Monday, November 27, 2006

There is Something Outside the Text

Having argued against "the sensible belief that a text means what its author meant", we face a threat of critical imperialism: if our target is not the intention of the artist, why limit our interpretive interest to works of art? Why not interpret the songs of birds as music, politics as theatre, or the marks of waves upon a beach as words?

The most plausible reason, I think, is that our interest in art is an interest in intentional action, even if the intention does not extend to the meaning of the work. Art always belongs to a specific tradition or practice, with which the artist is deliberately – though sometimes perversely – engaged. The intention of the artist is relevant, primarily, to the form of the work; its meanings are fixed in turn by the conventions of the form, to which artist and audience defer. It is not up to the composer whether a passage of music is bleak or courageous; nor are the facts of motive and theme in fiction immediately responsive to the author's will.

The autonomy of artistic meaning, and its dependence on form, can be seen most readily in contrived examples, like Robert Graves' recasting of "The Solitary Reaper" in "Wordsworth by Cable":

If you are inclined to object that the words have also changed, compare the recent setting of Phil Rizzuto's baseball commentary as free verse:

Challenge to Youth
I tell you what I would change:
That NO BALK to second base.
You know,
You can do anything to second base.
Yeah, I never did like that.
What would you change?
It is not a consequence of this account that the artist's intention is never directly relevant. Is the ending of the Shostakovich Fifth ironic, "as if someone were beating you with a stick, and saying 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing'"? That depends, in part, on whether Volkov's Testimony (in which those words are attributed to Shostakovich) is true or false.

The more pervasive effect of the generic approach is to suggest that questions of interpretation are always historical, and thus to vindicate critical interest in the artist and her context. There is no sharp distinction between the interpretation of art – a certain kind of cultural artifact – and the understanding of culture in general.

The study of criticism can therefore take two different forms: it may be the philosophy of history – not confined to artists and their work – or it may be the history of painting, or the novel, or the string quartet. There is a sense in which Socrates was right to doubt that interpretation is an art, that the rhapsodist has a single expertise. If the philosophy of criticism is meant to investigate, a priori, the principles of meaning and interpretation that apply to art, as such, it follows that there is no such thing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you write is reasonable, but be careful not to forget non-western art nor western art of the pre-modern period. The intentions being expressed through or by the work of art may not be (seen as) those of the artist apparently constructing it. They may, instead, be the intentions of a being from a spirit realm (being channeled by the artist), for example, or the intentions of the community to which the artist belongs.

It is a peculiarly modern, western conceit that art works primarily reflect the intentions of the artist who made it, and he or she alone. It is not for nothing that ours is a culture with copyright laws.

5:57 PM  

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