Art, Intent and Execution

I’ve never been able to understand how the intent of an artist can ever be divorced from the execution.

To argue that it can is to suggest that execution has no net effect on how a piece of art is perceived, and that is clearly untrue. If you for instance study art used for fascist purposes, you are learning to paint like a fascist; to express fascist sentiments. If you learn rhetoric from a fascist, then you learn how to convince people like a fascist.

Art is like any tool; it can be abused. And if the abuse can be lethal, we need to create awareness about it and be very careful about how we use that tool.

Skeptics ask if you can infer ideological intents behind art. I would say yes, and not only that – it is very often the actual purpose.

Art has always existed for purposes of emotional expression and effect and I would submit it is rare for that to not be the case. Surely Picasso wanted his execution of “Guernica” to reflect the horror, chaos and pain of the subject matter? Likewise, it seems obvious that medieval church architects and painters wanted to instill a certain awe of God through their work.

I’m not saying we cannot strictly judge technical aspects of art, but we should not turn a blind eye to why they are there, and we should encourage greater awareness of how images can affect people’s perceptions – anything less is tantamount to naiveté.

For instance, in the case of nazi propaganda art, it seems like a clear case of intentional glorification: the perspective and rendering typically has Hitler looking more powerful, the compositions typically designed to convey an impression of strength. These artistic choices are not accidental.

But do we absolutely HAVE to consider the intent when viewing art? Of course, you can look at any detail of an image in isolation, but it seems to me that if you’re really interested in the craft, you’d want to be aware of the purpose for all the artistic choices involved. Exceedingly few artists make those choices unwittingly, although I suppose some do it more intuitively.

If we step out of the political realm, the choice of paintbrush is connected to the desired visual impact. For instance, an artist might want to forego the brush altogether in favor of airbrushing, if they want to create a feeling of flawlessness. Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

I suppose it’s a personal preference where you want to start, whether at the beginning or the end of the creative process.. I personally always prefer to look at art through the lens of intent and purpose. In fact, I think the technique becomes even MORE interesting if seen through that lens.

There are artists who are one-trick ponies and apply the same style regardless of subject matter, but the ones who are really admirable imho are the ones who are astutely able to choose an appropriate style and composition that elevates and amplifies the subject matter.

However, this doesn’t necessitate a moral judgment. I am saying art, in every aspect including the executional, is subservient to the creator’s intent. If you want to express fascist sentiments, that leads you down a completely different path of artistic choices than if you, for instance, want to teach children about the birds and the bees. The objective is usually (whether consciously or intuitively) to affect how someone perceives and internalizes the subject of the art piece. I would assume that most propaganda painters also made/make different technical choices depending on what they’re painting. Hence, the intent seems like an obvious part of the artistic equation, and therefore obviously matters.

The point is, because intent matters, it’s worthy of observation and critique. Which, again, doesn’t necessarily require a moral judgment. There are good propaganda painters, who skillfully apply appropriate techniques to accentuate relevant facets of the subject, just like there are unskilled ones who are unable to do so.

But if we disregard intent, we lose out on a dimension of appreciation, and equate poorly executed art with the good.

That’s not to suggest that we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, discuss the moral and ethical implications of art, but that is a very different discussion. I think it’s somewhat different to suggest that someone’s painting style betrays them as being a fascist, and simply noting that they may (sometimes) have painted with an intent of conveying fascist sentiments.

The former makes a judgment of them as human beings, while the latter merely associates certain techniques with certain ideals. To reiterate, I am making this point to argue why the intent cannot be divorced from the execution. However, a certain communicative intent doesn’t necessarily mean someone sympathizes with the ideology behind it; it’s just indicative of the considerations that go into making artistic choices.

You can obviously also ask the very relevant question of what was the chicken and what was the egg? Fascist ideals did not arise out of nowhere, and art certainly informed some of them.

Anything can be misinterpreted and misappropriated, but I don’t think that invalidates the importance of intent in regards to executional artistic choices. It just makes the labels a bit fuzzier, but we should really be able to discuss intent in art without the shorthand of simplistic labels anyway.

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