JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)



ABSTRACT—A formal claim was made in the mid-20th century that the goal of art conservation is to present the artwork as the artist intended it to be seen. Dispute over this claim among conservators and art historians involved differences of perspective on the relative roles of science and art history in the interpretation of artist's intent. A separate but concurrent debate among philosophers, art critics, and literary critics was sparked by publication of “The Intentional Fallacy,” a scholarly article discrediting appeals to the intentions of artists and authors in art and literary criticism. In this separate debate, difficulty in the evaluation and application of artist's intent was traced to ambiguity of the term “intent.” The author discusses 11 variations of its meaning and puts the issues surrounding artist's intent together in the contexts of art conservation. He also presents more recent viewpoints in the social sciences that associate issues of artist's intent with the role of the artist in the continued existence of the artwork. The writings of contemporary philosophers contribute useful perspectives on the essential nature of art and the autonomy of artworks from their creators. The author finds that the interpretation and application of artist's intent is an interdisciplinary task and that its evaluation in conservation contexts is limited to consideration of distinctive stylistic characteristics that demonstrate the correlated individuality of artists and their work.

TITRE—L'intention de l'artiste et la tromperie intentionnelle dans la conservation des oeivres d'art. R�SUM�—Au milieu du 20e si�cle, on pr�tendait que l'objectif de la restauration �tait de rendre aux oeuvres d'art l'aspect que l'artiste avait voulu leur donner. La controverse qui s'en suivit parmi les restaurateurs et les historiens d'art suscita des diff�rences de consid�ration sur les r�les relatifs de la science et de l'histoire de l'art dans l'interpr�tation de l'intention de l'artiste. Un d�bat s�par� mais parall�le parmi les philosophes, les critiques d'art et les critiques litt�raires fut d�clench� par la publication d'un article �rudit intitul� “The Intentional Fallacy,” qui s'opposait � cette r�f�rence aux intentions des artistes et des auteurs dans la critique artistique et litt�raire. Dans ce d�bat particulier, la difficult� de l'�valuation et de l'application de l'intention de l'artiste provenait de l'ambigu�t� m�me du terme “intention.” L'auteur examine 11 significations diff�rnetes de ce mot, et il pose le probl�me de l'intention de l'artiste dans les contextes li�s au domaine de la restauration. En outre, il pr�sente des points de vue plus rec�nts, tir�s des sciences sociales qui associent les probl�mes de l'intention de l'artiste � celui de son r�le dans l'existence continue de l'oeuvre d'art. Les ouvrages des philosophes contemporains apportent des perspectives utiles sur la nature essentielle de l'art et de l'autonomie des oeuvres vis-�-vis de leurs cr�ateurs. L'auteur pense que l'interpr�tation et l'�tude des intentions de l'artiste est une t�che interdisciplinaire, et que son �valuation dans les contextes de la restauration doit �tre limit�e � la consid�ration des caract�ristiques stylistiques particuli�res qui d�montrent l'individualit� corr�lative des artistes et de leurs oeuvres.

T�TULO: La intenci�n del artista y la falacia intencional en la conservaci�n de objetos de arte. RESUMEN: A mediados del siglo 20 fue hecha una afirmaci�n formal acerca de que el objetivo de la conservaci�n de arte es presentar la obra para que sea vista de acuerdo a la intenci�n del artista. La disputa sobre esta afirmaci�n entre conservadores e historiadores del arte comprendi� diferencias de perspectiva sobre los roles relativos de la ciencia y la historia del arte en la interpretaci�n de la intenci�n del artista. Un debate entre fil�sofos, criticos de arte y cr�ticos literarios, generado en forma independiente pero concurrente con esta disputa, fue encendido por la publicaci�n de “La Falacia Internacional,” un art�culo erudito que desacredita el recurso de apelar a las intenciones de los artistas y autores en las cr�ticas del arte y la literatura. En este debate independiente, la dificultad en la evaluaci�n y aplicaci�n de la intenci�n del artista fue adjudicada a la ambig�edad del t�rmino “intenci�n.” El autor discute 11 variaciones en el significado de este t�rmino, y coloca conjuntamente las cuestiones que rodean a la intenci�n del artista dentro de los contextos de la conservaci�n de arte. Tambi�n presenta puntos de cista mas recientes en el campo de las ciencias sociales que asocian las cuestiones relativas a la intenci�n del artista con el rol que �ste tiene en la existencia perdurable de la obra de arte. Los escritos de fil�sofos contempor�neos contribuyen con perspectivas �tiles acerca de la naturalcza esencial del arte y la autonom�a de las obras de arte respecto de sus creadores. El autor encuentra que la interpretaci�n y aplicaci�n de la intenci�n del artista es una tarea interdisciplinaria, y que su evaluaci�n en contextos de conservac�on esta limitada a consideraciones sobre caract�risticas estil�sticas distintivas, que demuestran la correlativa individualidad de los artistas y sus obras.


The restoration of fine art, as it is conceived and practiced in the West, is occasionally accompanied by controversy. Since the Renaissance, various standards and principles of restoration practice have been proposed and pursued, debated, and revised or discarded by succeeding generations. Among the most prominently debated principles in the 20th century is the claim that the goal of art conservation should be to present the artwork as the artist originally intended it to be seen. This idea emerged informally and anonymously in the late 19th century after advances in scientific analysis raised the possibility of identifying the artist's original materials and distinguishing them from later additions or alterations due to age, nature, accident, or human intervention.

It was inevitable that science would be applied to art and art history. Scientific approaches to worldly knowledge found increasing acceptance and recognition in the previous two centuries, and, by the early 19th century, the scientific perspective was formed into a system of philosophy based on the positive data of sense experience. Positivism located the roots of truth and knowledge in positive, observable scientific facts and their relations to each other and to natural law. In reaction, antipositivism arose to proclaim and defend the validity of human experience and human knowledge beyond the analytic reach of scientific method. Antipositivists concerned themselves with the soundness and cogency of experience and knowledge in the personal and social realms, especially in what came to be known as the social sciences. Debate between positivists and antipositivists received the most focused attention in the fields of anthropology and sociology. By the end of the 19th century, positivism was so broadly exercised and widespread that national differences in its application to art and art criticism were apparent (Broude 1991). In art history and in the emerging discipline of art conservation, debate about the role and influence of science and scientific technologies became involved with the concept of artist's intent in the National Gallery cleaning controversy of the 1940s and 1950s, when a technologically defined idea of following the artist's intentions was formalized as a principle of art conservation.

Simultaneously, in literary and philosophical circles, the concept of artist's intent became the direct subject of another debate, unrelated to scientific and technological considerations. The phrase “intentional fallacy” was coined in the title of an influential scholarly article claiming that artists' intentions are neither available nor desirable as a standard for assessing art. The position established in “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1946) became known as anti-intentionalism. Intentionalists disagreed, arguing that any sense of the artist's intention, however obscure, can be a useful resource in interpreting a work of art.

