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)




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.

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