A recent guest post by John Hollenbeck over at DTM got me thinking about intent as it applies to art, specifically music. To very briefly summarize Hollenbeck’s post, every composer will at some point encounter a moment when they realize that the piece they are working on is derivative of an existing piece by another composer. Each composer will approach this moment differently at different times, but Hollenbeck’s basic point is that there is great potential for personal growth by approaching the moment honestly and either striving to strip your original work of the derivative portions, acknowledge the outside influence or abandon the piece altogether. Basically, by being honest a composer betters themselves and by bettering themselves betters the world around them.
This brought to mind one of my favorite and oft revisited conversations in the world of art, the discussion of whether an artist’s intention can or should be considered when evaluating their work. If Hollenbeck’s hypothetical composer ignores their realization and leaves the “quoted” portion of their work as is, while they may be doing themselves a disservice on a karmic level, should it change the way we view the work? As a listener, how can we judge between a plagiarized melody and an influence laid bare? Without being able to climb into the composer’s head, we can’t. We can never really know if the composer ever had the realization to begin with. In order to fully appraise a piece we need to strip away everything aside from the piece itself. It is easier said than done.
A great example of this is Lady GaGa. Depending on who you ask she is either a talentless pop creation or the heir to Andy Warhol’s commentary on materialism and fame. Obviously opinions are not necessarily grounded in reasoning, but the question arises that if GaGa does not intend to invoke the greatest pop art master or to expound on such timely and interwoven themes does her work still deserve credit for doing so? Do we allow for accidental genius?
There is also a notion that we can somehow glean the artist’s intentions by how we perceive their work. Clearly Britney Spears is releasing songs based on what she thinks will sell, right? Well, how do we know that? What if every piece of music she ever recorded came straight from her heart and was her most honest and sincere attempt at expressing herself? It may not make you like her music, but it would likely change your opinion of her. Or what if Albert Ayler had no intention of breaking down barriers or advancing music by pushing to create new and exciting sounds? What if everything he ever produced was just his attempt to play pretty melodies? Would that change the value you place on his work? Is there anything behind Jackson Pollock’s splatters, or are they just the drippings of a drunk? When you’re standing in front of one of his massive canvases and it takes your breath away, does it really matter?
If Hollenbeck’s composer has a responsibility to himself to be honest in the work they present, listeners owe it to themselves to try and appraise work as it is presented, hopefully ignoring all of the superfluous packaging and even their own pre-conceptions about what the piece is.