Philosophy is not often a forte of the pragmatic practitioner, concerned with empirical results. Unlike philosophers, historians, and literary critics, art conservators did not separate along intentionalist and anti-intentionalist lines. While other disciplines perceived their specific issues in terms of positivism versus antipositivism and differing theories of art criticism and interpretation, conservators were artificially and superficially separated into two ad hoc schools—aesthetic conservators and scientific conservators. The broader issues became mired in methodological disagreement, and the principle of adherence to the artist's intentions was reduced to a casual tenet of conservation theory.

Most of the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding artist's intentions can be directly attributed to the use of the word “intention” when it is applied to artists and their work. The word is tightly tied to subtle and diverse references to artistic biography and to competing theories of art, creativity, and aesthetics. Unraveling the knotted meanings of this word is necessary for improved discussion of the idea and its surrounding issues in the field of art conservation. Precise language and a deliberate understanding of the role of the artist in the artwork allow artist's intent to be carefully comprehended and applied to art conservation issues in a clear and constructive way.

Important contributions to this work come from philosophers working in the field of contemporary hermeneutics, the specific subdiscipline of philosophy concerned with the processes of interpretation, discourse, and humanistic understanding. In the past two decades, this work has shed new light on artistic discourse, the role of the artist, and the fundamental nature of works of art. The nature of art, artist's intentions, theory of the text, and theory of the work are all vital topics in contemporary hermeneutics.


Artists' intentions can have various levels of complexity and reference, but conservators quickly recognize a familiar problem at the root of the surrounding issues. Time, grime, and mishap always create conditions that obscure, alter, or destroy the character of the artist's original work. Paints dry, crack, and flake; canvases sag; and panels split. Organic colorants may fade to translucence, and metallic pigments can oxidize from red and green to black and brown. Additionally, one or more restorers may have had a hand in the artwork by reinterpreting or attempting to reveal, repair, or replace what the artist created, often with temporary effect. Eternally durable and changeless materials are unavailable to artists and conservators alike. Natural processes and physical conditions eventually alter the attributes of materials that succeed under the artist's hand or in the conservator's studio. Conservators know how difficult it can be to predict or control these alterations, and it makes for wary work. Regardless of the artist's clarity of purpose, all his or her material determinations are subject to physical damage, decline, and decay. Artistic achievements are not and cannot be fixed forever in the final physical result of artists' creative work.

Recent analytic research in art conservation makes the temporality of artists' materials painfully apparent. A work of art that is carefully protected from grime, environmental and mechanical stress, mishap, and restoration is nonetheless subject to chemical decomposition. Changes in materials begin in the first instant of their use. Depending on the artist's choices, changes may be rapid or slow, but usually chemical change becomes apparent within a quarter century.

Georges Seurat's La Grande Jatte (1884–86, Art Institute of Chicago) lost its initial luminous charm within five years. Its yellow, orange, and green pigments were quick to decay into more stable, less colorful chemical compounds (Fiedler 1984). Albert Pinkham Ryder's incessant reworking with mixtures of varnish and paint was driven, in part, by quickly fading artistic effects (Svoboda and Van Vooren 1989). Until his death, Ryder struggled with the appearance of The Tempest (1890s and later, Detroit Institute of Arts), first exhibited to the public more than 25 years earlier. Today, many of his paintings have deteriorated almost beyond recognition.

Twentieth-century art is not exempt from this effect. Joseph Albers's meticulously chosen and applied paints exhibit differing types and rates of deterioration within the same painting (Garland 1983). Mark Rothko mixed his paint for the Houston chapel to achieve a special paint surface quality that proved to be exceptionally short lived (Mancusi-Ungaro 1981).

Some contemporary artists consciously disregard the quick mortality of the media they select, suggesting that permanence is irrelevant to their work. Jasper Johns once joked that he would be a richer man if he were the conservator of his encaustic paintings instead of their creator (quoted in Wyer 1988, 46). Robert Rauschenberg said, “Art has risk built into it. … I don't consider any material unavailable to me” (quoted in Wyer 1988, 46). Anselm Kiefer's works that include straw on the surface deteriorate so readily that debris was reported to accumulate on an exhibition hall floor between regular sweepings (Wyer 1988, 48).

The technical impossibility of stopping the deterioration of an artist's initial creation is clearly understood today. In the face of desperate problems, lighthearted conservators may playfully wish for frigid, lightless, airless storage vaults, perhaps deep in caves on the dark side of the moon! Equally playful is the futuristic hypothesis that molecularly exact reproductions could substitute for artists' deteriorated originals. There is a note of ironic humor in the realization that the next generation of conservators would meet the deferred problems again when faced with conservation of the replica.

Because physical artworks are the primary grounds for representing artist's intentions, a paradox occurs: physical materials decay, but artists' purposes, aims, goals, and objectives exist in a psychological arena where they do not decompose or deteriorate. Eventually and inevitably artists' materials lose fidelity in their allegiance and attachment to artist's intentions. Recognition of physical decay or damage invites questions about the materials' reference to the artist's intent. These questions can be surprisingly varied and complex, and there are equally various and complicated ways of attempting to answer them.


Beginning in the later 19th century, science and the scientific method were introduced into the mix of crafts and techniques used by serious art restorers. Scientific advances and refinements in scientific method opened the possibility of uniform and analytic approaches to restoration problems and processes. The use of scientific procedures promised relief from confusion and criticism caused by idiosyncratic or arbitrary restoration practices in the past. An emphasis on preservation and the use of knowledge in the physical and chemical sciences eventually came to distinguish the new discipline of art conservation from the older trade of restoration. Applied to art and art conservation, positivism implied that aesthetic and art historical apprehension had to be acquired candidly through the senses and be based on frank observation and experiment. In the positivist's view, intuitions, impressions, insights, suppositions, feelings, and the like are questionable and uncertain ways of understanding. “Positive” knowledge depends on empirical science (Broude 1991, 114).

By the time the first American conservation laboratory was established at the Fogg Art Museum in 1928, it was simply accepted that the natural sciences were the model and method for describing the standards by which artworks would be restored and maintained. Art conservation was understood to be a matter of chemistry, physics, and mechanics, and it was the responsibility of professional practitioners, working under strict guidelines based on a solid scientific foundation (Stout 1948, vi–vii).

Although science became an indispensable part of the conservator's training and perspective, it could not become an exclusive approach. Science provided the means for developing technologies, detecting significant facts, and matching them to theory. In practice, it could describe reliable means for achieving certain ends, but it could not decide the suitability of those ends or justify them by scientific virtue alone. Instead there was a belief that the authority of science and scientific technologies would complement the art of restoration and lend it the type of credibility that was carved out in the natural sciences. There was confidence that a measure of scientific objectivity would dispel any perceptions of art restoration as an entirely interpretive and unrestrained process.

Scientific foundations notwithstanding, controversy embroiled the young discipline of art conservation just as it had plagued earlier means and manners of restoration. In 1947, the National Gallery, London, held a special exhibition of newly cleaned paintings, partly to demonstrate the results of serious scientific conservation. Reactions to this exhibition were not universally favorable. Contrary and inflamed opinions were expressed by the general public in letters to the Times and the Sunday Telegraph. In addition to the public tumult, some distinguished art historians and respected critics also disputed the cleaning results. Many of the most rational and scholarly arguments were eventually presented in the pages of Burlington Magazine. Three months after the exhibition's opening, Burlington editors commented:

Though our most serious quarrel is with those who maintain that the national pictures have been damaged, we still cling to the suspicion, which even this most reassuring Exhibition cannot entirely dispel, that the responsible authorities set too much store by science, and too little by that capricious barometer registering sensibility (Burlington Magazine 1947).

