Sunday, January 29, 2017

Burn Without Hearing

Ann Althouse presents us with a fascinating problem: how seriously should we take the apparent intentions of an artist?
Does a principle of the "artist's intention" require us to look away from artwork he didn't choose to preserve for display? If so, why are we looking at the black-and-white photograph of it? How do we know he preferred "The Human Condition" (just because he hadn't cut it up or painted over it yet)? If we found a stash of Magritte's preparatory sketches in a portfolio labeled "Do not display. These sketches are to be burned" would we follow his instructions?
I'm not sure how much Althouse knows about the issue of intentionalism in aesthetics, but here is my take on the issue:
This week's current events lead one to muse a bit on the question of text and meaning. In a reply to a comment on this post I wrote the following:
Beardsley is famous for being the co-author of the enormously influential paper, "The Intentional Fallacy". He points out that we must make a crucial distinction between the author's intent and the aesthetic object. When the author says he is going to write a poem about trees and we look at the poem and indeed, it is about trees, there is no real problem. But if the artist says he is making a sculpture that will symbolize inhumanity and oppression and we go and look and all we see is a granite sphere two feet in diameter, then we have a problem and the proper solution to the problem is to discount the artist's intention and whatever he or anyone else says about it. All we really have to work with is the aesthetic object itself.
However, the issue is not quite so easily resolved. Here is another take on intentionalism with regards to legal reasoning from this blog:
...the very notion that a text can speak apart from the signification of that text by some agency — some human with some intent that he attaches to a set of arbitrary marks or sounds — is an absurdity: A text is no more alive and capable of speech than a lump of coal, and documents are no more alive than the paper or pixels they’re written on.
Is the only difference here between the ontological status of something as an aesthetic object, hence something apart from and different than a "moral agent", and something else that is a record of a speech act of a moral agent?
I suggest reading the whole post, which goes into some detail.

But back to Althouse: she puts up a poll listing different actions we might take such as following an artist's instructions to burn a folder of sketches, photograph then burn, limit access to scholars or simply display them without regard to the artist's wishes. What strikes me most of all is that this is all from the perspective of consumers of art. They always feel that these sorts of decisions, to view or not to view, should be entirely in their hands. The artist's intentions or wishes are irrelevant. We will do what we want. Of course, to avoid this, an artist should not put sketches he does not want anyone to see in a folder with that instruction on it; he should simply destroy the sketches himself.

Let's make a distinction here to avoid confusion. The issue of the artist's intentions is a problem in aesthetics that I think Beardsley dealt with quite well. Whatever the intention lurking in the mind of the artist, all we have to work with and interpret is the aesthetic object itself, therefore the intention of the artist is irrelevant. But that is the presumably hidden aesthetic intention. The intention plainly stated by an artist that he does not wish such and such a painting or sketch to be made publicly available or to be destroyed is not an aesthetic intention, but a request for courtesy much like saying, "please don't step on my toe". Saying "please don't view these sketches" or "please burn these incomplete works" is a request that normal human courtesy suggests we honor.

A famous example is that of Sibelius who struggled for years to finish an eighth symphony. His wife reported that she saw him take a great basket of sketches--who knows, perhaps a complete score--to the fireplace once and burn them all. Perhaps this was because of the aesthetic context of the time in which he began to feel useless, perhaps it was depression, perhaps it was alcoholism, who knows? But this is what he did. Despite the desire of many scholars to have access to those scores, do we have the right to say that Sibelius was not within his rights to burn them? I don't think so. Similarly, if he had left the basket of scores sitting by his desk with a note saying "please burn these scores after my death" that would also seem to be a legitimate request.

It is only in a social context where most people are only consumers of art that we would find a poll mostly giving the rights of access to the consumer alone. The consumer's veto we might call it. But I think any artist would think quite differently. Every day that we work we create, momentarily, things that we destroy a moment later in favor of a better realization. That some of these sketches survive is a mere temporal accident, not an ontological difference. Therefore, a word of warning to artists: the art-consuming public is going to ignore all your requests to destroy sketches and incomplete works, so you had best do it yourself!

For our envoi, the last completed symphony by Sibelius, the Symphony No. 7 in C major, op. 105:

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