Artist’s Intent: What Is the Meaning In Art

Taking in awe inspiring art

In the Eye of the Beholder

We all interpret art based on our own experiences in life. One thing to consider when interpreting art is the artist’s intent. What was in the artist’s heart and mind when they created their work of art? Does the artist’s intent really matter in interpreting art?

Literal Vs. Metaphorical Interpretation

We all interpret art in many different ways. The two most common types of interpretation are literal and metaphorical. An artist’s intent can be either. Furthermore, the observer or audience could interpret the art in the opposite way from what the artist intended.

A writer can write a story about someone that takes a wounded animal in and cares for it. And to the writer, the intent could be literal.

Caring for a poor, defenseless kitten

Caring for a poor, defenseless kitten

Maybe the writer is trying to communicate the importance of taking care of defenseless animals. In contrast, you could interpret it as a metaphor for people caring for each other’s emotional and psychological needs. Furthermore, another reader could interpret the story as a religious allegory where the wounded animal is humanity and the person taking care of it is God. None of these interpretations are wrong. On the contrary, this is part of our ability as humans to reason based on personal individual experiences.

Different Context = New Meaning

Sometimes an artist’s intent when a work is created becomes far removed from how the work is interpreted years later. In 1972, Elliot Lurie wrote a song that has been interpreted as being about a woman who’s waiting for a man that she has fallen in love with that she knows will never return to her. Forty-five years after hitting number one, a totally new meaning was found for “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” when it became the theme of the romance between Peter Quill’s parents in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Were any of these themes Lurie’s intent? Not specifically, as he has stated that any metaphor he had in mind when writing the song was purely subconscious. In actuality, he developed the chord structure first, and then he wrote lyrics that suited the melody.

Beliefs Shape Interpretation

Throughout history, religion has shaped many an artist’s intent in creation. The Bible itself is a prime example.

The most controversial book ever written

Even within Christian circles, people debate the meaning of the Bible. Some Christians view it as the literal Word of God. They believe that interpretation is not up for debate. Other Christians view the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Those people believe that men who were divinely inspired wrote it. Historical accounts within the Bible can be verified with other historical documents, and some parts of the Bible are metaphorical. And even non-Christian views of the Bible range from it being a book that contains many good morality tales to the view of it being a book of hate mongering towards those that do not conform to social norms. People that interpret the Bible differently have argued and fought over differing opinions for hundreds of years.

Artist’s Intent and Viewer’s Perspective

Everything is open to interpretation. Many experiences, beliefs, and ideas shape our interpretations of everything in the world around us. Artists may be able to influence the audience, but ultimately, each of us must decide for ourselves what the meaning and beauty in a work of art is.

Wayne Cochran

Database Administrator, writer, social media evangelist, and occasional traveler, Wayne writes whatever comes into his head or touches his heart. His interests vary from IT to matters of the heart to the dream of a future beach life.

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