he was writing a song about the fearful times of Cold War America, the giddy uncertainty of youth or the simple passage of time, the song wouldn’t mean those things? Or could he have meant them without realizing it? This gestures to the problem with Barthes’ argument too: unless we know a few things about Dylan, it’s hard to piece together the political nature of his songs. And yet that’s where the two arguments meet: Dylan himself never claimed any strong political persuasion, but his music reflects a profound awareness of contemporary social injustice. Perhaps the combination of notes and words simply means those things anyway, even without him consciously intending them to.
Obviously, with my crucifix, with Duchamp’s urinal and with Dylan’s songs, there are differences that need to be acknowledged, but suffice it to say they all present the complexity of the problem of intention, whichever way you approach it.
I’m not attempting to answer these questions — just unloading some of the conundrums that have been rattling around my brain. The debate over intentional meaning will probably continue through different forms of art as technology and people change and will no doubt remain a contentious topic. Yet, if one thing’s for sure, it’s that the answers likely lie at the juncture of art and life, so I’ll leave it to you to puzzle through the pages of Crixeo and see if you come to any bright ideas!