Helmut Ruhemann, the gallery's director of conservation, was a strong supporter of a positivist approach. In response to demands and questions from an independent board of inquiry, conservators at the National Gallery referred to technical evidence and scientific analysis done during the treatments to argue that historical speculation and metaphysical clutter had created misconceptions about the true appearance of old paintings. Ruhemann and the positivist conservators firmly believed that scientific observation, study, and experimentation validated systematic art conservation technologies and that consistent application of these technologies accurately exposed, preserved, and truthfully presented the materials originally laid down by the artist. In this way, the intentions of the artist were served equitably, without interpretive distortion. Ruhemann and his supporters defined and defended their position by appealing to the artist's intentions as an authoritative principle. Conservators from the National Gallery claimed: “It is presumed to be beyond dispute that the aim of those entrusted with the care of paintings is to present them as nearly as possible in the state in which the artist intended them to be seen” (MacLaren and Werner 1950, 189).

In its most dogmatic form, this claim implied that all artifacts of aging and all previous retouching should be removed or remedied to the extent technologically possible without harming or obscuring the remaining original paint. The conservator's job was “to preserve and show to its best advantage every original particle remaining of a painting,” and in so doing he or she should be “guided by the master's intention” (Ruhemann 1963, 202).

This technologically driven program for following the artist's intentions was supposed to represent an objective, noninterpretive approach to restoration. It was questioned by conservators and art historians with antipositivist leanings who insisted that artistic, aesthetic, and historical considerations were not receiving enough attention in a narrow and insensitive conception of conservation goals. Cesare Brandi, head of the Instituto del Restauro in Rome, told attendees at the 1948 International Council of Museums meeting in Paris, “We may often find ourselves in closer touch with the mind of the artist by leaving the picture with its patina than by removing it” (1949, 188). Paul Coremans of the Courtauld Institute defended the cleaning of a Rubens in the 1947 exhibition but admitted, “I do not claim to have exhausted the subject, especially since my argument is confined to chemical, physical, and technical considerations, and since the cleaning of old pictures should at the same time be judged in the light of aesthetic criteria” (1948, 261).

In reaction to Ruhemann's 1961 publication of a positivist approach to Leonardo DaVinci's use of sfumato, art historian Ernst Gombrich revisited the issues raised by the 1947 exhibition and became leader of the antipositivist opposition with a claim that strictly technical approaches to conservation treatment yielded paintings whose condition and appearance were newly artificial and alien to any human memory or recollection (Gombrich 1962). Art historical understanding and connoisseurship should control the course of conservation treatment, he argued. New appearances should not be discovered or determined by technical methods alone. Gombrich and his supporters insisted that paintings should be restored with a comparative and discerning eye toward their faded colors, their characteristic patina, and inevitable decay. They claimed that prudent aesthetic and historical interpretations should have precedence over technologically determined expositions.

The National Gallery cleaning controversy, which also became known as the Ruhemann-Gombrich debate, revolved around issues of artist's intentions. Both camps invoked these issues in their arguments (Carrier 1985, 291–92). On Gombrich's side, the general claim was that a technologically driven approach does not necessarily respect artistic or historical consideration of an artist's work (Gombrich 1963). Argument from historical research asserted that certain Old Masters anticipated the aging of their work, intending them to darken and fade (Kurz 1962, 1963). Connoisseurship and aesthetic observation suggested that purposeful artistic effects, perhaps the use of tinted varnishes and glazes, were not recognized by positivist methods and techniques (Rees-Jones 1962). Additionally, paintings change in time, Gombrich and his supporters argued, and in a way that is not retractable; they cannot be returned to their original order and state as they appeared in the hands of their makers. Referring indirectly to the cleaning of Titian's Virgin and Child with Saints John & Catherine, Gombrich remarked, “One should have thought it is common ground that Titian is dead and that we cannot ask him what his intention was” (Gombrich 1962, 54). The National Gallery cleaning controversy deflated somewhat after Ruhemann's camp contrived a mocking pun accusing Gombrich and followers of fascination with “dirty” pictures (Walden 1985, 118).

In 1977, a similar controversy erupted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington over the cleaning of paintings, especially one attributed to Rembrandt. By this time, the differences between positivist and antipositivist approaches divided the art conservation profession into scientific and aesthetic camps, at least in the perception of the communications media and its public (Hochfield 1976, 1978). John Brealey, conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was cast to represent the aesthetic antipositivist approach (Tompkins 1987): “What we don't do here is try to make believe the whole thing is scientific, wear white coats and use Formica tables and pretend we're dealing with absolutes” (quoted in Glueck 1980). Scientific or purist conservators were less willing to entertain media attention. Their research, techniques, and analyses were supported by publication in technical and professional journals, and when invited to counter their antagonists and critics, they often chose to remain nameless (McGill 1987). Although their rhetoric was adamant and their arguments were sound, aesthetic conservators could not reduce the power and status of the scientific approach. The personal authority of individual erudition was essential to the aes-thetic conservators' position. Its personal source and subjective premises did not hold against the impersonal authority of science.

The controversy and debate between conservators refocused and intensified the uncomfortable atmosphere of ad hominem argument that has surrounded restoration issues for centuries. Titian, for instance, restored several masterpieces in his day and employed a personal insult to criticize Sebastiano del Piombo's retouching of the famous rooms at the Vatican, originally painted by Raphael (Dolce [1577] 1970, 22–23). Eug�ne Delacroix claimed that restoration was vandalism perpetrated by miserable daubers who destroyed artworks by usurping the place of real artists, substituting new work for the originals (1948, 104). Speaking of the individual erudition necessary for the aesthetic conservator's work, one conservator remarked:

[There] is an implicit tendency for the method to create prima donna restorers, who, as they are actively changing old masters, must lay claim to great sensitivity and a highly perceptive eye. This can lead to futile discussions since, to disagree with an individual of such capacities, simply confirms your own lack of those qualities (Hedley 1985, 19).

Conservators, art historians, and critics with less polemical responses to controversy avoided the sharpened horns of this dilemma between scientific and aesthetic methods. Many believed that scientific authority and art historical weight can often be balanced in conservation work. Another conservator recalled Erwin Panofsky's tribute to Paul Coremans, who “more than anyone else encouraged the art historical lamb to dwell with the scientific wolf,” quoting Coremans's words:

We intend to grant an equal importance to the elements of appreciation in the areas historic, aesthetic, scientific and technical. We believe, in effect, that it is erroneous and baneful to raise a barrier between knowledge called scientific, the result of observation and of the interpretation of the facts, and the knowledge called intuitive, born from contemplation. We have, on the contrary, the conviction that only their association, their interpenetration, always in a more profound way, will permit us to progress towards treatments ever more effective and more respectful of the objects (quoted in Weil 1984, 91).

