Tier 3: Concept

Portions of the following text are taken from smarthistory.org, which is available for use under CC BY-NC-SA. Please see the citations at the bottom of the page for more information. The text has been adapted to more closely adhere to Chicago Manual of Style and Ensign College Style Guide. 

In the final tier of the three-tier framework, we explore the overall meaning(s) or concept of an artwork. This is significantly more complicated than it may seem initially. To do this, one must negotiate the conflictual roles of the viewer, the creator, the presenter, the owner, the buyer, and many other figures who compete for control over the work. Let's take a look at this a little more closely. 

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Imagine you and a friend are strolling through an art exhibit and a striking painting catches your eye. The vibrant red appears to you as a symbol of love, but your friend is convinced it's a symbol of war. And where you see stars in a romantic sky, your friend interprets global-warming-inducing pollutants. To settle the debate, you turn to the internet, where you read that the painting is a replica of the artist's first-grade art project: red was her favorite color, and the silver dots are fairies. You now know the exact intentions that led to the creation of this work. Are you wrong to have enjoyed it as something the artist didn't intend? Do you enjoy it less now that you know the truth? Just how much should the artist's intention affect your interpretation of the painting? 

It's a question that's been tossed around by philosophers and art critics for decades, with no consensus in sight. In the mid-20th century, literary critic W.K. Wimsatt and philosopher Monroe Beardsley argued that artistic intention was irrelevant. They called this the intentional fallacy: the belief that valuing an artist's intentions was misguided. Their argument was twofold: first, the artists we study are no longer living, never recorded their intentions, or are simply unavailable to answer questions about their work. Second, even if there were a bounty of relevant information, Wimsatt and Beardsley believed it would distract us from the qualities of the work itself. They compared art to a dessert: when you taste a pudding, the chef's intentions don't affect whether you enjoy its flavor or texture. All that matters, they said, is that the pudding "works." Of course, what "works" for one person might not "work" for another. And since different interpretations appeal to different people, the silver dots in our painting could be reasonably interpreted as fairies, stars, or pollutants. By Wimsatt and Beardsley's logic, the artist's interpretation of her own work would just be one among many equally acceptable possibilities.

 If you find this problematic, you might be more in line with Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, two literary theorists who rejected the intentional fallacy. They argued that an artist's intended meaning was not just one possible interpretation, but the only possible interpretation. For example, suppose you're walking along a beach and come across a series of marks in the sand that spell out a verse of poetry. Knapp and Michaels believed the poem would lose all meaning if you discovered these marks were not the work of a human being, but an odd coincidence produced by the waves. They believed an intentional creator is what makes the poem subject to understanding at all. 

Other thinkers advocate for a middle ground, suggesting that intention is just one piece in a larger puzzle. Contemporary philosopher Noel Carroll took this stance, arguing that an artist's intentions are relevant to their audience the same way a speaker's intentions are relevant to the person they're engaging in conversation. To understand how intentions function in conversation, Carroll said to imagine someone holding a cigarette and asking for a match. You respond by handing them a lighter, gathering that their motivation is to light their cigarette. The words they used to ask the question are important, but the intentions behind the question dictate your understanding and, ultimately, your response. 

So, which end of this spectrum do you lean towards? Do you, like Wimsatt and Beardsley, believe that when it comes to art, the proof should be in the pudding? Or do you think that an artist's plans and motivations for their work affect its meaning? Artistic interpretation is a complex web that will probably never offer a definitive answer.

In conceptual analysis, we seek to understand what an artwork meant to the contemporary viewer and how that alters our own current understanding. We build on the first and second tiers of meaning (content and context) to support and justify a highly individualized statement about a work's meaning and how it transmits that meaning. As in other tiers, strong conceptual analysis must draw upon features, qualities, or characteristics of the work in order to provide a useful and meaningful interpretation. We try to get as close as possible to seeing it through the visual language of the culture from which it came by identifying how the work might transmit meaning (e.g., through symbolism or style). In addition, we recognize that we are also viewers of the work and self-reflectively consider how our experience influences our own interpretation.

The following are some questions to consider in this tier: 

Symbolism and Iconography

Consider the use of symbolism and iconography in the work.

  • What symbols are depicted within the work? 
  • What does that symbolism mean to the various audiences of the artwork? 
  • Who would be able to understand this symbolism?
  • What are the icons (relatively stable and recognizable images, whether literal—e.g., the Madonna or figurative—e.g., freedom) employed in the work?
  • How does the artist combine the icons to suggest a meaning throughout time? 
  • How has the meaning or significance of those icons changed throughout history? 


Consider the state of the work.

  • How and why has the artist arranged the various elements of the work in this way? 
  • Is the work "complete"? What meaning is added to the work when you consider its various elements as a single object?
  • Is the work's state stable? Temporary? Impermanent? Does this fact contribute to the work's meaning?


Consider the emotion of the work.

  • What emotions are transmitted by what elements within the work? 
  • How obvious is the emotional content? 
  • What is your emotional response to the work? How does that compare with other viewers, both contemporary and historical? 
  • Does the emotional content contribute to the work's meaning? 
  • Have audiences viewed the emotional content differently over time or in different contexts?


Consider the work's use.

  • What role does this artwork play in the lives of its owners? 
  • What evidence has the work's use left on the object? 
  • How has the use changed throughout time? 
  • How is this object used today? How was it used at the time of its creation? What conclusions does this suggest about the artwork?


Consider the reception of the piece (reception refers to how audiences have interacted with the work throughout history). 

  • Is it desirable? Repellent? For whom? Why? Why not? 
  • How does that affect one's interpretation of the work? 
  • How important is an objective view? 
  • How has the work been used or referenced?
  • How has the meaning of the work changed throughout history?

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Access it online or download it at https://books.byui.edu/history_of_the_fine_arts_music/tier_3_concept.