Art and Meaning

What is the meaning of a work of art? In this essay, let us first consider the role of intentions in determining the meaning of a work of art. Is a work of art partly defined by whatever the artist intended it to mean? If so, how should we view works of art when we have little or no idea about the artist’s intentions? Then let us move to a general inquiry about the role of context and history in determining a work’s meaning. When is history and original context important? We can then take up the vexing yet fascinating question about whether the meaning of a work of art is stable or dynamic, fixed or subject to multiple, shifting interpretations.


The Intentions of the Artist

In 1954 W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published an important essay, “The Intentional Fallacy”. In it, they argued that art criticism should not focus on the life and intentions of the author. They maintained that such matters as what the artist intended are irrelevant to the assessing the work itself. This is partly due to the fact that the artist’s intentions are often unrecoverable. As they put it, “Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle.” Wimsatt and Beardsley sought to replace art critical terms like sincerity (e.g. Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov in a sincere effort to make a case for Russian Orthodox Christianity) with terms that referenced instead only features of the work of art itself. This shift in critical attention from the artist to the work of art had a tangible impact on art criticism. Wimsatt counseled a shift in the vocabulary of art theory:

“It would be convenient if the passwords of the intentional school, ‘sincerity,’ ‘fidelity,’ ‘spontaneity,’ ‘authenticity,’ ‘genuineness,’ ‘originality,’ could be equated with terms such as ‘integrity,’ ‘relevance,’ ‘unity,’ ‘function,’ ‘maturity,’ ‘subtlety,’ ‘adequacy,’ and other more precise terms of evaluation – in short, if ‘expression’ always meant aesthetic achievement.” (W. K. Wimsatt 2008, 550)

The drive to focus only on works of art themselves without reference to the interior life and biography of the artist became a dominant force in post-World War II art criticism.  With the help of T.S. Eliot, appeals to authorial intent in determining meaning came to be viewed as fallacious, a case of an invalid inference.

There are, however, some reasons to resist Wimsatt and Beardsley. First, if a work of art explicitly involves the artist him or herself the division between the artist and the work collapses.  Artists like Andy Warhol and Chris Burden so involved themselves as works of art that it would be difficult to separate artist and art. Also, in practice it became very difficult (despite protests by T.S. Eliot and others) to view some art, such as the poetry of Ezra Pound, as utterly cut off from biography, especially as Pound himself described his enthusiasm for Italian fascism as aesthetic.

Second, certain attributes of works of art have implications about an artist’s intentions. If a work of art is described as intelligent or witty or insightful, this seems to imply that the artist is (at least when she executed the work) intelligent, witty, or insightful.  A personal anecdote may suffice to make this point. During a job interview, a dean of a university told me he initiated a kind of Wagner circle, prompting many faculty to regularly attend Wagner opera.  Without any reflection I said, “Ah, so you are the ring leader.”  My host laughed, noting I was very clever.  Was I?  Only if I had made some connection between my host and Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Perhaps I did on some sub-conscious level, but I suggest that without the proper intention what I said was no more clever than if a class in British history was asked about the Battle of Hastings and a student was heard saying “1066” but only because that is his phone number and he was unintentionally overheard giving it to a classmate.

Third, the intention of the artist seems to be a key reference point as to how the work is to be viewed. Was a sculpture made only to be seen from twenty yards away and not up close? Was it made only for viewing in a garden or natural setting so that it may be viewed aesthetically in relation to the world and not inside a building? These questions seem to require authorial intent to determine how works of art are framed and displayed. While some reference to the intentions of the artist do seem relevant to the meaning of a work of art, Wimsatt and Beardsley seem right that we do face a very difficult problem in deciphering those intentions. This is why it may be that what we need to appeal to is either the presumed intent of a piece and what some call the implied author or artist. Absent clear instructions from an artist and lacking oracles, we may need to be guided by what we assume the artist intended.

