Intent versus Content

Intent versus content is a major concern in the art community. Is it the artist’s job to give spectators their intent for a work or is it the spectator’s job to research what the artist had intended? The debate goes both ways depending on whom you ask. I personally believe that it is the spectator’s job to research the artist’s intent and then interpret the piece through the viewpoint of your life experience. The quote below is by Marcel Duchamp and he explains the unique relationship between the artist and the spectator.

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” – Marcel Duchamp

What should an artist do when the spectator creates entirely unexpected expressive or cognitive content for a work? Should that matter to the artist?
As Duchamp’s quote suggests, the spectator brings the work into an artworld that is equipped to interpret it. In my opinion, when a spectator reacts to a work in an unexpected way it gives the work more meaning. It also helps the artist understand the impact they have on people through their work. It can be a great experience to hear what spectators have interpreted from viewing your work. We as artists want to emotionally connect with spectators. When a spectator brings their life experiences to a work, it changes the intent for that individual and carries meaning for them.

Should the artist attempt to inform the spectator of his or her expressive or cognitive intention beforehand, say through some kind of artist’s statement? Does this stifle the spectator’s own active participation?
I believe that a work does not need an explanation of the artist’s intent. If a work has truly touched someone, it is his or her job as a spectator to go and find the background information on the work. This makes the work a complete give and take from artist to spectator, which is interactive and most likely emotional. A great example of this is Louise Bourgeois; her work might not make sense unless a spectator does the research on her life story. After understanding her struggles in life, you can then interpret the piece, making the work more emotional and personal for you as a spectator.

When, if ever, is a spectator’s knowledge of an artist’s intent for an artwork relevant to interpreting or judging the work? If you did not know the autobiographical details of the life of Louise Bourgeois, for example, how would you react to her work differently, if at all?
I believe that if a spectator is to interpret or judge a work they need to do some research on the artist’s intent. Knowing the backstory can really change a person’s perspective of a work; especially if it is has great emotional value to the artist. If I didn’t know the autobiographical details of Louise Bourgeois life I would not have the same emotional connection to her work. For me at least, Bourgeois’ work is heartbreakingly beautiful and I feel privileged to have had her share her deep emotional experience with the art community. Without knowing the details I would have thought she has a possible background in science and really liked spiders and observing them. I was way off with my assumption, but now knowing her life story her pieces mean so much more and are so emotional for me.


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Joanna Nawn

Welcome to my blog! My name is Joanna Nawn and I have a deep passion for art and animation. This blog was started in order to share my journey through art with the hopes of becoming an animator someday! Animation is a major part of my life and I am always looking for ways to improve. I keep up to date with viewing animated shorts and films in order to understand the standards I should uphold in my own work. Please feel free to contact me and/or follow me on social media!

4 thoughts on “Intent versus Content”

  1. You make a valid point on learning some background information on the artist can enhance the spectator’s experience with the art. I believe this to be true, but I also think that art can be judged for its aesthetic value without having any prior knowledge of the artist’s intent or biography. The question remains whether the experience is complete, which I think you’d agree isn’t. Personally, I feel that the experience is best when I absorb art first and then educate myself on the author.


  2. I do agree that a spectator can learn more from an artists work by doing some background research on the artist, however I don’t think it is imperative for them to do so. I don’t think the spectator should have homework to do before they can appreciate a work of art.


  3. Joanna, I really loved how you mentioned that the spectators comments give the artists work more meaning. To me, that is very true and I also agree with you about Duchamps statement being true. Knowing about an artist before commenting on their work is very important so I do agree with you there but I had to disagree with on your thoughts about Louise. I feel our thoughts would be flip flopped! I didn’t really care for her spiders or any other works until I knew her background. Overall I really loved how well thought out your response was and how you explained your thoughts on how important spectators are to an artists work. GOOOOOOOOD JOB 🙂


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