In the long lingering aftermath of the National Gallery cleaning controversy, it eventually became clear that the positivist postulation about serving the artist's intentions was hollow. A strict, technologically driven approach achieved only a scientifically bona fide presentation of authentic material—a presentation that did not necessarily reveal the artist's original creation, support conventions of connoisseurship, or fulfill art historical research and precedent.


Mid-century debate among conservators and art historians about standards, principles, and the artist's intent was contemporaneous with a parallel debate in literary and philosophical circles. However, there was little if any crossover on this subject between the art conservation profession and the disciplines of art criticism, literary criticism, and the philosophy of art. In these other disciplines, discourse on the intentions of artists and authors and intentionality in general were less polemical, more orderly, and more prolific. A debate between intentionalists and anti-intentionalists was inspired by Wimsatt and Beardsley's essay, “The Intentional Fallacy,” appearing in the Sewanee Review (1946). This debate ultimately arrived at the description of many subtle conceptual differences packed into the seemingly simple abstraction “intent.” The word and its exact reference in a given context became a subject and a problem in itself.

The intentional fallacy is not an error of formal logic like the circular argument or begging the question. Instead, it represents the claim that artist's intent is neither available nor desirable as a standard for assessing artistic works: mistaken justification occurs when readers or beholders attribute scientific, critical, or historical interpretations to the mentality of the author or artist. This justification appears mistaken because these interpretations have sources that are several steps removed from the artist's thought. Only the work was directly created by the artist, not the interpretations derived from it by beholders. The intentional fallacy applies when critics, historians, or conservators associate their analyses and interpretations with the artist's work and equate their conclusions with the artist's aims. Simply stated, the intentional fallacy insists that our interpretations are our own and we are mistaken if we identify them with the artist instead of ourselves.

Wimsatt and Beardsley's article framed the topic of artist's intent in a way that provoked discussions and invited critiques. In the following years, a number of scholarly articles were published drawing examples to support or contradict its application to specific literary and artistic cases. Controversy, confusion, and excitement grew and the intentional fallacy gained a certain notoriety as a burdensome stumbling block in art and literary criticism. Within a decade, the proliferation of commentators on this topic led to the organization of a symposium on “Intention and Interpretation in Art” at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, in 1955. The purpose of the symposium was to air and clarify intentionalist and anti-intentionalist views.

Anti-intentionalists argued that the relevance of the artist's intent is found only in the artwork, not in the inner workings of the artist's psyche. If the artist's intentions are carried out successfully, the artwork shows what the artist was trying to do. If the artist did not accomplish what was intended, the unrealized intentions remain undisclosed in that work. To attempt to find intentions elsewhere is to move away from the work at hand in pursuit of psychological speculations that have nothing to do with the aesthetic features of the work itself (Hungerland 1955).

Intentionalists countered that artists' personalities, intellectual approaches, psychological stances, and creative attitudes all affect the disposition of the artworks they create. Awareness of these factors shapes our perspective when we wish to make critical or analytic interpretations. These considerations do not take us away from the artwork, but rather they bring it closer. If their influence is denied or refused, our resources for interpretation are desperately impoverished (Aiken 1955).

In the philosopher's language, Ruhemann and the other conservation positivists were anti-intentionalists who found their guiding evidence in the artwork alone. The approach espoused by Gombrich and his followers characterized them as intentionalists in their insistence that artistic, aesthetic, and historical interpretations must also be considered in conservation work.

During and after the symposium, it was widely acknowledged on both sides that the debate was vexed by words and phrases that frequently proved to have indefinite references to different facets or aspects of intent. Part of the problem was precision—talking about the same thing in arguments about artist's intent. Careful and extensive explanation was necessary to make it clear exactly what about artist's intentions was under discussion. The emphasis of debate among philosophers, historians, and critics shifted to the identification and description of various conceptual differences within the broader abstraction of “artist's intent.”


In “Criticism and the Problem of Intention,” Richard Kuhns (1960) identifies 11 distinct variations of meaning carried by the term “intent” when it refers to artists and their work. Discussion in the following subsections will put the 11 meanings in the context of art conservation, demonstrating that talk about artist's intentions may refer to artistic biography or to competing theories of creativity and aesthetics. Additionally, artist's intentions can be confused with effects that artworks create on their own. In conservation contexts, the different meanings associated with artist's intent frame important questions about the concepts involved and their applicability to conservation work.

Kuhns first addresses the idea that artists aim at a result, separating it into four different senses related to artists' motives and differing theories about the nature of creativity. Discussed in sections 5.1–4, these four senses of intent—biographical motives, aims vs. outcomes, expression in media, and inherent creative spirit—provide distinct perspectives on creativity and the artist's purposes, and they raise important questions about setting conservation goals: Can only one of these perspectives be applied to every case? Can we agree on how to draw from these different perspectives and apply them to each case? What general assumptions do we make about artistic motivations and creative processes, and how do they affect our preconceptions when we discuss artist's intent?

Kuhns next considers the artist's intention as the conveying of a meaning and divides it into three senses of communication, articulation, and expression, discussed in sections 5.5–7. These three perspectives on the artist's intended meanings view art as an instance of discourse—an occasion when somehow, something is communicated to someone. Kuhns's analysis is concerned with distinguishing and identifying various senses of intention and not with the conservator's need for useful explanation. It remains unclear how these types of communications are constituted and what they entail. From the conservator's viewpoint, these are the deepest questions about artist's intent and the intentional fallacy: What are the qualities and meanings in fine art that are most clearly attributable to the artist, and how do they come from the artist into our awareness? What can we know of the artist's intent, its importance, and the process of its communication to us? Recent work by hermeneutical philosophers to open this vein of questioning is discussed in section 6, “The Role of the Artist.”

Kuhns continues his analysis by observing that the term “intention” is sometimes used in reference to an artwork's overall effect. He describes three senses in which a work of art is seen as an active, intentional presence—its aesthetic expression, its appeal for reference and characterization, and its aesthetic agency—and relates them to differing art theories, discussed in sections 5.8–10. Kuhns associates the last and otherwise unrelated sense of artist's intent with ideas about the moral justification of art, discussed in section 5.11. These final segments of the analysis suggest that the apparent agency of an artwork itself can be confused with the artist's intent. Kuhns concludes that the various usages of “intention” show how misleading it is to speak in simple terms about artist's intentions or the intentional fallacy. For the conservator, Kuhns's analysis indexes the broad spectrum of approaches and issues involved with artist's intent.


Ulterior motives can be found for any artist's creative work. He or she may be seeking fame or profit or competitive success in the creation of an artwork. The satisfaction of patrons, emotional catharsis, and the desire to establish or contribute to a body of related work are typically cited as germinal artists' intentions. These first aspects of the artist's aims are primarily biographical. When curators, critics, and art historians approach an artwork with this perspective on artists' intentions, they are motivated by the desire to find evidence of artistic, social, political, economic, or perhaps romantic influences in the artist's life. These influences relate to artists' personal circumstances and careers. However, to equate an artist's work with his or her life is to see the work and the life as a single “object” (Kris 1952). When confronted with the physical nature of the work of art, the conservator is likely to find that the artist's life and career are parenthetical to the specific characteristics of his or her particular creative products.