I suggest that whether a work of art is displayed in a dark room, sunlight, or on a rotating pedestal seems to be properly determined by what we presume the artist intended.  Imagine Jackson Pollock wanted his later work only viewed at twilight in a garage.  If so, there is a sense in which when you see Pollock’s later work at the Museum of Modern Art you are not actually looking at Pollock’s works of art, but you are seeing them as-they-have-been-put-in-a-light-that-was-not-properly-framed. I return to the topic of caring for and displaying artwork in chapter five.


History, Culture, and Meaning

There are two general accounts of the meaning of works of art that are associated with Kant and Hegel.  According to what may be called a Kantian aesthetic, the formal aesthetic properties of a work of art are definitive or the key reference point in the work.  From a Hegelian point of view, the key is historical context.  Both views have merit and they need not stand in stark contrast.

A Hegelian approach is difficult to avoid in assessing works of art that involve explicit references to historical events.  The 1812 Overture makes little sense without some reference to Napoleon.  Aeschylus’ The Persians is difficult to see without some awareness of the historical triumph of the Greeks in the Persian Wars.  Duchamp’s Fountain seems firmly situated in its historical setting.  But some works seem less fixed.  One perhaps needs some grounding in Renaissance history to fully appreciate Michelangelo’s David, but surely one may have a deep appreciation for its elegance, agility, and bold beauty without such an historical grounding. It is probably possible to appreciate Picasso’s epic painting Guernica as a portrait of the outrageous tragedy of war without knowing its specific historical context. But arguably one appreciates it more when one realizes that Picasso painted it in 1937 to mark the bombing of Guernica by Italian and German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. An appreciation for the historical setting of a work of art can help us take stock of the expertise and virtuosity involved (was the work executed by a simple artist or a whole workshop?), the style of the work (was the artwork part of a tradition?), and the conventions that are important to appreciate in interpretation (what was the conventional meaning of a rose when William Blake wrote “The Sick Rose”?)

When does the cultural context of art-making affect the meaning of a work of art?  We will examine more at length cultural aesthetic traditions in chapter six, but for now we may provisionally grant that cultural setting can indeed shape the meaning of a work of art.  For example, Rublev’s icon of the Trinity seems inextricably bound up in the tradition of iconography which sees the image as a reflection of the Godhead, as understood in Russian Orthodoxy.

I suggest, then, that historical and cultural conditions are often vital (sometimes more than others) to determining a work of arts’ meaning). But sometimes works can have power and beauty irrespective of context. Moreover, once one distinguishes between, say, a play and a performance, we may well have circumstances in which a current performance of a play has a meaning that is quite independent of its original setting. For example, it is plausible to interpret Aristophanes’ 4th c. BCE play Lysistrata as an anti-war play (women go on a sex strike to try to stop the war between Athens and Sparta) and that is the most common interpretation of modern performances of the play. It is possible, however, that the play was originally perceived as a comic denigration of women rather than a comic affirmation of women. If that is a fact, that need not entail that current performances of the play denigrate women. Indeed, current performances may be profoundly affirming of female wit and wisdom, irrespective of the original setting of the play.

On at least one point, historical context seems vital and that concerns originality. The title of a recent article aptly sums up the role of history: “So you want to sing with the Beatles? It’s too late.”



Sometimes the gender of the artist seems quite irrelevant to the meaning of works of art, but not always. First, there is the phenomenon that some call “the male gaze,” a reference to the thesis that women are portrayed historically in the arts in terms of or in reference to an objectifying male viewer. In this framework man is the one who gazes at the woman as the object of his desire. Concepts of female beauty sometimes reflect what males believe, expect, and desire, rather than reflect principally a woman’s viewpoint or a genderless point of view (if that is even possible). In the feminist critique of the male gaze, the objectifying element is understood as male but it can be taken up by women; women, in other words, may look at women with the values and objectification stemming from male desire. A woman might see herself as she wants men to see her. Whether or not artwork is produced under such objectifying conditions seems to be an important element in its meaning. At an extreme, when painting, photographs, films and so on are so geared toward arousing and exciting desire, the work at hand may seem more like pornography than erotic art. We will return to questions about desire and gender in the next chapter on art and values.

