Without even being cognizant of it, I frequently see people referring to an author’s intent in the creation of their work as being paramount to understanding its meaning. Despite the fact that we now know this to be a fallacy, it is incredibly common to see articles popping up about what artists think of the meaning behind their creation. While it is accepted that it would be difficult for us to discern the actual authorial intent of an artist that has long since passed away, for some reason it is assumed that if an artist is alive and well, they can confirm for us what their intention was when they created their works of art. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is illogical, as it assumes that the author is infallible in their presumed intent.
In reality, even if an artist is alive and well today and they can tell you what they think their work means, they are fallible human beings who may be incapable of understanding the full implications of what they have created. In other words, they may have unknowingly committed to a brush stroke or a line of dialogue which says more about their creation than they thought it would. Whether alive or dead, we cannot assume that the intent of the author is always as they would have described it. If we were to walk up to Chuck Palahniuk today and ask him about the meaning behind Fight Club, would his response really be important? What if he told us it meant nothing, or that he ultimately just wrote it for the money? Would his interpretation of his work be more important than other interpretations?
When a work of art leaves the artists hands and enters the world, it takes on many different faces and values. An author undoubtedly has motivations for creating, but that doesn’t mean that their motivations are more important than what we can get out of it. To put it simply, authorial intent is not of paramount importance when attempting to discern the meaning behind a work of art. It may help us to uncover new possibilities in critical analysis, but it cannot be the driving force behind our understanding of an author’s creation. Ultimately, much like Wikipedia is a tool to be used for further research, the concept of authorial intent is a tool that can be used to dig deeper into a work of art and derive alternate interpretations.
Even then, the usefulness of this concept is fairly unimportant. When an author speaks out about their work and attempts to declare its meaning, they are essentially telling us what they think they intended. We might be able to take something like this and compare it with everything else that we know about the author, calling into question whether or not their intended purpose has any merit in the critical understanding of their work, but does that really add much to the discussion?
As an example, let’s take a look at critical interpretations of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. It’s definitely interesting to read about Hitchcock and his stated intentions, which are often compared to everything we know about him and his life (including what friends and co-workers had to say), but ultimately these comparisons between stated authorial intent and the life experiences of the much beloved director often result in one conclusion: That this man was a great artist who revolutionized film as we know it, but we can’t trust that there wasn’t something more sinister behind his intent than he ever expressed in several interviews. In other words, although he contributed a lot to the art film making as we know it, we can’t necessarily trust his stated intentions.
Alfred Hitchcock was an unreliable narrator for his own work. So is everyone else. It is up to the audience to derive meaning. We derive our interpretations from several points of data, the most important data being the text itself.
Art defines meaning, not the artist.