When we think that the artist aims at a certain result, we may be thinking that the artist conceives the work in his or her head and is confronted with the problem of realizing it in a chosen medium. This way of thinking divides artistic creativity into two parts: purely technical skill with media follows a purely mental formulation of the work. The creative plan and purpose behind a work of art are considered separately and distinctly from artistic expertise and the efficacy of media. The evaluation and conservation of a work of art will require an assessment of how well the artist accomplished what he or she set out to do.

If this perspective on creativity is adopted, pentimenti in a painting may be seen as disfigurements that distract from the design and purpose of the artist's creative conception. They are technical errors or media defects that were inadequately concealed by the artist or revealed later by material deterioration. It is seldom clear that faded color, cracking, loss of structural integrity, and other normal effects of age and decay correlate with an artist's original aims and conceptions. Any technical flaw or unanticipated result is a shortcoming not in accord with the artist's original intent. In conservation treatment, this conception of the artist's intent may be used to justify a call for compensation of all damages and artifacts of aging, whether caused by the artist's choice and use of materials and by natural deterioration or by accidents of later circumstance. Although some conservation treatments may successfully re-create or preserve a “like new” appearance, it is often impossible to reach for an ageless and flawless representation of the artist's initial conception.


In another conception of artistic creativity, the artist is allowed a degree of suspense between aiming at a specific effect and finding its precise expression in the medium. The characteristics of the chosen media are thought to influence the development and realization of the artist's creative idea. Under this theory, the medium has something like a franchise on the artist's aims, granted by the artist when they were invested into material form.

In this perspective, a pentimento becomes an incidental disclosure that reveals the course of the artist's creative effort. As a coincidental feature of a painting, curators and conservators might treat it as a disfigurement, subject to a degree of retouching. Or the pentimento could be accepted as a casually significant happenstance and left as it appears. This way of thinking about creativity and intent encourages a belief that the artist's true intentions for the work can be picked out from the interference caused by changes in the condition of the media. With this idea in mind, curators and conservators set treatment goals that seek to combine preservation with a lasting balance between compensation for loss and damage and the frank presentation of aged or deteriorated artist's materials. Adoption of this perspective implies that critics and conservators will make judgments regarding the extent or degree to which the condition of the media represents the artist's creative intent.

Tradition and practicality seem to determine how this approach is applied. Traditionally in older artworks, some varieties of deterioration are commonly accepted despite their deviation from the artist's original conception while other instances of decay within the same work are not. In baroque painting, especially landscapes, there is a tendency to concede the appearance of brown paints that we know were originally green, but the pale transparent hues of paints once tinted with fugitive red lakes immediately suggest color reinforcement. In practice, the desire to keep compensation to a minimum tends to allow only the most efficient efforts to unveil aspects of the artist's intent. In the baroque paintings, there is compelling economy of treatment in a decision to touch up red accents and leave browned landscape backgrounds alone.


Another conception of artistic creativity maintains that artists have intentions that are broadly purposive, not just specifically purposeful in the same sense as the previous two cases. Artistic creativity appears as a personal quality, like fertility, and artworks are produced when creative persons consort with governable materials. In the creative moment, artistic spirit and physical substance merge and incorporate. From this perspective, artists and their media share equal responsibility for bringing forth their aims and inclinations.

With this approach to artist's intent and creativity in mind, curators, critics, art historians, and conservators view the choice, use, and physical characteristics of the artist's materials to have significance equal to the artistic effectiveness of their control. Ideas about intent are focused on the artist's creative participation with the media. In painting, the concept of pentimenti becomes irrelevant. All the paint has equal importance and authority in any effect, whatever layer, whether carefully contrived or haphazardly applied. Conservation plans and treatment goals will prioritize preservation, protection from circumstantial damage, and the retardation of decay. Only the most disfiguring losses due to insult or accident become candidates for compensation.

Modern and contemporary art attracts this perspective on artistic work because it offers a liberal perspective on artistic purpose and accepts virtually anything into the realm of artist's materials. Living contemporary artists apply this perspective to their own efforts when they emphasize the importance of their participation with media and their freedom to choose materials. In a distorted adaptation, this emphasis can suggest that the chosen materials have extraneous characteristics not pertaining to the artist's endeavors and accomplishments.

When the artist's intent is defined by participation with materials, it is subject to their fate. A hallmark of this perspective is the belief that the artist's participation is necessary for genuine compensation. In the absence of the artist, a decision for compensation admits a need for pretense because the critical element of the artist's participation is lacking. Any damage or loss could be deemed fundamentally beyond compensation because a piece of the artist's original participation is distorted or missing.


In thinking that the artist aims at a certain result, we may be thinking of meanings that the artist wishes to convey. In one sense, artists are interlocutors who say something to beholders through their work. This way of thinking about the artist's intended meaning makes an analogy between artwork and language, specifically literature, where a text may be thought to be a form of the author's speaking. In the philosophy of literary criticism and interpretation, this assumption is highly questionable because texts can draw their voices and meanings from realms outside the author's personal domain. Literary works appear in the medium of written language, but a work of fine art, although it may be considered a text of some kind, is not a work of language.

In this way of thinking about artist's intent, language metaphors are common. We may want to “hear” or “read” what the artist is “saying” to us, but we are forced to discuss the perceived messages in our own words. For conservators, critics, and art historians, the intentional fallacy clearly comes into play when we use our own perceptions and phrases to put the artist's meanings into words—meanings that are, by nature, unspoken in the work of art.


In another sense of conveyed meaning, artists are prime beholders uniquely situated to be ideal interpreters of the meaning that their work conveys. The artist is an expositor of the work rather than an interlocutor. The situation of the previous sense is strangely reversed. The artwork itself expresses something, but it is the artist who tells beholders what he or she means it to say.

Contemporary art lends itself to this approach in the form of consultation with living artists. A typical example of the methodology is provided by Davenport (1995), who reports the results of treatment-specific consultations, artist interviews, and artists' written responses to a questionnaire. Davenport acknowledges that competing theories of art and creativity can determine how much authority is given to artists for interpreting and explaining their work. Results from eight artists show that they embrace or decline this authority idiosyncratically, with substantive vacillation in their individual replies. The following excerpts illustrate the range of variation. Adrian Piper: “I don't feel that I have privileged access to the ultimate meaning of my work. I think that is determined by social context and history and so forth” (quoted in Davenport 1995, 46). Petah Coyne: “There's a period when I'm connected with a piece, at least four or five years. Then at a certain point you become almost in awe of it, and you don't know how you could get back into that flow” (p. 50). Fred Sandback: “Who should be the primary source of determining how a work should look over time? Well, sure, I should be. This is my game and I want it played my way. But the question becomes interesting as I begin to fade out of the picture” (p. 51). Investigations like Davenport's make it clear that there is no consensus among living artists regarding any status as privileged or ideal expositors of their work.

There is an obvious proprietary element in the relationship between artists and their work, and there are statutory laws about copyright and authorship that protect artists' interests in this respect. However, artists' rights are difficult to apply to the meaning or the interpretation of their work. Psychological properties, moods, and meanings that the artist wishes to convey or explain are not fixed or objective. The artist's personal internal states and understandings are subjective, and to be shared they must be apprehended and recognized subjectively by each individual beholder.