Second, it has been argued that traditional works, such as some traditions of textiles, that have not been recognized as work of art may reflect male bias. Actually, the case of textiles is especially revealing of a gender bias, for until recently textiles have been recognized as art when done by men but not women. Feminists have often argued that the canon on what counts as worthy of aesthetic, appreciative experience need to be excluded. Estella Lauter writes that:

“Feminist theory enhances our experience of art by accounting for it more accurately. It expands the range of what we consider to be art and prepares the way to legitimate new art forms; opens the community of artists; revalues subjectivity in art and augments it to include women’s experiences; allows us to reconnect aesthetic values with political activity; stimulates criticism of obsolete aesthetic standards and validates new ones; valorizes new modes of production; and supports more active responses.”  (Lauter 1993,  33)

This more expanded view point also promotes a more expansive, critical perspective that allows one to lament why there have been fewer women artists recognized in the art historical canon until recent times.

Some works of art seem to explicitly reference the fact that they are produced by women.  Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party may be a good example. The installation consists of a large sculptural platform evoking a dining table and plates decorated with vaginal forms. The facts that this was produced by a woman at the time she did it (1979) seems to be part of the meaning of the work.

In general, gender, sex, and sexual orientation seem to not always be relevant to a work’s meaning unless this involves an explicit reference in the work itself or clue to salient historical conditions involving gender. There is a reason why Virginia Woolf lamented the historical conditions that would have made a female Shakespeare a near impossibility. It is only recently that opportunities for women in the artworld have neared what men have had throughout the modern era.



We come now to a key battleground in aesthetics: can there be more than one meaning to a work of art? Those philosophers who privilege the intentions of the artist in fixing meaning, tend to distinguish between the meaning of a work of art and its significance.  Imagine Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabinwas not actually written by Ms. Stowe. Instead, it was discovered to have been authored by a white, Southern slave owner as a joke as part of a bet that he could simulate abolitionist writing. Under these circumstances, one may well conclude that the meaning of the work is ironic for it is not sincerely made, but that thesignificance of the book as a powerful condemnation of slavery remains intact.

Philosophers who are loathe to commit the so-called fallacy of appealing to authorial intent are less likely to make the above move.  Some philosophers and art critics allow for multiple, shifting interpretations of works of art.  So, for example, one may offer the following interpretation of the Iliad:

“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Illiad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man shrinks away. . . .  The cold brutality of the deeds of war is left undisguised; neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scorned, or hated. . . . As for the warriors, victors or vanquished, those comparisons which liken them to beasts or things can inspire neither admiration nor contempt, but only regret that men are capable of being so transformed.” (Weil 1941,  163, 190)

This interpretation of the Iliad is by Simone Weil, and it reflects (in part) her own critique of western culture.  And yet (some argue) it may be equally valid to detect in the Iliad a subtle critique of force and kleos, or glory.  Yes, at the heart of the Iliad there is aristocratic, bone-crushing violence, but there is also tender mourning over loss.  When Hector takes leave of his wife Andromache for the last time, she urges him to defend their city walls from a safe vantage point.  One can vividly sense her painful longing for the safety of her husband.  And when Priam retrieves the body of his beloved, slain son, Hector, it is hard not to be moved when he kisses the hand of Achilles, the man who killed his son.

As you may suspect from my earlier observations about intentionality, history, culture and gender, I do not think “anything goes” in terms of interpreting texts. In the Iliad, for example, I propose that we can find some grounding and warrant for Weil’s interpretation, but there is also some signs of ambivalence in the poem about force and the ultimate pursuit of kleos. Glory is in play, but so is a mourning for its cost, and perhaps the interplay of glory and mourning is what gives the Iliad its awesome grandeur. Still, the meaning and significance of works seem to admit of some shifting. Shakespeare’s Hamlet may have originally been about Protestantism in the early modern era, but its richness seems to admit of such a multitude of layers that any single sense of its meaning and significance must remain fluid.

