Saying Something to See How It Sounds: Artistic Intentions

Published in The Drouth, Issue 46

Trying to talk about what you don’t know seems logically impossible. As I write it here it reads as being logically impossible. But – as I say it to myself again as I continue to think it over – I find myself increasingly sceptical of the value of testing statements against a common sense notion of what is ‘logically possible’. Perhaps the real issue is that so much of our knowledge is built on a sense of assurance and validation that we just don’t want to admit that we might let something slip out of our mouths, or that we might write something, when we don’t know what it is.

Now, what if this quite troubling idea, one which might see us go on to challenge the centrality of assurance and validation in the way we present ideas and statements, is still an overly conservative introduction to what we have to deal with whenever we deal with ‘intention’? Isn’t the notion of waiting to know what you are going to say a misconception on many levels? As you utter the joke that somehow comes to mind, do you not have some anxiety over what it means and what reception it will ultimately receive? Saying things is full of anxiety (and exciting possibilities) because even though you are the person to whom ‘your utterances’ will be attributed, you cannot ever know the meaning of what you have said or written, to an absolute degree. Also, from a psychological standpoint, the human mind could not possibly generate a fully formed conception of what is said or written before the fact – that would be so inefficient that it would prevent you from speaking fluently or getting things written down at all (1).  So, perhaps it isn’t so much that it is illogical to talk about people talking about what they don’t know because, in fact, that is in some sense what we all do all the time. It’s just that we’re very good at ignoring these facts. And the success of what we say is generally measured by its function rather than the imparting of some ‘intended’ meaning. How many people in an audience laugh with everyone else at a joke they didn’t even hear properly?

In responding to the theme of ‘intention’ I found myself reading psychological accounts of paranormal activity, cognition and free will, discovering studies that suggest that the mind is very good at being (a) convincing and (b) misleading, but that it is certainly not conscious of its own ‘intent’. Although I don’t claim to be more than an interested reader of these scientific studies I am familiar with some of the well-worn rhetoric on ‘artistic intention’ and feel that the broader perspective they offer is refreshing. At the same time, in the spirit of the opening paragraphs here and some of the points you will soon encounter, I feel (I felt? Was their ever a singular feeling when that was written, this was written, is being written as you read it?) it was important to present ideas in a way that could in itself say something about ‘intention’. Rather than present a single, whole, present, ‘picture’ it seemed better to present a succession of images that by collective association find alternative angles from which to get a sense of the term.

David Sherry (2008) Just Popped out  back in 2 hours [performance]. Image courtesy of GOMA, Mother's Tankstation Dublin and Patricia Fleming Projects Glasgow.
David Sherry (2008) Just Popped out back in 2 hours [performance]. Image courtesy of GOMA, Mother’s Tankstation Dublin and Patricia Fleming Projects Glasgow.