When artists choose to dictate the meaning, sense, and import of their work, they assume the burden of proof in defending their assertions. Their choice and use of media may fail to support their aspirations or cease to sustain their immediate achievements. History may reveal unrecognized circumstances or uncover surprising horizons. Beholders can judge the artist's claims against their own apprehension and choose how much to be convinced of the artist's credibility in his or her stated purposes. A decision to grant artists superior authority about the disposition, meaning, and purpose of their work diminishes or denies the relative roles played by their media, by art historical contexts, and by beholders' apprehensions. Conservators, art historians, and critics are not obliged to take the artist's assertions or explanations without question.


Another way of thinking about how an artist's meanings and purposes are conveyed considers his or her work to represent an expressive system. This approach maintains that artists' personalities and worldviews are reflected by their work and represented in it. The mind behind the work is a necessary part of the work. We recognize artists' expressive systems or individual styles in the same way that we recognize and categorize people's personalities and attitudes through their body language and manner of speech. Seemingly anthropomorphic remarks associating attributes of an artwork with the mood or personality of its artist usually come from this perspective. Claims that Vincent van Gogh's work expresses agitation or that Jan Vermeer's work expresses serenity rely on this view.

Personal intuition, psychological insight, and sympathetic understanding all play a part in recognizing the artist's expressive character or style. However, recognition is not the primary problem faced by the conservator concerned with the physical work of art. To make decisions about compensation and the treatment of material decay that are sensitive to the artist's expressive character, it is necessary to understand the scope and function of this “mind behind the work.” For conservators, the deepest underlying questions about artist's intent are concerned with its scope and function and ask for clarification of the role of the artist in the artwork.


In art-related discussion, it is sometimes said that the artwork itself exhibits an intention, related by Kuhns to organicist, Gestalt, and idealist theories of art. In a variety of common contexts, intentions of the artwork can be confused with artist's intent. These next three perspectives on intention in art demonstrate how and why attributes of art itself are accidentally ascribed to artists.

In the first of these theoretical perspectives, the work of art is seen as a purposive organic whole. It encompasses a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things. Like an organism, it is a kind of individual, and as a singular entity, it seems to be composed for some end. It embodies some knowledge or truth or meaning it aims to express. Kuhns (1960, 9) quotes the observation from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790) that we can make the fundamental nature of art intelligible to ourselves only by postulating a source of will and purpose. Objectively, an artwork is an inanimate thing, but there is an overwhelming tendency to find an expressive entity within it. Artist's intent has a reflexive relationship with the nature of art. This approach to art interpretation has little direct bearing on art conservation except to suggest the difficulty of distinguishing the artist's part from the whole of art.

As an older theoretical approach, this perspective on art reflects the contemporary hermeneutical idea that a work of art is a potential event of discourse, dependent upon a beholder to happen (Gadamer 1975; Ricoeur 1981). When beholders bring their receptive tendencies to art, communication occurs. Because beholders are necessary to realize and fulfill an artwork's existence, comprehensive conservation measures will enhance access to it. This is why a cave on the dark side of the moon is not an appropriate answer to the desperate preservation needs of the most fragile works of art.


In Kuhns's application of Gestalt art theory, a work of art may be thought to have an intention because it makes analytic demands. It makes a claim on its beholders by inviting or asking for characterization and classification. The power of an artwork to make an appeal for relevance is determined by its ability to point to some reality common to a beholder and itself (Gadamer 1975; Ricoeur 1981). For the conservator and art historian, the artwork's demand for a common ground of reference can be dangerously seductive. Han van Meegeren's forged Vermeers, for example, had a 1930s and 1940s look, including a near-likeness of Marlene Dietrich unquestioned by many experts at that time (Walden 1985).

The situation of the experts who accepted van Meegeren's Vermeers was similar to that of Professor Hauser of Berlin, who in 1911 restored the painting once popularly known as Rembrandt's Mill. When The Mill (now in the National Gallery of Art) was purchased in England by the American collector P.A.B. Widener, his dealer sent the famous painting to Hauser before importing it to the United States. Like most turn-of-the-century restorers, critics, and art historians, Hauser had definite preconceptions about how Rembrandt paintings should look. It was understood that Hauser would improve the painting's condition by making it conform to the appearance of many other paintings that shared broad attributions to Rembrandt in that period (Wheelock 1977).

In a broader sense, historical periods, aesthetic styles, and genres of art have purposes that go beyond those of individual artists. Panofsky uses the term “intention” in this way in connection with his thesis that each historical period in Western civilization had its own special outlooks, assumptions, attitudes, and concerns. For example, he maintains that the development of perspective in the painting of the Middle Ages was intended to situate previously unconnected images in a unifying context (Panofsky [1927] 1991). Baxandall specifies this meaning of intention in art (1985, 41–73), using specific artists' works to illustrate the sense in which intention refers to “a picture's relation to its circumstances” (p. 72). The various purposes of period, cultural style, and genre are easily equated with artists' individual efforts.


In its reference to Kuhns's analysis, idealist art theory maintains that a work of art in itself possesses the means and ability to act toward particular effects. For theologically inclined idealists, this quality may represent a metaphysical power or the presence of divine will or inspiration. Ritual or religious works may be thought to possess specific qualities in this respect. Beyond spiritual effects, works of art are also credited with emotional effects, psychological effects, social and political effects, and in more materialistic senses, optical, visual, and simply decorative, ornamental effects. This is the most common and least specific reference of the term “intention” when applied to works of art. In this sense we say that an artwork is meant to be displayed or seen in one way or another—that it “works” better in a certain light, on a pedestal, in a period frame, or in a particular interpretive environment or setting.

Taken collectively, the overall effects created by a particular work of art denote its aesthetic intentions. The highly variable nature of the effects created by a single artwork suggest the difficulty of discussing its aesthetic intention in an exacting way. In a section of Kuhns's essay following the completion of his analysis, he works toward an improved definition of the artwork's intention by offering the concept of “focal effect” to summarize the most constant and sustained of the many and variable effects created by an individual work of art.

Kuhns's attempt to reconsider and rehabilitate notions of intention is weakened because he does not use the term “aesthetic intention” to refer to the intentions of a work of art. Instead, in a few potentially ambiguous passages he refers to the intent of the artwork as “artistic intention.” Consider the confusion created in this paragraph about the subject matter of art criticism:

However, we are concerned with the intention of the work in the proper artistic sense of intention: what the work sustains as a certain kind of experience, its focal effect. The artistic intention may or may not be what the maker was aiming at. His intention, psychologically speaking, may have been quite different from what the work effects. But it is the artistic intention that matters for criticism. It may be that the intention of the work is what the maker would inevitably effect with his handling of the medium because of social and cultural factors, but this, too, is extraneous to criticism (Kuhns 1960, 22).

