THE INTENTIONAL FALLACY: WHAT’S YOUR INTERPRETATION?

The “hidden meanings” within art are often creations of the viewer

For many years, there has been a constant debate on whether art has meaning or not. With both sides of the argument giving many reasons. Others, however, chose to say that art is governed by an intentional fallacy; something that we cannot fully understand, as we try to grasp the artists’ reasoning behind their craft.

With the earliest known forms of art found 50,000 to 700,000 years ago. It’s no surprise that we have either continued to create or question this visual language.

There are various ways we can interpret art, generally using one or all three options. First, via our emotional response. Second, through semiotics; the language of signs and symbols. Additionally, by the meaning of colours, and composition. Finally, we can deduce an artwork by the context such as what was happening during the time of the artwork’s creation, and artist’s life. All of these forms of explanations, can help us understand artwork.

As viewers, we can never truly know what the artists’ intention was within an expressive piece. Nonetheless, we can speculate.

For some people, they believe in themselves that art has no meaning. Possibly due to the viewer being unable to understand the artist’s intention, driven by lack of understanding of the context and its signature elements, whilst assuming that there is only one meaning. An example would be Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract painting No. 5. Reinhardt’s intention was to create art pieces that showed a painting that anyone could paint as a last piece of work.


However, for some observers, they might see it as a dark night sky, or a representation of sadness. Alternatively, showing that the artist did not want to do much to the canvas, due to the painting being covered in the colour of black. All of these exemplify what intentional fallacy is. By the artist, museum, or gallery’s assumption that the audience will understand. But, by doing this, the painting loses its original meaning. Thereby creating multiple ways of understanding it.

If we chose to believe that we know the creators’ true intentions, we are then left with not being able to explore the depth of an art piece.

Roland Barthes, a French philosopher, believed that even the artist would not know the full interpretation of their own work. This is due to no idea being original. Rather, the idea is transformed into another way of being viewed. Subconscious influences, along with past experiences create the work’s many meanings.

At the end of the day, we should accept that there is no right or wrong in our interpretation of art. Creations have a variety of meanings, art is not a mathematical sum that has only one answer. We, the audience, give purpose, along with meaning to an artistic piece. Whether that be conscious or subconscious, we develop our visual language because of what surrounds us.

A creative can never truly know the depths in which their work can be understood. They may set out with an aim for the piece to be understood, yet the aim might be lost on the public.


Meet Jasmine on the Team page. Visit the Arts Department.


MACKAYAN: THE INTENTIONAL FALLACY