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)




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.

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