Tag Archives: audience

Open to Interpretation, Part 1

As you are aware, a week ago we had The Girl on the podcast, and one of the topics we discussed was the question of perception of a work of art and authorial intent versus audience absorption. (If you didn’t know that, I suggest you go listen to that episode right now, especially since I am not doing justice to the segment). That idea and line of thought has stuck with me since then, and considering in our next episode we will have a guest who is a soon to be published author, I want to explore it further. Given the complexity of the topic, I have divided it in two, the author and the audience. This is part one, regarding the creator, and part two will be posted next Wednesday.

Oh, and just to clarify, when I say “creator” I refer to any person who produces a piece of art, be it literature, visual art, music, or otherwise. Creator seemed the most neutral and all-encompassing term, and the linguistic nerd in me likes its connection to Greek poiesis, from which we get poetry but literally means “maker.”

Yes, That Was Intentional

I wanted to begin with a sweeping, axiomatic statement about the personal nature of the creative process, but that is not true, even in the general sense. Poe, in his essay on the writing of The Raven, makes a fine argument for the distinction between personal emotions and emotions intentionally infused into poetry (but considering how his own emotions so closely matched his poetic expression, one cannot but question his motives and conclusions), and I personally have written pieces with the intent to invoke emotions I was not feeling at the time, so we can abandon that line of reasoning. However, from this we can reach one conclusion, which I judge accurate despite its breadth, and that is that creators act with intent.

I’m sure some of you are saying, “Well, yeah, obviously.” But allow me to unpack that assertion, so I can show you that there is more to that seemingly simple statement than meets the eye. Too often in my English classes or among friends I have heard, “But did the author really mean that?” The answer, in the vast majority of cases, is “Yes, absolutely.” (I concede that an audience can infer meanings that the author did not intend, and I will address that in Part 2. For the sake of this essay, I believe that almost all of a work’s meanings are intentional.) People who have not tried to create a piece of art themselves, or who do so only casually, are often not aware of how minutely the creator has crafted the finished product. An apt metaphor for the general understanding of artistic creation is amateur photography. The photographer will pick an angle that will create a pleasing composition, choose a lense size and color template, wait until the lighting is right, and captures the image.

That most people believe this is self-evident in their somewhat low appraisal of the craft. Pat Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, related the following story in his blog, which I think is a good indicator of the common opinion about artistic creation (even though Pat is specifically referring to writing a novel).

“Of course, writing a novel isn’t simple. Anyone that’s ever tried writing one knows this. The problem is, a lot of people haven’t tried. They assume writing is easy because, technically, anyone can do it.

To illustrate my point: Just as I was getting published, I met one of the big, A-list fantasy authors. (Who will remain nameless here.)

He told me the story of the time he’d met a doctor at a party. When the author mentioned that he wrote for a living, the doctor said: “Yeah, I was going to write a novel. But I just don’t seem to have the time.” Link.

Pat goes on to show a letter from a fan who asks him why it’s taking so long for him to finish the sequel to The Name of the Wind:

“But, boy do you have a problem. Finishing tasks?? Why isn’t your editor doing a better job of guiding you? Here’s my quick recommendation: stop going to conventions. Your first book is a great hit, you don’t need any more marketing there. Sit down and decide where to END the second part. You don’t need to write any more. If book two is anything like book one, it is basically chronological. You’re done with book two!! Stop in a logical place, smooth out the transitions, and begin obsessing about book three. Good luck.” Ibid.

Pat is obviously put off by this would-be advisor, and with good reason. Unfortunately, her opinion is prevalent among those who do not create art. To return to my photography metaphor, people believe that the artist, or the writer, or the musician, sit down at their table, gather together the elements of their art (characters, shapes, colors, plot points, vocals, instrument tracks, chapters, dialogue, etc.) and simply compose them into something that, by virtue of arrangement of its parts, is Art. Of course anyone can put those elements together; the only thing that separates the artist from the everyman is the artist’s better understanding of how to assemble the elements.

To a degree, that is true. The Greats are the Greats because they are masters at using the elements of their craft, but it is absolutely false that all they do is arrange a “collage” of their field’s chosen materials. The truth, the sobering reality that kills so many would-be creative dreams, is that the creator has to fabricate all of those elements from nothing. In order to make our photographer metaphor reflect the real creative process, we must make him manufacture himself every single thing that is in his shot. He did not merely stumble upon a good location with all of the elements in place, needing only proper lighting and camera positioning. No, he had to hand make every single blade of grass, every single speck of dirt, every single leaf on the trees.

Now I put this question to you: if our photographer must craft himself everything that will be in his picture, does it not stand to reason that he will design all the elements in such a way as to enhance the shot, or draw the eye a certain way, or give the viewer a certain impression? Would he not manipulate all of his leaves and blades and specks to suit what he wants the picture to say?

I will pause a moment to let you think about that.