Dictionaries support the reference of “artistic” to both art and artists, while references of “aesthetic” are given to the theory and philosophy of art and beauty, beauty itself, and people's sensitivity to art and beauty. In our ordinary language, all of an artwork's different effects can be called either aesthetic effects or artistic effects. The potential for ambiguity and confusion in Kuhns's paragraph demonstrates that we have no universal, commonly understood habit of language for distinguishing between our aesthetic impressions of meaning, grace, and quality and our appreciation of the artistic skills, techniques, and mastery that create them. However, this distinction is critical in art professional discourse. When we wish to turn our attention strictly to artist's actions, deeds, and efforts, our references to artist's intent need to be clearly and consistently defined. Careless or confused attribution of an artwork's focal effects to the artist instead of the work is one of the greatest pitfalls in discussing artist's intent.

In any discussion of the artist's intent, as conservators we should be clear whether we are talking about artistic characteristics, the strategy and facility of the artist's work, or aesthetic characteristics, the meaning and beauty that may emerge from effects created by a work of art. A helpful clarification comes with an analogy between the artist and a puppeteer: hand motions, pulling of strings, and other technical tricks of puppetry are more easily distinguished from the evocative nature and drama of the puppet's dance. If we consistently and specifically use the word “artistic” to be indicative of artists, and not of art in general, our use of the word “aesthetic” will be strengthened in its reference to the effects of artworks themselves. Failure to make this distinction is the most frequent cause of ambiguous or inexact references when issues of intent are raised.


Kuhns finds one last sense of intention in art, which does not fit into any of the previous categories or examples. In this sense, a work of art in all its artistic and aesthetic qualities is subject to evaluation of what it ought to do or be. It has an intention in that it exhibits moral and intellectual content. The purpose, meaning, and value of an artwork are judged by the end it achieves and/or the ends for which it may have been created. In the case of Robert Mapplethorpe's Self-Portrait, 1978 (1978, estate of Robert Mapplethorpe), the moral intentions of both the artwork and the artist became subjects of agitated debate.

Conservators confront issues of moral intent when faced with artworks that were altered to improve their modesty. In past periods of prudery, drapery was added to nudes and carnal scenes were veiled by the addition of landscape elements or other accouterments. Decisions to retain or remove these additions may involve assessment of their artistic, aesthetic, and moral intentions and the moral intentions of conservators themselves (Beck 1993). Surface cleaning and removal of aged coatings may invite consideration of moral intent when treatment reveals hidden details, modeling or flesh tones suggestive of licentious meaning. The moral character of portrait subjects and other depicted persons, their piety, nobility, rationality, and so forth, may also become the subjects of this meaning of intent.


When it was published, Kuhns's description of the meanings and references of “intent” was more a summary than a complete revelation. Although it provided necessary and welcome analysis and contributed to clarification of the issues, it did not attempt to achieve any final resolution of the debate between intentionalists and anti-intentionalists. Its importance was in providing reference to the continuing variety and proliferation of scholarly articles on this subject. Attempts to discredit and discard the intentional fallacy continued to emphasize its ambiguity (Lyas 1983).

Exhaustive summaries of intentionalist and anti-intentionalist positions, with detailed analyses and discussions, were published by Juhl (1980) and Margolis (1980). These in-depth studies consolidated the issues, leaving bare several core questions: What, if any, is the importance of artist's intent? What can be known with certainty about it? And how do we come to know it? Ambiguity surrounding artist's intent became recognized not just as a word and reference problem but as a manifestation of uncertainty about the fundamental nature of a work of art and the artist's role in it. After 35 years of scholarly attention, questions about artist's intent boiled down to questions about the essential nature of art itself.


Confusion and ambiguity surrounding artist's intent and the intentional fallacy represent a lack of clarity about the role of the artist in the artwork. If the essential nature of an artwork's existence were better explained and understood, the role of the artist would not be so vague and debatable. Very few writers have made broadly constructive contributions to solving the problems presented by this issue.

Artists from the past are enshrined in our cultural memory. We often refer to individual artworks by the artist's name: “Did you see the Picasso? I preferred the C�zanne.” Somehow we see a personality, however ambiguous, behind every work of art. Andrew Wyeth's paintings of Helga speak to us about him and his relationship to her as much as they do about her, the manifest subject. We do not mean to speak anthropomorphically when we say an artwork expresses tenderness or anger or melancholia. We might as well call them “artist's works” to show how closely we identify these types of creations with their creators. The role of the artist in the artwork emanates more strongly than other factors that contribute to the essential nature of works of art.

Published discussions of artist's intentions frequently address the nature of creativity and artists' interaction with media. The bearing of history on the interpretation of artworks is also an occasional consideration in discussions of artist's intent, but the role of media and the role of historical contexts are seldom collated with it. This disjunction occurs, in part, because the language we use does not lend itself to discussing these things together. It seems awkward or obscure to speak of the media's intentions or the intentions of the social and historical context in a work of art. Even in the light of Kuhns's analysis, the word “intention,” as we are sometimes tempted to use it, often fails us.

It is possible, however, to define a meaning and apply the idea of artist's intent to art conservation work in a way that correlates methodologies in history, science, and connoisseurship. A deep and deliberate understanding of the role of the artist in the artwork is necessary. In the past two decades, philosophers working in contemporary hermeneutics provided new explanations and refreshed perspectives on efforts in this direction.


Paul Ricoeur's philosophy of criticism and the text and Hans-Georg Gadamer's aesthetics elevate an older proposition that the effects and interpretations arising from a work of art are autonomous, separate from the artist. Ricoeur claims in “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” (1981) that human discourse is transformed when it becomes fixed or objectified in a literary work or a work of art. When discourse takes the form of a work, it escapes from the here-and-now situation of talking together face to face. It occurs in an alternative mode and receives a new status—the status of a text. Ricoeur calls this transformation “distanciation” to indicate that texts transcend their native circumstances, moving beyond them into territories where they are circumscribed by new horizons.

As works of discourse, the artwork and the literary work experience distanciation in four ways. First, when a piece of art or literature comes out as a work, it meets with readers or beholders and it is emancipated from the immediate references and shared reality of live communication. Second, works of fine art and literature become decontextualized in time and space. They can be, and often are, removed from the places and the social and historical conditions of their creation. Third, decontextualization allows them to appear in foreign circumstances, where they are subject to new, perhaps unanticipated perspectives. As a result, they are opened to series of unrestricted readings or beholdings in which new and different meanings can be found. Fourth and finally, when a work of art leaves its creator's hand, the actual act of writing or painting or sculpting it becomes eclipsed by its own self-evidence. Distanciation explains both the phenomenon and the process by which a work of art becomes autonomous from its creator, the author or artist.

The effects of distanciation suggest that when we perceive the artist in a work of art, it is the artwork itself that is communicating with us about the artist; the discourse happens between the artwork and the beholder. The artist's meaning is covered by what the artwork can convey about the circumstance and disposition of its own creation. For the conservator, the importance of distanciation is the suggestion that the aesthetic effects of an artwork can function independently from the artist's intent while at the same time locating the ground of reference for artist's intent in the artwork at hand. The perspective afforded by the concept of distanciation, where the artwork has a reflexive relationship with the artist's intent, is an improvement over the anti-intentionalism of the 1950s and 1960s, which would admit only intentions proved by their effective results. We are free to find the sources of our speculation about the artist's intent in the artwork and elsewhere without being obligated to endorse their authority over aesthetic effects.


