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




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.”

Copyright � 1996 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works