I was incredibly honoured to have been asked by Raphael Panayi, who is studying Drama & Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway, whether he could write an essay on my performance of Egg at Camden People's Theatre. Here is the final piece, which I'm pleased to say he got a first for. Thank you Raphael!
Artistic intentions and their relevance in understanding, evaluating and interpreting a work of art
In his notorious essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes expresses his disavowal to the concept of authorship, claiming that once a work has been published it becomes an object of open criticism. Therefore, Barthes explains that the author seizes to have any significant power over the work and their opinions of it must not be regarded as definite, or for that matter, free of errors. He goes on to note that the reader is the one who has the responsibility and authority to understand the work as a distinct intellectual object and interpret it without taking into account the author’s motives or psyche during the process of the conceptualization and production of it. This notion expanded beyond literature, to many different art forms and has been, for long, the core of various discourses. Yet, where the intentions of the author/artist stand has not been accurately established. It would seem, that the term ‘death’ is remarkably monolithic, undermining both of the artist’s as well as the work’s occupation within any given space. Although not definite, the presence and motives of an artist constitute a place of origin. In addition, choosing not to examine the artist’s intentions is to risk a more thoughtful and well-rounded understanding and evaluation. When a work of art intends to make a statement, carry a criticism on political movements or stand as a protest to any form of oppression, that intention is manifested through the artist. The means of expressing and realizing it through the work are carefully and willingly chosen by an individual hand, bearing messages from an individual point of view. Killing this, denying a place of origin to a work that would not had been constructed if it was not for its author would not be as beneficial as it would had been if we were to take it into consideration. By looking further into some of the discussions on the subject of authorship and by referring to Egg, a contemporary feminist performance by Theodora van der Beek, I aim to suggest that the artist’s intentions highlight and support the work; taken as guidance and suggestions, they can prove to be remarkably useful and resourceful.
When we approach a work of art we accept – yet, not always – to be invited into the imaginary world it has to offer. We accept that to experience it fully, we would be advised to embrace what it has to offer, while remaining critical and aware of its fictitious elements. We can either focus on the aestheticism of the piece, which often does not necessitate the intervention of the artist’s intentions. It would be a matter of what appeals to us and what not, which has no coincidental reflection on what, who, or why motivated and put together the aesthetic elements of a work of art. As noted by Gordon Graham in Art and Understanding, “even making allowance for the role of artistic intention, we have still to admit the essential subjectivity of aesthetic judgement, in the end we can only call upon personal preferences” (55). Alternatively, we can choose to focus on the context in an effort to decipher encrypted codes, or simply to satisfy our appetite for discovering a deeper meaning and developing further discussions. For the latter case, looking into the intention’s behind the work, those that the artist consciously had, could be an attribute to a more informed interpretation. Since the creator is not the one determining the work, the interpreter is free to deny, object or agree with it. But, it seems that one would have to be aware of the reasons behind something in order to debate about it. It is safe to claim that an interpretation combining the viewpoints of both approaches is the one that would be more thorough and well-thought. Therefore, the artist’s intentions remain relevant; without eliminating others, they provide arguments and reasons.
If a performance is an intellectual unity, then its first interpretation comes from its creator. The same way it is interpreted by the audience without necessarily taking into consideration the artist’s intentions. Therefore, claiming the Author, their understandings and reasons dead, is similar to denying the audience’s interpretation also. While the latter is not determined by the former, one does not eliminate the other and could stand on the same ground. As Sean Burke explains in The Dead and Return of the Author, “A text viewed as the achievement of a particular representational aim is necessarily tethered to its author, in that it must pass through his figure to be referred to its alleged objects” (43). The artist’s intentions should not be thought as irrelevant, but to the least, as a point of reference that was present even before the work was subjected to public criticism. Egg was first performed on the 5th of March 2016 as part of Sprint Festival: a festival that celebrates new and adventurous theatre across the UK and beyond. The website advertising the show provides a brief overview of the plot, in which it is claimed that the show is a “surreal journey through the life of an egg” (Egg). However, since the artist intended far more than just a literal egg narrative, the website does not neglect to elaborate. It assures us that the piece looks into the egg’s cultural significances throughout history and that it is “a journey with feminist undertones” (Egg). If it had not been for the declaration of the artist’s intentions, the performance could be taken in as something remarkably different than what it is. Usually, such a thing would not be regarded as an issue. For this performance, though, one would have to be accepting of the artist’s intentions claiming it to carry feminist statements. If not, one would easily undergo a different route which could lead into failing to point out the performance’s topics and references.