  1. Good fortune tellers do not have supernatural abilities, indeed neither do the really bad ones. But the good ones are skilled at utilising psychological characteristics to convince others that they know a great deal about their lives.
  2. There are six features of cold reading – the technique used by fortune tellers – outlined by Prof Richard Wiseman in his critical book Paranormality (2). The first three suggest that good fortune tellers make use of our: (a) Egocentric bias: Our ego tends to diminish our rational analysis of information; we are predisposed to construct an inflated sense of our place in the world. A good fortune teller will begin by flattering you (b) Selective reading: People are very good at forgetting aspects of the world that do not suit their current agenda. The good fortune teller will present ambivalent, double-edged statements – ‘you can be cruel sometimes but at the same time very understanding’ – allowing you to unconsciously select the parts that you believe fit with your life while effortlessly forgetting everything else  (c) Propensity for making meaning: The human mind is incredibly adept at making meaning even where there is none. The vague clouds of words passed over the table will ‘mysteriously’ take the shape of something you recognise.
  3. The claim made in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan is that we live in a world which is subject to many random, unpredictable events, and that we are simply very good at ignoring this as a fact. We make up explanations for the things we routinely can know and generally avoid considering the profound exceptions, the ‘black swans’. Taleb argues that  the human mind suffers from  three ailments when it comes to perceiving history. The first is an illusion of understanding, “or how everyone thinks he [sic] knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realise” (3). The second is a retrospective distortion,  that we only understand the world after it has passed. The third is our tendency to prioritise information over genuine wisdom. The prescience of Taleb’s argument is bolstered by a context in which the unpredictability of the economy (famously espoused in ‘Freakonomics’ (4)) is becoming harder to ignore.
  4. When you go to art school to be taught what cannot be taught (5) you become embroiled in mechanisms that allow your ideas to develop through – or within –a medium. To take even a convention example, the life drawing class begins with you being asked to forget what you have previously learnt and leave any self-consciousness at the door of the room. The good life drawing class will break down inhibitions by imposing unusual rules: draw with your eyes closed, use your other hand, draw with something at the end of a long stick. All these tactics encourage a relationship between the student and their work which is far from a clear product of conscious or deliberate ‘intention’.
  5. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. (6)
  6. Predictability is bound to concepts of cause and effect and tends take on traits of a narrative structure or plot in which agents – both people with desires and motivated objects – may act in distinct ways and be the bearers of ‘intentions’. At root the word ‘predict’ is closely bound up with the telling of prophesies. However, it should be noted that even quite commonplace narratives rely on surprise and the withholding of information – like a crime thriller – in order to fulfil the function of entertaining the reader. Paul Ricoeur states that, “Narratives… represent a person acting, who orientates him or herself in the circumstances he or she has not created, and who produces consequences he or she had not intended. This is indeed the time of ‘now that…’, wherein a person is both abandoned and responsible at the same time.” (7) Within a narrative the author will play with the vicissitudes of frustration and success that come from the fact that a characters’ ‘intention’ is essentially distinct from the story world. The character cannot simply have it their own way or the story would not be believable or interesting. The ‘meaning’ of the story comes from the force of passing through a series of directions located in and prompted by the text. That little in a narrative structure need to change between telling you what a character did in the past and what they will do in the future shows how impervious narrative structure is to actual time. Yet, at the point of reading you will feel ‘caught up’ in what is happening. To write a good story, we might speculate, does not require an author with a good ‘intention’, sitting back on the side of structure, so much as an author who will get wildly ‘caught up’ in the unfoldingness of a story.
  7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. (8) The fortune teller starts to draw you in. If your self-knowledge was based on certainties the fortune teller would be found out. But fleeting thoughts and doubts about your own volition leave small gaps open which can be used against you – and part of you wants to believe. There is something oddly familiar about the fortune teller that unnerves you. You suddenly think that your weakness is not that you cannot freely think yourself in to existence, live by your own ‘intent’, but that you have been weaned on to the desire for a stable world. All of a sudden the telling takes a sinister turn and you feel increasingly out of control.
  8. In scientific theory causes and effects have no moral or conscious attributes and are not ordered in a linear sequence like the words on a page or chapters of a book. Certain views borrowing from this scientific account effectively offer up a version of reality that is profoundly challenging to any notion of ‘free will’. When it is possible to see certain brain activity before it occurs consciously in the mind the idea of there being a clear and separated or ‘free’ position from which to think becomes untenable. Such a conception of ‘free will’ seems bound to egoistic and retrospective distortions. “As we have begun to see… this feeling of freedom arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the prior causes of our thoughts and actions. The phrase ‘free will’ describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness […] But from a deeper perspective … thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions”. (9)
  9.  ‘Intention’ is a term that has had a lot of attention within the field of literary studies. An essay which is discussed in almost every account of ‘intention’ in this field is W.K. Wimsatt, Jr and Monroe C. Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy (1954). They argue that, “The words of a poem… come out of a head, not out of a bat. 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 worth of the poet’s performance.” (10)  This central point is reiterated a number times throughout the essay: “There is a gross body of life, of sensory and mental experience, which lies behind and in some sense causes every poem, but can never be and need not be known in the verbal and hence intellectual composition which is the poem. For all the objects of our manifold experience, for every unity, there is an action of the mind which cuts off roots, melts away context – or indeed we should never have objects or ideas or anything to talk about” (11). In their account ‘intention’ is seen to be completely irrelevant to an evaluation of a work of art. At a rudimentary level there seems to be something acceptable about this claim: if you were assessing someone’s work with a degree of ‘objectivity’ you would consider what they had achieved rather than simply what they had wanted to achieve. The problem in their account however is not so much that it denies ‘authorial intention’, a well worn and generally accepted arguement in other prominent cultural studies (12), but that it treats ‘intention’ only in the sense of ‘authorial intention’ and it is largely dependent on a formalism that relies upon a conventional conception of what an art ‘object’ is or can be. Additionally, the ‘designing intellect’ they refer to does not match the much more generative and relational view of the creative mind that has emerged in cultural studies in recent years, in which a work of art has to be worked out in reality, over time and entails improvisation (13). It also hides the notion that an artist – in whatever medium they work – might by necessity act in an unconscious manner, utilising chance or other mechanisms like automatic writing or cut-ups.
