Monday, June 04, 2007

It Had to be Said #6

Authorial intent is meaningless.

It really doesn't matter what a writer or artist (or editor) intended to say with any given piece of art (or, in our case, comic). What matters is what they actually say, and that is determined by the audience.

Lobo's a good example. He was intended as a satire of the ultra-violent superhero (Wolverine, specifically) but was read by an audience that took him totally seriously, to the point where he written seriously and became that which he was meant to mock.

And going in the reverse direction, All-Star Batman and Robin may be intended to be taken seriously, but is so gloriously over-the-top that many people love it as a parody (perhaps of itself, but a parody nonetheless).

This is complicated by the fact that art does not exist in a vacuum nor is "the audience" a monolithic entity. "The audience" is thousands of individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and contexts for understanding. So each person interprets a work differently, and the meaning of a piece is fluid across people. Something I read as a celebration of female power, another might read as a dismissal of a woman's worth. And neither of us are necessarily wrong.

And a work's meaning changes over time, too, as new events reshape interpretations. The first issues of Watchmen, for example, were published before the Iran-Contra scandal broke. So while Moore and Gibbons' story of abused, hubristic authority could not have been intended to comment on the (then) current administration's illegal activities, by the twelfth issue it most certainly did! (Especially since the Tower Commission opened their report with "quis custodiet ipsos custodes," i.e. "who watches the watchmen?")

Which is a long way of saying, you can't defend your art by saying "This is what I meant to say" or "I didn't mean to offend anyone". Once your art is out among the public, you are just one more interpreter, and have no more or less authority than anyone else. If someone says your work is offensive, then it IS offensive, at least to them, and you cannot just say they are wrong. All you can do is decide whether or not you care.


Tom Foss said...

I have to disagree, at least a little. It does matter what the author was trying to say, inasmuch as it gives context to the work and insight to the intended message. However, authorial intent isn't nearly as important as some authors think it is.

Art interpretation is not one-sided; it's a conversation between the creator and the audience. Each author and audience member brings something different to the table, and each will walk away with something entirely unique. Both sides are important, and the contexts with which both sides enter into the conversation are perhaps even more important (after all, you may pick up a book at several times in your life, each time reading it with different experiences at a different time and a different mindset, and you'll take a different experience away from each reading, even though you're the same person).

So, while it's valid to say that, even though "1984" was written about WWII, it speaks volumes about the current administration, it's also valid to say that "Born in the USA" was intended to be a bitter song about the aftermath of Vietnam, not a patriotic anthem for the Reagan campaign, or that various legal battles and expressed opinions show that Dr. Seuss wasn't promoting anti-abortion causes when he wrote "a person's a person, no matter how small." Context is everything, and authorial intent is just another source of context.

Allan said...

I can certainly understand the appeal of your argument. It’s one I came across very often in my humanities classes back in my university days, expressed as it was by professors and fellow students alike, all of them basking in the glow of its central conceit—screw the artist, I’m the one who really matters!

Of course academics, critics and fanboys embrace an interpretive philosophy in which the intentions of the author are meaningless, because how else could they justify their existence? By making themselves the most important part of the process—to the point of arguing that the very idea of an author is a fallacious one—they are able to think of themselves as inherently creative, rather than as simple spectators whose opinions and judgments are only given any credence or attention inside their own incestuous circles.

But speaking as someone who actually has made his own creative contributions to the world at large, as obscure and insignificant as they may be (only 150,000 titles in print worldwide) I have to say I do take offence to your notion that once I have published a work I have no right to question another persons interpretation of it, especially since I have no qualms about questioning other people’s interpretations of works I myself had nothing to do with.

Just as I feel I am well within my right to question a statement I think is racist, sexist or otherwise made in ignorance, so too do I have a right to question a person who has been offended by my work, especially if I feel they have deliberately misinterpreted what I wrote in order to support their own dogmatic stance on an issue, or even if they simply are expressing a worldview diametrically opposite to my own.

I wonder just how strongly you feel about this issue. If for example I published a story about an interracial couple, in which I explicitly supported the relationship and portrayed it without any controversy, only to be told that some readers were offended by my portrait of miscegenation, should I simply shrug off their racism as another viewpoint—one as worthwhile as my own? While you may disagree, I personally think I would be obligated to vocally question their feelings, going so far as to call their opinions idiotic and absurd. What weight my words would have in relation to anyone else’s is certainly debatable, but I am personally offended by your declaration that I have no right to say them.

Please forgive me if I am misinterpreting you, but I cannot help but feel that the subtext of your post is that the creators of certain comic book cover should be ashamed for not being ashamed of and actually defending what they wrought. In other words, that they are guilty of arrogant insensitivity for having the temerity to disagree with you. Again, I understand the appeal of this argument. What better way is there to win a debate than to insist that your opponent hasn’t the right to defend themself?

Steven said...

Tom: good point. The author's interpretation of her own work IS part of the context, yes. I just don't think it has more weight than anyone else's interpretation.

Which brings us to


"screw the artist, I’m the one who really matters!"

Eh, I'd phrase that as "screw the artist, the art is what really matters," but that's close enough.

I don't care what you meant to say. I care what you actually wrote. And I WILL find a different meaning in your work than you do simply because I'M NOT YOU.

I mean, do you really think your audience are "simple spectators whose opinions and judgments are only given any credence or attention inside their own incestuous circles"?

I personally think MY audience (and I do have one, thank you) take what I wrote and apply it to their own lives, and at the same time take their lives and apply it to my writing. Which is why they OFTEN disagree with me (and I with them), and yet keep coming back.

Of course you have the right to question other people's interpretations of your work. Go ahead. Show examples from the text. Prove your work.

You just don't have the right to deny people their interpretations, simply by your authority as author. You don't outrank us.

Shane Bailey said...

This has to end up on Meanwhile next week. Excellent post.