Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’
Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

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Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

2.4 The intentional fallacy

In the final sentence of the Gombrich quotation in Section 2.3, he claims there is only one reason why what the artist meant could matter to us and that is the artist's meaning or intention is ‘the real, the true meaning’.

Questions about interpretation of works of art by resorting to the artist's intention were brought together by the literary theorist William K. Wimsatt and the aesthetician Monroe Beardsley in their article ‘The intentional fallacy’, first published in 1946. The article remains an important point of arrival or departure for debate about the relationship of the artist to his or her art. They summed up their criticism (the fallacy) of the recourse to the artist's intention as follows:

  1. A poem does not come into existence by accident. The words of a poem … come out of a head, not out of a hat. Yet to insist on the designing intellect as a cause of a poem is not to grant the design or intention as a standard by which the critic is to judge the work of the poet's performance.

  2. One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem – for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem. ‘Only one caveat must be borne in mind,’ says an eminent intentionalist in a moment when his theory repudiates itself; ‘the poet's aim must be judged at the moment of the creative act, that is to say, by the art of the poem itself.’

  3. Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. It is only because an artefact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. ‘A poem should not mean but be.’ A poem can be only through its meaning – since its medium is words – yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant. Poetry is a feat of style by which a complex of meaning is handled all at once. Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrelevant has been excluded, like lumps from a pudding and ‘bugs’ from machinery. In this respect poetry differs from practical messages, which are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention. They are more abstract than poetry.

  4. The meaning of a poem may certainly be a personal one, in the sense that a poem expresses a personality or state of soul rather than a physical object like an apple. But even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalised). We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference.

  5. There is a sense in which an author, by revision, may better achieve his original intention. But in a very abstract sense. He intended to write a better work, or a better work of a certain kind, and now has done it. But it follows that a former concrete intention was not his intention. ‘He's the man we were in search of, that's true,’ says Hardy's rustic constable, ‘and yet he's not the man we were in search of, for the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted.’

(Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946, reprinted in Wimsatt, 1954, pp. 4–5)

Activity 8

  1. Consider the implications of the above five objections for the interpretation of Caravaggio's work in terms of his intention.

  2. Based on the advantages and disadvantages of linking an artist's art and life you listed above, how does Helen Langdon's Caravaggio stand up to Wimsatt and Beardsley's critical framework?

The interpretation of a work of art, Wimsatt and Beardsley argue, lies outside and beyond the artist. Studying an artwork to find the artist's state of mind is quite different from the interpretation of the artwork itself.

There is criticism of poetry and there is author psychology, which when applied to the present or future takes the form of inspirational promotion; but the author psychology can be historical too, and then we have literary biography, a legitimate and attractive study in itself … Certainly it need not be with a derogatory purpose that one points out personal studies, as distinct from poetic studies, in the realm of literary scholarship. Yet there is a danger of confusing personal and poetic studies; and there is the fault of writing the personal as if it were poetic.

(Wimsatt and Beardsley in Wimsatt, 1954, p. 10)

According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, then, Langdon's Caravaggio would be a personal study, something they suggest is quite different from an artist

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