The show opens with the performer in a costume of an egg. A recorded voice narrates the philosophical discourses which look into the egg as an object, as well as a spiritual entity in various parts of the world. After that, the live voice of the performer offers a narrative that comes to incorporate all the given information into the ethical and political statements of the piece. Being both the creator and the performer of the work, she expresses her intentions, thus advising us to imagine that this surreal life journey of an egg is really a feminist statement against the undervaluation of women. The Egg/Woman says “I worked for every minute of my life, but only some of it was paid.” An anti-intentionalist could easily disregard this quote. However, being aware of the artist’s intentions pushes us to comprehend what she is saying as a critique on the unequal distribution of power and money between men and women. She relates one of the most prominent philosophical questions – whether it was the chicken or the egg first – with the superiority given to man by the patriarchy. The opening of the show is a clear statement of intentions, in which we understand that we should not from now on consider the egg as a literal egg, nor as a spiritual deity, but as a particular woman, or the representation of a particular idea of womanhood. Theodora van der Beek - in the interview she provided for the purposes of this essay – explains that “The egg was certainly chosen as a symbol of womanhood” (E-mail Interview), also affirming the feminist drive of the piece. In addition, we have been informed that the performance carries feminist beliefs through the advertising of the show. Throughout the introduction in Intention and Text: Towards an Intentionality of Literary Form, Kaye Mitchell refers to W. K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley who in their 1946 article The Intentional Fallacy claim that ‘intention’ is the creator’s plan and design; it is “an entity existing prior to the work itself, a mental design or blueprint detailing how the artist or author wants the work to be or what he wants to express (2). Mitchell goes on to explain that this “blueprint conception of intention” necessitates the interference of “authorial meaning: it is what the author means by the semantic and syntactic arrangements that make up the final text of the work” (2). It becomes obvious, that such a notion will limit further interpretations if they do not correspond with the artist’s intentions. Still, these arrangements were put together intentionally by the artist who will – if successful – guide an audience towards the purpose and statements of the work. In the case of evaluating a politically charged performance such as Egg, for instance, we would have to become accustomed to these intentions. Although they do not constitute the sole criterion for criticism, they provide grounds for the development of arguments. Once we have accepted to be guided by the artist’s intentions, evaluating the work is a matter of whether the artist has succeeded in transferring their intentions through the conventions of the performance, or not. Otherwise, evaluating the performance for something else than what it was intended to be, would not be as relevant and, maybe even unfair, for it would prevent us from acknowledging the contribution and significance of the work.
It is only fair to claim that most performances are made up of symbols and a sense of arbitrariness, which is what allows multiple and different interpretations. Signs and symbols are already infused with cultural significations; therefore they are only signified by the environment in which they are placed. When it comes to performances, the work is the unity of the many symbolisms and the audience is the environment signifying the work with meanings. However, the work is already a signified object, even if it fails to appear so, or even if the audience refuses to take into considerations the artist’s intentions for the piece; a piece already interpreted and given meaning by the author. Midway through the performance, the Egg/Woman gets a job and during a lunch break, she goes on to eat a banana. As soon as the fruit touches her mouth, we hear a wolf whistle and that is repeated multiple times. She looks amazed and happy, and places the banana near her mouth again, even bends over to make the whistling continue, while feeling validated and joyful by the attention she is receiving. Looking into the banana as a literal, already signified object would not be beneficial if we were to critically evaluate this scene; without being aware of the artist’s intentions, we could end up with misleading results. Even if we were to interpret the banana, not as a symbol already filled with meaning, but as the symbolism arising from the conventions of the performance, we could still misunderstand the work. Women are already objectified and over-sexualised within patriarchal constitutions and through the mediums of pop music, or the fashion industry. Seeing this taking place on stage, by a woman as well, could fire up discussions that will try to disregard it. In addition, it could lead to a different extend, where the audience accepts that submitting to the male gaze for attention and objectifying yourself is advised, even enjoyable. In the space of open interpretation, nothing is set in stone. The only possible way of making an informed evaluation, is to go back to the artist’s intention. Knowing that the performance is in favour of feminism is a safer way towards realising the context of a performance more accurately. Theodora explains that “She wears a protective suit to do the job, but it does not prevent her from becoming sexualised. The banana is a phallic object, so the innocent act of eating it is turned sexual by the watchers” (Interview). The imaginative watchers interpret the action as they please; the real audience does so as well. Yet, for the purposes of accurate evaluation, one would need to understand where the artist is coming from and why they thought what they presented is possible to carry any significant meanings. We understand that the action of feeling validated through sexualizing herself, the performer is in fact making a statement against the objectification of women; she does not approve and we should not either. From then on, it is a matter of choice, whether or not one choses to agree.