  10. If we are to think of ‘artistic intention’ beyond the artist/author and without having to defend ‘free-will’ then at this junction we might anticipate ‘intention’ being something we need to locate within the medium itself, the artist and  material intersection – words, considered objects, knowingly applied paints, performance. It may be ‘intended’ only in the same way a beaver’s dam is ‘intended’, largely through an unconscious series of instinctive but directed processes. The alien-ness or non-human or even post-humanness of this ‘other intention’ was captured by Duchamp in his final lecture. In the following passage he refers to ‘intention’ in the more conventional ‘authorial intention’ sense, but elsewhere develops a concept of what he calls the ‘art coefficient’, which is close to what we are discussing here:
  11. “In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane. The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of.” (14)
  12. In the field of literary studies one of the most sustained attempts to maintain a workable concept of ‘intention’ is Kaye Mitchell’s Intention and Text. In this series of essays she attempts to draw from various methodological approaches to re-site the discussion. Borrowing a phenomenological approach and the work of German Literary Scholar Wolfgang Iser, she writes, “The text agency (and it’s facilitation of reader agency) is… predicated on it’s necessary incompletion. The reader subsequently attempts to form the literary work into some more or less coherent whole, ‘projecting’ onto the text” (15) Mitchell stresses the importance of time over and above a formalist tendency to map a text structurally. As the phenomenological approach also seems to her overly dependent on subjective criteria, she turns then to Derrida. Mitchell sees Derrida as refuting the possibility of the originatory presence of the author imparting meaning to the text, but also going much further by blurring epistemological categories: “What [Derrida’s] manner of thinking does endorse is a deconstruction of that tricky mind/matter distinction where intention has always unequivocally been situated on one side of the equation [the mind]; ‘deconstruction’, as should be increasingly evident, is not a reversal of the status of the categories, but a blurring of the boundaries between them” (16) She works to show that a text can be seen to have ‘intention’ – a kind of directedness – without any recourse to either the author or readers’ conscious mind. As mind and matter are conjoined, so is form with force, force being related to the movement of meaning as it is worked out in time.  We are presented with an “idea of form as [a] deferred and disrupted presence – rather than as some kind of static and finite and complete structure” (17). Form is not a thing but an idea that lurks in our conceptions of things as we imagine moving between fixed points. ‘Intention’ is there as an organising principle that holds it together.
  13. Despite feeling exposed, perhaps because of it, you recognise something in the ambiguity of the moment that you feel you can take strength from. You were ensnared for a moment in the fortune teller’s generic and blank text – ensnared in something so vague: But their power was never their power at all, just an aspect of your own engulfment. You decide you will try to turn the tables, try to uncover this fraudster.
  14. While literary theory is helpful, it is important to note that its fixed object – the literary text – is somewhat less fluid than artistic counterparts. Really since the 1960s with movements like Fluxus, it was possible to present the art ‘object’ as something that could be immaterial, performative, conceptual, transcient, co-operatively authored, situational or generative. In some ways the sense of the text that Mitchell, via Derrida, elaborates has been a manifest phenomenon in certain strands of art for a long time. What we can’t presume however is that art forms that confound ‘authorial intention’, to become this kind of ‘disrupted presence’, form part of a clear continuum. Rather, it seems that various generations have to reassert the value of such art forms against the pressure of institutions, art dealers and celebrity art culture for clearly defined artists and products (Uncertainty, complexity, the otherness of the ‘intention’ we have sought, have to be incessantly contested. As Neil Mulholland recently wrote of the Neoliberal conception for art education: “They imagine the artist as an actor who seeks primarily to know (and manage) the self. This is a form of professional solipsism, discouraging artists from conducting research on the world around them, or on any fields that lie beyond what they already know. Instead, art students develop a private index of values, endlessly looping back, morbius-like, to a self-citing logic(18)). Nicholas Bourriaud’s writings in the 1990s are one example of the debate resurfacing. Although aspects of his argumentation have been criticised (19) it is worth recalling some of Post-production. In this essay Bourriaud claims that art has shifted from being something concerned with originating ideas to something which is concerned with the reclamation and recycling of them: “To learn how to use forms, as the artists in question invite us to do, is above all to know how to make them one’s own, to inhabit them.” (20) He continues, “This culture of use implies a profound transformation of the status of the work of art: going beyond its traditional role as a receptacle of the artist’s vision, it now functions as an active agent, a musical score, an unfolding scenario, a framework that possesses autonomy and materiality to varying degrees…”. (21)These statements, effectively relocating ‘intention’ to the work of art as an ‘unfolding scenario’ bear an incredible likeness to Kaye Mitchell’s conclusion as she reinvigorates ‘intention’ within the material/mental text. (How well Bourriaud’s coterie of artists have maintained these ideals against various forms of ossification is another question).
  15. An artwork close at hand for me, having recently worked with the artist, is David Sherry’s Lamp Performance. In the past the performance saw the artist wear a lamp shade on his head at various gallery events, more recently enlisting the help of volunteers. As in other works like Bread Man, Electrical Appliance or Living the Dream After Death (in which he became a canvas) the artist assumes the role of an object (with an unusual agency). His performances don’t fulfil any singular objective, political or artistic, but rather seem to rest on a gentle confrontation between the artist, object and viewer. Sherry, in these performances, is often blank or neutral; in one even playing on the idea of vacancy (Just popped out back in two hours written on a post-it on his forehead). Where a conventional object might passively allow the visitor to effectively read its fortune, the authorial ‘intention’ or its provenance, here is the artist sitting obstinately silent and ready to leave at the end.
  16. You cannot make sense of a concluding paragraph until you’ve read what has gone before. This is not because your mind can store all the information on the way, building the meaning of the text like a lego model that all fits together. Rather, reading the text establishes an attitude, disposition, or for want of a better term an ‘intent’ that might not resemble a structure once you come to think of it. This journey, which involves displacement and a certain loss of self-consciousness has perhaps found no better voice than in passing, in Foucault’s scurrilous and scurrying remarks at the opening of The Archaeology of Knowledge: “What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never meet again.” (p.22)
  17. You stare long and hard at the fortune teller. Familiarity suddenly shifts to recognition and you realise that the fortune teller is nothing more than a string of empty words. Suddenly emptied out like this they seem oddly vulnerable and you find yourself feeling empathy. Our minds will make patterns, you say, and occasionally we will be tricked, this is our gift. But we cannot allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking the meaning of things is reducible to any particular concept or idea – for such structural things would themselves be prone to warping anyway. There’s no need to fixate on what seems stable and ‘buildable’. We must simply learn to celebrate, more than we do, the fact that most of the time we simply have to say something to see how it sounds.

