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

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Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

3.3 ‘Intentionality’

Is the work of art a free-standing artefact to be interpreted entirely on its own terms, extracted from its historical context, as Bal does it? Or can the artist and the artwork be brought back together again without committing the intentional fallacy?

Joseph Margolis makes several important points about the relationship of an artwork to its maker which has significant implications for the limits and possibilities of interpretation of works of art. Margolis puts it thus:

[H]uman beings change over time as they grow from childhood to maturity; that's why we reinterpret their lives in the way we do. Nothing of that sort happens to artworks, and yet I say artworks are ‘like’ persons and because of this similarity are open to reinterpretation. How can I justify this claim?

I offer two replies. First, the question pretty well shows that, in interpreting the ‘meaning’ of a life, it is common to assign to early behaviour, otherwise inaccessible meanings of what has gone before. I have no doubt, for instance, this is the right way to read Augustine's admission of the early theft of an apple, that is, in light of Augustine's own account of the providential import of the whole of human life – in accord with the master theme of the City of God. The meaning of the past is characteristically projected (and continually redefined) from our changing understanding of our own present. Second … what is common to selves and artworks is not biology but Intentionality: selves and artworks are materially embodied in different ways, but what is embodied are Intentional structures, and it is those structures that are affected in similar ways under interpretation. So there is nothing strange in saying that artworks are ‘like’ persons – without their being persons themselves. I don't deny that the similarity needs to be spelled out more fully.

… Artworks acquire trailing histories of interpretation in terms of which (in various selective ways) future interpretations reconsider past phases of their interpreted careers … The similarity between selves and artworks lies in their sharing Intentional structure, not in their material embodiment. For, of course, what they share is the unity of expression and expressive agency, linked as structured precipitates and structuring energies within the same encompassing ethos. The history, the evolving career, the meaningful unity of life and art rests with what is defensibly affirmed within the narrative account of a life's or an artwork's persistent presence within our culture.

The cultural world contains no principled disjunction between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ paradigmatically, we examine and interpret ourselves, and we do so by examining and interpreting the individuated utterances of individual and aggregated life. Those utterances will be deemed (as they must be) the expression of a collective ethos that is itself endlessly reconstituted in preparation for, and in response to, the utterances (past and future) of our evolving culture.

(Margolis, 1992, pp. 135–7)

Margolis is making a point about a similarity between artworks and persons (including the artist). That similarity is the way they share intentional structures. These are structures that create ‘aboutness’, that is, what something possesses to be ‘about’ something. Just as we can take different perspectives on a human life over time, so we can present alternative interpretations of the artwork.

A biography is just such a ‘defensively affirmed … narrative account’. In particular, the art historical biography brings together the intentional structures of both artist and his or her works.

Michael Baxandall uses a very similar notion of intentionality to Margolis. According to Baxandall, reconstructing the entire mental set of an artist and his context does not close down the interpretation of an artwork but deepens and broadens it. At the beginning of the essay on Picasso's Portrait of Kahnweiler in his important book Patterns of Intention (1985) Baxandall considers the important issue of ‘intentionality’ for the interpretation of artworks outside biography. Note that he distances himself from the Wimsatt and Beardsley discussion of intention in his reference to ‘a poem’.

A word must be said about ‘intention’, I suppose. I have declared an interest in addressing pictures partly by making inferences about their causes, this both because it is pleasurable and because a disposition towards causal inference seems to penetrate our thought and language too deeply to be excised, at least without doing oneself a quite disabling mischief. But since pictures are human productions, one element in the causal field behind a picture will be volition, and this overlaps with what we call ‘intention’.

I am not aligned or equipped to offer anything useful on the matter of whether it is necessary to appeal to an author's historical intention in interpreting a picture (or, of course, a poem). The arguments for doing so – that it is necessary if there is to be any determinate meaning in a work, that the relation between intention and actual accomplishment is necessary to evaluation, and so on – are often attractive, but they sometimes seem to refer to a slightly different sort of intention (a complex word) or to intention seen from a slightly different angle from what I feel committed to. The intention to which I am committed is not an actual, particular psychological state or even a historical set of mental events inside the head of Benjamin Baker or Picasso, in the light of which – if I knew them – I would interpret the Forth Bridge or the Portrait of Kahnweiler. [Benjamin Baker and the Forth Bridge was the subject of the previous essay in the book.] Rather, it is primarily a general condition of rational human action which I posit in the course of rearranging my circumstantial facts or moving about on the triangle of re-enactment. This can be referred to as ‘intentionality’ no doubt. One assumes purposefulness – or intent or, as it were, ‘intentiveness’ – in the historical actor but even more in the historical objects themselves. Intentionality in this sense is taken to be a characteristic of both. Intention is the forward-leaning look of things …

So ‘intention’ here is referred to pictures rather more than to painters. In particular cases it will be a construct descriptive of a relationship between a picture and its circumstances. In general intentionality is also a pattern posited in behaviour, and it is used to give circumstantial facts and descriptive concepts a basic structure. In fact, ‘intention’ is a word I shall use as little as possible but when I do use it I do not know what other word I could use instead. ‘Purpose’ and ‘function’, and the rest present their own difficulties and anyway their force is different.

(Baxandall, 1985, pp. 41–2)

There is a tension between the historical object as it was created and as it is now. According to some writers, such as Mieke Bal, that tension creates new artworks and ideas. Tension and constant reinterpretation, according to Michael Baxandall, are in the nature of the continuing dialogue that artworks naturally provoke.

If one looks at the origins of modern art history and art criticism, which are in the Renaissance, it is noticeable that really it arose out of conversation. The germ even of Vasari's great Lives of the Artists lay in dinner conversation at Cardinal Farnese's, as he says himself, and … runs down to the workshop argument, two or three centuries of it. After all, why else than for dialogue do something as hard and as odd as attempting to verbalize about pictures? I shall claim inferential criticism is not only rational but sociable.

(Baxandall, 1985, p. 137)

The kind of dialogue constructed around artists and their work will depend on the objectives of the viewer or writer who is studying them. A biographical monograph is one way of structuring the study of artists and their art and with it come a number of particular advantages and constraints on the subject matter.

Activity 17

If we conceive of Helen Langdon's book as articulating the intentional structure to the life of Caravaggio, does this place any limits on the interpretations of his work?


It seems that the intentional structure of an artist's life coherently presented in the art historical biography would limit the interpretation of the work.

Insofar as Helen Langdon's Caravaggio is an interpretation of his life (what it is about) in Margolis's terms, she imposes the intentional structure of his life on his painting. For example, the interpretation of the paintings she presents does not allow Caravaggio to have painted the dark pictures before he did – at the end of his life (p. 383).


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