Art: Intent vs. Interpretation

23rd October

Some vague thoughts on art and writing and what it means to create things.

To what extent is it important to know what the artist/author intended?

When does art stop belonging to the artist and instead belong to the public?

When I left my uni lecture on Saturday these were the questions that stuck out the most in my mind.  We were discussing Doctor Faustus and Marlowe’s message behind the play.  Is Doctor Faustus a morale teaching, similar to that of the story of Icarus who’s pride takes him too close to the sun?  Are we supposed to finish the play and consider ourselves warned not to blaspheme/sin against God?  Or is it actually a critique of God and the Christian religion itself?  Highlighting that when Faustus calls upon God only Devils answer…

As we went over these questions it became clear that regardless of Marlowe’s intent, it is the impression that the work leaves upon the viewer that is truly important.   Two people of two different backgrounds could view the same piece of work and take two completely different messages from it, rendering the artist’s original intentions inconsequential.

Of course, this leads to a whole host of other questions.  As soon as a play is written does that mean that the author’s original intent no longer matters at all?  As soon as a book is published does it no longer belong to the author but instead to the person who buys it?

Put in modern context, fanfiction is an excellent example of where the lines become blurred.  Harry Potter, (yes I’m going there) was directly influential on fanfiction,  spawning hundreds of thousands of stories set in the world of Harry Potter and it’s characters.  Yet it’s new art in on itself but completely separate to JK Rowling’s original work.  Does Harry Potter still belong to JK Rowling, or does it belong to the avid fans that have interpreted it in their own ways and taken it to different places?

Like Doctor Faustus, Harry Potter has religious themes (although far less obvious.)  Harry conquers Death and rises again, much like Jesus.  You could make arguments for Harry Potter being a Christian allegory, you could equally argue that it’s simply a fantastical book about a boy wizard and a magical school.

So what is more important, interpretation or intent?

I would argue both.  The intent of the author normally adds weight to the story/poem/song/piece of art.  Particularly if you take the piece in context of when it was made and the social/political issues of the time.  However, ultimately, your own biases and views will colour your view of the work and leave you with whatever message fits best to your own mind.

Does art ever stop belonging to the artist and instead belong to the public?

This is, in my opinion, a complex topic.  I own many books and would consider each of them mine.  I can draw fan art based around these works and in some cases write my own pieces of work for them, but it does not make them mine any more than taking a photo of someone allows me to own that person.  However an artist cannot control what we think or what we take from their work, so maybe this is a question without any real answers?

I would love to hear your thoughts, so by all means please comment below 🙂

Oh and, if this topic mildly interested you, below is a link to an article that Neil Gaiman wrote.  It takes the idea of art ownership a step forward to artist ownership and the sense of entitlement that we may feel as consumers.


Best wishes,

Rachel x


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