Perhaps the most radical view of the meaning of artwork comes from Jacques Derrida and a methodology of deconstruction. On this view, texts have no stable meaning, as is demonstrated when works of art or texts can be shown to contain conflicted ideas, even contradictory elements. Derrida, however, distanced himself from some of the radical (American) deconstructionists before he died in 2004. A slightly less radical view of the meaning of texts was advanced by Roland Barthes. In a famous essay, Barthes sought to construe “texts” as fluid objects that may be shaped by readers:

“In opposition to the notion of the work of art or literature there now arises a need for a new object, one obtained by the displacement or overturning of previous categories. This object is the Text…. The Text must not be thought of as a defined object. It would be useless to attempt a material separation of works and texts. A very ancient work can contain “some text,” while many products of contemporary literature are not texts at all. The difference is as follows: the work is concrete, occupying a portion of book-space (in a library, for example); the Text, on the other hand, is a methodological field.”  (Barthes 1979,  74)

Bathes’ ultimate picture of the reader and text involves interaction and invention.

“Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness – he is intransitive; he is… serious: instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum. Opposite the writerly text, then, is its countervalue, its negative, reactive value: what can be read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text.”  (Barthes 1974, 4)

Perhaps Barthes is right, though I suggest in the next section that there are two ways (at least) of interpreting and experiencing works of art. One may be like the Barthian interaction in which one may use a work of art and learn from it, whereas in another approach to works of art we cultivate the virtues of being able to surrender to artworks, enabling them to have an independent life.

Before moving to clarify such a distinction, it is worth noting that the Barthian model may especially fit the way some religious texts are read, historically and today. To take just one example, traditional Christians believe that the word of God is living and active. This means that the meaning of the Bible may unfold gradually over time and that the meaning of Biblical narratives and Christ’s parables and teachings can come to have different facets over time. The meaning of the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Genesis may be read as a harbinger of the life and sacrifice of the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (Genesis 37:19,20, King James Bible). One of the reasons why the Bible has this fluidity goes back to the treatment of intentionality. If God exists and intends to use scriptures as the locus of divine disclosure this may be pictured in terms of scripture being a fixed repository of wisdom. On the other hand, scripture may be pictured as a resource that can have a dynamic interplay between the church and scripture in the context of God’s dynamic interplay with the world. (If you find such issues interesting, check out Philosophy of Religion; A Beginner’s Guide.)


Virtue Aesthetics

In the next chapter we will consider a host of values to be found in works of art and that may define judgments of worth and excellence.  In the present context of determining the work’s meaning, however, values are not out of place.  It seems that searching for a work’s meaning involves a host of virtues: persistent observation, reading and re-reading, adroit listening, care, thoroughness, fairness, humility.  Educational background seems to be key for some works of art but not so for others.  An important distinction lies in the difference between two phrases: getting something from a work of art and seeing something in a work of art.  In the former, one may gain an insight from a work of art that was not intended by the artist nor determined by the historical conditions of the art-making.  On this plane, the work of art may have a free-standing role in prompting one’s aesthetic experience.  This seems especially fitting when one takes seriously the aesthetic, affective dimensions of a work of art. In this approach to a work of art the virtue of persistent, sensitive observation may be less fettered by matters of meaning. You might learn something about jealousy from the play Othello quite independent of whether Shakespeare or his contemporaries would have  been able to grasp your insights. We might say that Othello helped you develop a quite independent way of thinking.

In contrast, the idea of seeing something in a work of art suggests that there is a meaning of the work quite independent of whether you happen to see it.  Perhaps the meaning is determined by authorial intent, history, cultural context, gender, and so on.  But in this view, the work has this meaning and it falls to us to discover it. While on this model, one’s observations may be guided by artistic intent, we can also appreciate that it may also be informed by the work itself. Harold Osbourne describes this as follows:

“The concentration of attention on the work of art as a thing in its own right, an artifact with standards and functions of its own, and not an instrument made to further purposes which could equally be promoted otherwise than by art objects. . . . A work of art, it is now held, is in concept an artifact made for the purpose of being appreciated in the special mode of aesthetic contemplation; and although particular works of art may be intended to do other things and may in fact serve other purposes as well as this, the excellence of any work of art as art is assessed in terms of its suitability for such contemplation. This is what is meant by claiming that art is autonomous: it is not assessed by external standards applicable elsewhere, but by standards of its own.” (Osbourne 1970,  262-263)

Osborne’s vantage point can be appreciated without going all the way back to the Beardsley-Wimsatt strict prohibitions on recourse to intentionality. The point I want to stress here about seeing something in a work of art (or hearing or feeling) is that it involves the virtue of attending to the work on its own terms, allowing the work to work on you as opposed to having the artwork stimulate you into independent reverie.