Such as the example given above, there are other cases where, in order to understand and evaluate a piece of art, it would be required to have certain knowledge of the performance’s context, the one consciously and intentionally provided by the artist. Therefore, the artist’s intentions become not only relevant, but crucial to the audience. Beardsley, as Mitchell explains, discusses the concept of autonomy that a work possesses, implying that a literary work is “first of all a text, a piece of language and, as such, is divorced from both author and critic” (7). Therefore, looking into the work, without taking into account the artist’s intentions, would prove to be enough. Mitchell goes on to refer to Hermerén, who clarifies that “only the qualities belonging to (i.e., internal to) the work of art in question can limit interpretations of it, not the intentions of the author or the responses of the reader” (8). However, Mitchell explains that such qualities are not easily found, for we cannot distinguish for sure what is in the work and what arises from our imagination. She claims that irony is such a quality and notes that intentionalists have made the point that “language and syntax alone will not reveal ironic intent” (9). It becomes clear, then, that even if the text is an autonomous intellectual object, referring to the artist’s intentions can lead to a better understanding. Egg raises many points by using sarcasm, irony and insincerity; all qualities that require some recognition of authorial intent in order to comprehend them. For example, throughout the show, the Egg/Woman prays to a shell that is underneath a white veil. She claims that it is her only friend, yet when she is asking for advice, the shell is rude and undermining; it pushes the character into making certain choices, and then blames her for how things turn up. This sarcastic and ironic representation of a form of friendship between her and the shell is even more emphasized by the end of the show; the shell announces that the character failed and will have to die and underneath the veil is a skull, representing death. The artist is presenting us with an idea that we may, or may not follow. The idea is that the shell is a symbol for the patriarchy, always guiding women into paths, then condemning them for what they are doing. Of course, this interpretation is one of many. As Theodora explains, “It is not always my conscious intention to make the audience think, for example, that the shell represents the patriarchy, but it becomes clear later on when you analyse it” (Interview). Therefore, even if that one particular symbolism was not a conscious choice, the overall intention within the work still needs to be present. The artist claims that with further analysis one is able to understand the shell as the overruling figure of patriarchy. This affirms that such an analysis will have to be based on feminist discourses; those from which the artist’s intentions come from and aim for, because they will make the irony and sarcasm stand out. So, in fact, whether or not the artist was able to – consciously or unconsciously – come up with ways capable of signifying their intentions is not what matters the most. In the case of this particular performance whose aim is to condemn misogyny, the artist’s main intention and aim become the foundation for further investigations and interpretations.
Works of art, whether those may be literature, theatre or dance, tend to exceed aestheticism and beauty, and become sources of and references to various political matters. When a performance, for instance, is put on stage in order to bring into question subjects such as misogyny or racism, it seizes to be an aesthetic unity only; it is an intended protest, the artist’s way of rebelling against systems of oppression. Performances of this kind would not be as significant if we were to ignore the intention behind them. Barthe’s The Death of the Author claims that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (142). However, the destruction of the voice that is input in the artist’s work could result in depriving the work of its purposefulness. Even if the Author is indeed dead, living a vacant space for open and various interpretations, the work is still haunted by an initiative source. The Author’s words, images and symbols have been in existence already, therefore they already carry meanings. However, their intentions, those initiating the discourse within the work constitute their individual mind, distinct and unique experiences and a particular perception on a certain subject. This does not imply that those intentions are not to be questioned, maybe even denied. After all, experiencing a work of art is what makes the viewer an Author as well. Maybe, then, the production and publishing of an artwork does not kill the Author, but the work itself. It is subjected to a plethora of interpretations and meanings. When a piece of art is released into the public, it is multiplied into identical works with different comprehensions. However, the artist remains the single initiator of the work and has already charged it with intentions and individual, even personal concepts. While these have no more authority over any other aesthetic or critical interpretations, they do not seize to exist; their efficacy underlines the work, whether that is chosen to be taken under consideration, or not.
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Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-48. Print.
Burke, Seán. The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1998. Print.
"Egg." Camden People's Theatre. Web. 02 Apr. 2016.
Graham, Gordon. Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Mitchell, Kaye. "Introduction: Beginnings: The Birth of a Fallacy." Intention and Text: Towards an Intentionality of Literary Form. London: Continuum, 2008. 1-20. Print.
*The quotes provided by the artist behind the performance discussed are part of an interview that Theodora van der Beek provided personally for the purposes of this particular essay