The myth of artistic intention

A declaration with reference to 1212341234577 by Hamish MacPherson and Martine Painter.

From choreography manuals to programme notes and post-performance discussions there is a widely held assumption that behind a dance performance, like any work of art, there is a single ‘grand intention’.

For example Smith Autard states that concert dance “has to be created with the composer’s intention to say something, to communicate an idea or emotion” (1) which is a variation of the ‘idealist theory’ in philosophy of art which asserts that a work of art is not the physical matter (e.g. the paint on canvas, or stone) but the idea of the artist that is given form in the physical world (2).

But if single, grand intentions exist from which flow works of art, then they are the exception rather than the rule.

The most common scenario is where there are multiple separate ‘small intentions’ and the big intention is constructed retrospectively by the artist or more commonly by the spectator (with the critic being a particular type of spectator).

1. An artwork is the sum of its elements

As Kuhn describes, a work of art can be understood as a family of elements (e.g. notes, melodies, phrases, themes in the case of a piece of music) that may only have a weak interdependence (i.e. individual elements can be changed to some extent without changing the whole).

Some of the elements of 1212341234577 were simple movements, identical costumes (stone/beige t shirts with black trousers), an accumulating pattern of movement and sounds/ text performed by Martine and myself.

2. Intentions lead to elements of the artwork

There is still some truth in the conventional model of intention and artistic elements. The simplest model, and most controversial (3) is one that sees the artists having an exact understanding of the work of art in their head that they make real.

For example ballet choreographer Ninette de Valois would treat dancers as ‘puppets’ to make real her private imagination of what the dance would look like (4). With regard to ‘small intentions’ this might be not be a private vision of the entire artwork but it does still involve the imagination of an imagined activity and subsequent reaction by a spectator, which is then played out for real.

Alternatively an artist may have an intention of the effect they want to achieve but not exactly how they will achieve it until they start work in the medium (5). For example choreographer Frederick Ashton might research thoroughly but not create movement until he came into contact with dancers and began to experiment with their bodies (6).

There were a number of ‘small intentions’ that were held in the creation of 1212341234577. These were articulated (to each other and to myself) both in terms of the intended effect and in terms of an element that would create that effect and sometimes with reference to other experience that had led us to have that intention.

For example the work began as an idea for a short two-person choreographic sketch with the intention to present a simple accumulating pattern of movement in an attempt to replicate some of the delight and stimulation I had experienced in observing class solo accumulation exercises as well as structural progressions in pieces like Cameo (7) in which structure is layered on narrative and characterisations, and Fases by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, in which structure was layered onto much simpler movement with less obvious signifies movement (8).

A sequence was devised on paper with no certainty of how it would work in real life.

Later discoveries of Dadist poems by Kurt Schwitters such as Poem 25  (9) – which consists only of numbers used for their meaning and for their sound – added another layer to this intention. And seeking to emulate the pleasing effect that the poem had on us it inspired us to use text/ speech in a way that had meaning in terms of content as well as the sound quality.

3. But elements can also lead to intentions

Observing elements being played out in the creative process may reveal points of interest that were not originally intended consciously (and perhaps not even unconsciously).

The artist may feel that they wish to develop and clarify these elements because they feel that they support the existing intention or perhaps they have merit in their own right. In these circumstances the relationship between material and choreographer is reversed as the artist takes the role of explaining the movement to the audience.

In 1212341234577 Martine and I inferred from the elements of alternation, accumulation and unison a sense of ritual and a back story of two people that had come to perform an age-old pattern. While we did not expect this to be obvious or even explicit to the audience we felt that it aided the process by creating a point of reference when trying to understand our ‘characters’ relationship with each other and informed subsequent elements such as costume and a calmness of performance.

4. Inherent in artworks is their ability to hold multiple intentions

All conscious human actions have an intention; for example we rub a painful shoulder in order to provide relief from the current pain we feel. However works of art are not a special type of action since they are not spontaneous things that result from single linear causal chains.

An individual brush stroke or a single choreographic decision can be considered in this way but a physical art work — be it a poem or a dance — is not an action. A work of an art, even a concert dance, is a thing. A thing that is exterior to the author and that is the result of various intentions expressed at different times in the creative process and even from different people if there are multiple authors.

For example two people can come to a canvas independently and make different marks with different intentions and now the canvas bears them both and a spectator will interpret them together and imagine a single intention.

A performance may not appear to be as fixed as painting but it has still been prearranged in some form. As such an art work becomes ‘disembedded’ from the time and place of each small intention (10) and holds many intentions that may focus on different things and may be contradictory.

1212341234577 was clearly the work of two independent minds although the fact that the initial intention of a specific element (the accumulation pattern) was relatively concrete (as opposed to an abstract concept such as loneliness) it made it easier to reconcile those different minds and intentions.

Although not necessary for the final product it arguably made the construction process easier. If multiple intentions can exist in one work of art coming from different times, different people and different ideas then the idea of a big intention from which they came is clearly a fiction.

