Whatever else they are, works of art are intentional human products. Our responses to such works are understandings and interpretations. That the works are or may be physical objects, cultural symptoms, or commodities and that audiences may be shocked, sexually excited, or politically instructed are irrelevant to the cognitive poles of intention and interpretation; these make art philosophically significant and differentiate it from that which has no meaning, despite possible similarities in apparent structure or emotional effect. Cognitivist theories of art usually tend to focus rather exclusively on just one of the two poles which characterize art so conceived - the artist's intention or the interpretation given by audience or critics. Philosophers with idealistic commitments have often argued, as do Croce and Collingwood, that the artist's experience, understood as a unique expression, is not merely the meaning of the work of art, but the work itself. New Critics object to any reference to the artist's intentions as tending to distort the sense of "the text itself." The structure of disputes in aesthetics, to a large extent, consists either of conflicts within these tendencies or between them. So intentionalists may very well disagree as to whether intentions are general or unique, conscious or unconscious. Those who reject intentionalism but retain a cognitive conception of interpretation may disagree as to the proper criteria of interpretation and the degree to which a work admits multiple significations. These family quarrels can sometimes be shelved for polemics against the "intentional fallacy" or for charges that a work sundered from its author's intention must be radically ambiguous. Such disputes can lead to rather extreme and uncomfortable claims. One such extreme holds that the meaning of a work is simply identical with the author's intention, the audience's role being simply to identify themselves with the artist's thought. The complement of this view is that which takes as paradigms of art those independently existing works which encourage us to discover a multiplicity of meanings, interpretations, and possibilities. The choice between individual solitary expression or a celebration of ambiguities is not a happy one.

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1976

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1976 The American Society of Aesthetics. This article first appeared in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35, no. 1 (Fall 1976): 23-35. doi:10.2307/430842.

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