David Sherry (2010) Living the dream after death. [Performance] Image courtesy of Mother's Tankstation Dublin and Patricia Fleming Projects Glasgow.
David Sherry (2010) Living the dream after death. [Performance]
Image courtesy of Mother’s Tankstation Dublin and Patricia Fleming Projects Glasgow.
David Sherry (2008) Just Popped out  back in 2 hours [performance]. Image courtesy of GOMA, Mother's Tankstation Dublin and Patricia Fleming Projects Glasgow.
David Sherry (2008) Just Popped out back in 2 hours [performance]. Image courtesy of GOMA, Mother’s Tankstation Dublin and Patricia Fleming Projects Glasgow.
(1)     See Kahneman, Daniel (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin;London.

(2)     Wiseman, Richard (2011) Paranomality. Macmillan; London. Pp 13 -55.

(3)     Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2008) The Black Swan: The impact of the highly Improbable. Penguin; London. P. 8.

(4)     Levett, Stephen D. And Stephen J. Dubner (2013) Freakonomics [website]: Available at:

(5)     Elkins, James (2001) Why Art Cannot be Taught. Illinois Press; Illinois.

(6)     This part of the narrative text is taken from the script of an experienced fortune teller. Forer, Bertram [fortune teller] (2012) on, Cold Reading. Available at:

(7)     Ricoeur, Paul (2000 [1980]) Narrative Time in Mcquillan, M (ed.)  The Narrative Reader. Routledge; London. P. 255

(8)     As (6)

(9)     Harris, Sam (2012) Free Will . Free Press; London. P. 32.

(10) Beardsley, Monroe C. And W.K. Wimsatt jr. (1954) The Intentional Fallcy. Available at:

(11) Ibid.

(12) Barthes, Roland (1977 [1968]) The Death of The Author. Available at: and Foucault, Michel (1998 [1969]) What is an Author? In Preziosi, Donald (ed) The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford University Press; Oxford. Pp 299 – 314.

(13) Hallam, Elizabeth and Tim Ingold (2007) Creativty and Cultural Improvisation. Berg; King’s Lynn.

(14) Duchamp, Marcel (1961) The Creative Act [Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art]. Available at:

(15) Mitchell, Kaye (2008) Intention and Text. Continuum; London. P.110

(16) Ibid. P. 137.

(17) Ibid. P. 150.

(18) Mulholland, Neil (2013) Shift Happens. Available at:

(19) Bishop, Claire (2006) Participation [Introduction] . Whitechapel; London. Pp 10 – 17.

(20) Bourriaud, Nicholas (2002) Postproduction. Lukas & Sternberg; New York. P.18.

(21) Ibid. P. 20.


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