5. A piece of art sits on a creative mirror, on one side is the artist, on the other is the spectator

As we have seen the work of creative process then involves intention and elements. For the spectator there is a corresponding mirror image process of identifying elements that they have observed and responding to those elements; intellectually (e.g. interpreting by making connections to existing knowledge), emotionally, kinesthetically etc.

In both processes the artist and the spectator try to perceive the processes of the other but are only ever able to see projections of themselves. The artist will in the construction process attempt to cast their mind to imagine how the spectator might understand or respond to an element or how small intentions might be assembled into a big intention.

To create art in any meaningful sense is to presuppose that there will be an audience to view the artwork and who will respond to it in some sense. The effect may not be what the author was aiming at (11) and the artist cannot really see things from the spectator’s view because each spectator will come with their unique histories and prejudices but we will begin with an assumption that audiences will be something like us.

The author may be relaxed about how the audience interprets the work for example Jasmin Vardimon said of 7734 that “I’m a great believer that the audience interpretation is an extension of the art itself. Any view is valid. I believe in creative audiences” (12).

But her use of text, movement, costumes, music to signify and evoke were still done with reference to a common (if inevitably ambiguous) language. And so her relaxedness about interpretation is more of an acceptance of the medium’s ambiguity rather than a total discard of the communication between artist and spectator.

Conversely, the spectator’s process involves an imagination of the artist’s intentions based on the assumption that there was an author whose intentions are comprehensible. Again this process assumes that there are sufficient reference points in common and here biographical information about the artist becomes useful to put oneself in their point of view.

Crucially in the production of 121234577 we realised that we could never see the work for the first time, unlike the intended spectator we were creating with in mind, and so there was a tendency for our familiarity to drive changes to the piece to meet our own changing expectations.

Changes which would not have given the audience time to go through an equivalent process. However we did use a number of techniques to try to remind ourselves of the spectator’s ‘virgin gaze’ including filming our work and watching a few days later; getting feedback from a tutor; and recalling the original intentions or our own experiences as a spectator for example to take time to introduce elements slowly.

6. The idea of a grand intention is a fiction of the critic

After observing elements and responding to them, the final stage for the spectator is trying to assemble those pieces into a simple unified or dominant intention even if there wasn’t one constructed by the artist.

Arguably the critic’s job is to unveil or rather construct a single unified intention that may not even be apparent to the artist them self (13). But nonetheless this is a fiction.

Conversely the artist may extrapolate back from small intentions to a big intention – and indeed this may be useful in the creative process to reflect on what one is creating and while it may arguably reveal a subconscious intention it may often be a fictional rationalisation after the fact. Something which may be felt to be necessary (in marketing for example) but risks hiding the complexity of the creative process.

There was no real big intention for 1212341234577 which became apparent when I tried to describe the intention to others. There was an intention that came first in time and we found ways for subsequent intentions to complement it (e.g. the idea of a rite) but we never attempted to articulate it as a single intention and did not feel a need to unite them. However retrospective summary of the intention might be something like:

‘A presentation of two people cut from the same matter, arrive from different places with a common purpose and a long-standing knowledge. And yet they are different and dialogue and share, show and communicate. They perform a series of movements that accumulates with some underlying pattern that offers an illusive surprising pleasure of something nearly understood and when it appears to make sense it unravels and mutates.

Their relationship is muted and precise but has moments of humour and pathos’

I would not necessarily expect anyone to be able to articulate these things explicitly or directly since these were not articulated by us in this way through the process.


(1) Smith-Autard, J.M., 2010. Dance Composition: A Practical Guide to Creative Success in Dance Making. Sixth Edition. London: Methuen. Page 7

(2) Warburton, N., 2002. Philosophy: The Basics. Third Edition. Routledge: London

(3) Kuhns, R.,1960.’Criticism and the problem of intention. In: Journal of Philosophy Vol. 57, No. 1, Jan. 7, 1960 57:5–23.

(4) Carter, A and O’Shea, J. (2010) ‘Making Dance’. In: Carter, A. and O’Shea, J. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader. Second edition. London: Routledge.

(5) Kuhns

(6) Carter and O’Shea

(7) Buscarini, R. and de la Fe Guedes, A., 2011. Cameo. Performed London, The Place. Performance: Dance. (viewed 8 April, 2011)

(8) De Keersmaeker, A.T. 1982. Fases. Performed London Sadler’s Wells. (viewed 10 April, 2011)\

(9) Schwitters, K., Rothenburg, J. and Joris, P., 2002. Pppppp: poems, performance, pieces, prose, plays, poetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Exact Change.

(10) Giddens, A., 1991. The Consequences of Modernity. London: Polity Press.

(11) Kuhns

(12) Vardiman, J., 2010. Jasmin Vardiman: 7734 Programme. Jasmin Vardiman Company

(13) Kuhns