Given that art works themselves are bearers of aesthetic properties, attentive observation involves an appreciation of sensory experience within the work as opposed to what is merely associated with the work. Charles Hartshorne’s understanding of emotions and colors seems to accurately reflect true lived experience of gazing at and into the artwork’s different layers:

“The ‘affective’ tonality, the aesthetic or tertiary quality, usually supposed to be merely “associated with” a sensory quality is, in part at least, identical with the quality, one with its nature or essence. Thus, the ‘gaiety’ of yellow (the peculiar highly specific gaiety) is the yellowness of the yellow.” (Hartshorne 1968,  7)

C. S. Lewis ably described the process of seeking to experience artwork rather than, as he put it, using artwork. In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis wrote about the difference between using and appreciating an artwork:

“This attitude, which was once my own, might almost be defined as ‘using’ pictures. While you retain this attitude you treat the pictures – or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture – as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you . . . Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimbue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”  (Lewis 2006,  16-19)

This kind of appreciation involves what many consider aesthetic virtues, those qualities that enhance an experience of the aesthetic. If Lewis is right, these virtues involve active observation as well as a yielding surrender.

Some conceptual works of art are especially good at offering you both something to see into as well as something to impact one’s further reflection and seeing. Consider, for example, these three images from the American artist’s Jil Evans’ series Prosperos Branch (Figure 7). These are solar plate etchings made from digital images, capturing shadows randomly photographed as they move across the artist’s sketchbook. The images seem alive and invite us to entertain the difference between a controlled frame (the sketchbook, which is always at the center), and the random air currents and ambient light. One can see in this work an artist’s challenge to us to consider the natural response of the mind to look for meaning and metaphor. In a sense, what is in the work is a prompt to think about mind and meaning. The title recalls the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who used his book of spells to magically create shapes and (with the help of Ariel) bring about peace, romance, and reconciliation.

Questions about the meaning of artwork inevitably bring up questions of value. To see this connection it may be useful to reflect briefly on one of the most aesthetically oriented philosophies of art in the 20th century. John Dewey believed that we tend to group or identify the many events in our lives in relation to what we value. He offers this vivid understanding of when we might claim to have an experience:

“Experience in this vital sense is defined by those situations and episodes that we spontaneously refer to as being “real experiences”; those things of which we say in recalling them, “that was an experience.” It may have been something of tremendous importance – a quarrel with one who was once an intimate, a catastrophe finally averted by a hair’s breadth. Or it may have been something that in comparison was slight – and which perhaps because of its very slightness illustrates all the better what it is to be an experience. There is that meal in a Paris restaurant of which one say “that was an experience.” It stands out as an enduring memorial of what food may be. Then there is that storm one went through in crossing the Atlantic – the storm that seemed in its fury, as it was experienced, to sum up in itself all that a storm can be, complete in itself, standing out because marked out from what went before and what came after.” (Dewey 1996,  612)

Dewey went on to claim that works of art are a product or artifact of such experiences; in works of art we set up an object that (when experienced appreciably) invites or stimulates us to enjoy (or endure) a value-laded aesthetic experience.

One of the implications of Dewey’s philosophy of art is that works of art do not properly function as works of art unless they are experienced. (If we invent a parallel question to “If a tree falls in the forest and no none is around, does it make a noise?” and get “If works of art are not experienced aesthetically, are they still functioning as works of art?” Dewey would answer the second question with a “no.”) A further implication of Dewey’s philosophy is that the very nature and meaning of aesthetics and artwork involve values, and so it is to values and works of art we turn in the next chapter.