What this means is that every brush stroke, every word, every music note, every movie take, is deliberate. This means that the smallest, least noticeable, most prevalent building block of the chosen medium requires the creator’s complete attention. You know that book in the bookstore that is 400,000 words long? That author knowingly and intentionally chose all 400,000 of those words. That song on the radio? The artist intentionally chose for the bass track to drop in volume for two seconds during the chorus.

This is why most people are not successful creators. This is why most people who set out to write a novel don’t finish it. It is simply far more complex and work-intensive than they realize.

But I digress. The point of this business with the photographer metaphor is to show you that the creator devises all of the elements of the work, which means he or she has full opportunity to make sure every single aspect serves the greater theme, or message, or design. Hence, when I said way back at the beginning that creators act with intent, I meant that absolutely every aspect of a piece of art is there because the artist wanted it there.

The Question of Subconscious Intent

Having concluded with such a statement, I must address the question of subconscious meaning and intent. By which I mean the creator inserting some theme or meaning into the work without actually being aware of doing so. This idea is in and of itself a slippery creature, since we must be careful to draw the line between unintended authorial meaning and meaning inferred by the audience. The latter is what you see all the time in English classes, where smart-ass students try to argue that some poem is secretly about sex, or that Tolkien’s Ring is the atomic bomb. I will address inferred meaning next time, but for now I limit myself to actual authorial intent.

I find myself at a loss to define this idea outright, so I will resort to an example. If we survey the works of H. P. Lovecraft, we find in them numerous examples of xenophobia and racism. One need only read his description of the black man brought back to life in Herbert West – Reanimator to grasp his general disposition toward other races. However, Lovecraft did not write with the express intent to comment on race or racial hierarchy; it simply entered his writing as a part of his psyche. This is what I refer to when I say subconscious intent: an idea or meaning that the creator puts into the work without conscious thought. When we read the literature of the Greeks and Romans, we find that they casually mention slavery and misogyny. They do not do so because they want to make a statement about those topics, (unless of course they are directly addressing them), but rather because it is so ubiquitous to their thought process that they do not realize they are doing it.

It should come as no surprise that subconscious intent is a topic of great interest to art critics, since what an artist puts into a work subconsciously provides a great deal of insight into his or her mind and personality. Express intent is less reliable, since the creator controls it. It is glaringly obvious that Vergil’s Aeneid is about the glory of Augustus and is a finely crafted propaganda piece, but less obvious are Vergil’s own thoughts on the matter. The hints of melancholy, the ambiguous nature of some of the passages: these tell us more about Vergil than any of the beautiful lines describing the founding of the Julian line or Jupiter’s grant of “imperium sine fine” (I.279).

To use a more modern example, almost all of Christopher Nolan’s films involve a man who is too emotionally attached to a woman, and how that attachment works against the man. Now, there is a good case that this is intentional, and not subconscious, since it appears so often and is so integral to the stories. However, is it intentional that the man loses the woman either early in the movie or before it even begins? Or is that particular aspect something that creeps its way into each story without Nolan setting out to put it in there? If so, what does that say about Nolan and how he views emotional attachment to what we have already lost?

Like I said, it’s great fodder for criticism and scholarly debate.

The question that we must inevitably consider is whether to categorize something as intentional authorial meaning or subconscious, unintended expression. What makes this question tricky is that the answer can change depending on the audience and the time period relative to the work’s completion. An enormous amount of criticism, Classical criticism in particular, is devoted to explaining how previous scholars incorrectly interpreted the texts of the ancients, and how this newest critical view, unencumbered by the previous generation’s mind set, has determined the true meanings and subconscious meanings of the works.

Sometimes creators themselves help us in this regard, though we must always be wary of authorial recollections and not treat them as unfiltered truth. We can all recall when a writer or musician inserts some little bit into his work that references or echoes the work of another artist. “Subconscious influence” and all that. The creator draws a link between the two pieces by incorporating part of one into the other. Usually it’s a specific phrase or short chord progression, something the author’s brain absorbed on its own without the author consciously choosing to remember it. These references can be subconscious intent, however I must stress again that we should not trust the artist when it comes to these interpretations. He or she may have known full well that the line was from something else, and used it anyway in order to draw the parallel.

The point of all this is again to clarify my conclusion from the first section: that every single aspect of a work of art is there because the artist wants it to be there. That statement is still true, but now we can add a layer to that by pointing out that, while every element is there on purpose, not all of the meanings attached to those elements are there on purpose. Some are there because the creator simply cannot divorce himself from them: they are so ubiquitous to the creator’s thought process that he cannot see that they exist. Others are there as snippets of half-remembered influences or even just emotions that the artist cannot excise from the creative process.

Well, I think that is a serviceable overview of authorial intent, both conscious and subconscious, and should serve as a good background for the real issue: audience interpretation and absorption. Therein lies the truly interesting aspect of creative expression and Art, and we shall delve into that next week.