From a hermeneutical perspective, the apparent agency in a work of art refers not to the artist but to the artwork's own singular pattern of identity. “A work is given a unique configuration which likens it to an individual and which may be called its style” (Ricoeur 1981, 136). An artwork's individuality is what draws anthropomorphic remarks about emotions, moods, or desires that it seems to possess and convey.

Ricoeur observes that artistic style is the active principle of individuation. Employment of artistic style produces the individual artwork, and in so doing, it retroactively designates the artist. “Artist” says more than maker or producer; he or she becomes an artist by producing a work of art. The artist and the artwork are realized contemporaneously.

The singular configuration of the work and the singular configuration of the artist are strictly correlative. Man individuates himself in producing individual works. The signature is the mark of this relation (Ricoeur 1981, 138).

Here is the symbol of the meaning in art that is attributable to the artist. The signature represents the stamp of artistic style, the accomplishment of individuality in a work of art—both the individuality of the artist and the individuality of the work itself. The role of the artist is to enfranchise the artwork with an individual identity. While it is the artwork that bears all meanings to the beholder, it is the artist who shared with it the process of identification and delivered into it the individual means to speak for itself. The artist's creative work endows the art materials with its evidence, making them into the venue for individuality and meaning that we call a work of art.

The correlated individuality of artists and their artworks allows the process of attribution. The artistic expression of individuality also permits the identification and characterization of otherwise unrecognized or unknown artists like the Master of Flemalle and other nameless but influential Old Masters, some of whom are distinguished by one work alone (Davies 1972). In addition, the integrity of this distinguishing individuality is essential to the concept of art forgery. Any imitation or copy, no matter how perfectly modeled in the manner of another's hand, never properly bears a borrowed signature or claims an accurate attribution to the maker of the copied model.


The personality, focus, and individuality of the artist have strong and mutual correlations with what is expressed in any work of fine art, but for clear consideration of the artist's investment in the artwork, what is expressed and how it is expressed should not be confused. Matters of affect and iconography and the moods and meanings of works of art are what is expressed, and they are unwittingly credited to the artist alone. More accurately, moods and meanings, cues and symbols, the significance of the composition and the like are ascribed to the artwork as a whole. The artwork in its entirety carries the correlation between what is expressed and how it is expressed in the material result of the artist's creative work. Although the autonomy of artworks from their makers is by no means proven or taken for granted in all quarters, explanations of it are clear and tend to be persuasive. Nevertheless, there is a strong impulse to assign great weight to artist's ideas and explanations about their work, whether those ideas are clearly and specifically expressed or only dimly inferred.

In art conservation contexts, when artist's intentions come into consideration the challenge is to judge their importance and applicability in each case. The ideas of distanciation and autonomy suggest that the authority of the artist's role is inexorably relative to concurrent roles played by media, by art historical contexts, and by beholders' apprehensions. Interpretations of emotional, psychological, and intellectual meanings and purposes in art have only conditional associations with the artist's intent in these respects. Any apparent communication along these lines happens between the artwork and the beholder. Conservators can find the significance of artist's intent in the ability of an artwork to communicate about the individuality of its artist and the circumstances of its own creation. In the work of art conservation, the least provisional and most secure associations can be made between the artist's intent and his or her individual skills and techniques, strategy, facility, and mastery of media in producing the work of art.


The technologically defined idea of following the artist's intentions did not survive as an authoritative principle of art conservation; it was scientifically doctrinaire and lacked scope and rigor. Its narrow definition placed it at odds with conventions of connoisseurship, the mortality of materials, and historical explanation. Critical debate surrounding the intentional fallacy illustrates significant obstacles to defining and judging artist's intent, and philosophical explanation of the autonomy of artworks contradicts its authority over the artwork as a whole. In art conservation, following the artist's intentions remains attractive only in its reference to evaluating and considering the characteristic individuality of artists exhibited in their work.

A specific branch of the literature of analytical research in art conservation is devoted to describing and measuring particular artist's distinctive methods and materials. Measurable, material things such as the choice and preparation of media, size, and shape and order of brush strokes, even idiosyncrasies of drawing, modeling, and line—all represent artistic intent in a limited and specific sense. In the narrowed focus on the distinctive use of materials in a particular work, psychological insights, social and intellectual purposes, and aesthetic effects are not addressed. The artist's intent, in this individual and characteristic sense, can be interpreted systematically in the individual stylistic aspects of an artwork, specifically in technical matters of distinctive artistic style.

Appeals to artists' intentions through this type of characteristic individuality can find a useful role in art conservation only if the artist's specific investment in the work of art is not equated with broader, nonindividual connotations of aesthetic style, historical period, genre, and oeuvre or equated with the remains of the artist's original materials. The artist's investment is expressed in the choice, preparation, and application of the media, not in the nature of the media itself. This is the explicit reference that conservators can maintain with professional expertise to save discussions of artists' intentions from falling into ambiguity. However, its application to conservation work requires more than the scientific delineation of an artist's style.

The history of debate among conservators, critics, and art historians over artist's intent illustrates the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach. Historical knowledge and interpretation can inform the relationship between conservation treatment needs and perspectives on the disposition of the artist's work. Connoisseurship can suggest the desirability, quality, and extent of treatment necessary for maintaining the individuality of the artist and the individuality of the work and placing them together in a meaningful context. Scientific analysis of the physical structure and chemical nature of the artwork can indicate how the artist's use of materials and their present condition pertain to the selection of conservation treatment goals and technologies.

The interdisciplinary task of applying artists' intentions to conservation work requires exacting contributions from historians, critics, and connoisseurs, philosophers of art, scientists, and conservators alike. Purposeful discussion of the role of the artist in the artwork requires careful language and deliberate understanding of the essential nature of art. Precise language, commonly understood, is the first step in this direction. The importance of unambiguous language is paramount. Clear language among the disciplines will be necessary to describe how the artist's individuality and the individuality of his or her work can be fulfilled and maintained in conjunction with three other factors—the historical contexts in which the artwork is documented and perceived; the traditions of connoisseurship that give it reference; and the physical and temporal characteristics of the media employed. Artists' intentions can be investigated and applied to art conservation issues in terms of the distinctive characteristics that determine the individuality of artists and their work. The productive application of this specific conception of artist's intent will account for and acknowledge that the artist's investment functions in concert with these other factors to give an artwork a meaningful and lasting life.


The author gratefully acknowledges the editors of this journal and the anonymous reviewers who provided extensive comments and constructive criticism on several successive drafts of this article. Their careful readings and thoughtful advice encouraged necessary improvements in its style, content, and organization.


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STEVEN W. DYKSTRA received a B.A. in liberal arts from Bucknell University in 1973. He was privately trained in paintings conservation at the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Art and Olin Conservation. In 1984–85 he was a national Museum Act master apprentice intern in the conservation department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1988 he received an M.A. in individualized studies from the George Washington University for research in the history, philosophy, and anthropology of art resulting in a master's paper entitled, “Understanding Controversy in Fine Arts Conservation.” He works as a museum specialist/registrar in the Art in Embassies Program, U.S. Department of State, and maintains a private practice in paintings conservation in Washington, D.C. Address: 1524 Kingman Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005-3709.

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