Does Intention Really Matter?

Feedback Loop Null © 2012 Matthew Papa

I think about this question a lot but it has been on my mind lately in response to a flurry of activity on tumblr with one of my images. Posted here, it was one of the first images I made in a series in which I explore the tensions between intimacy and desire in my long term relationship with my lover. I worked on the series for almost two years and naturally my ideas evolved as I worked on it.

When I made this image, however, I was thinking about a disconnect in our erotic life that seemed to come from too much familiarity. I took many other pictures that day but I selected this one to be included because it best represented what I was feeling and trying to express. Turned away from the camera, my naked figure alone in a bedroom felt emotionally laden. It hinted at some distance or separation and an unwillingness to engage.

This is by far the most popular image on my tumblr and recently it has been re-blogged a lot. What has been interesting for me is that the majority of re-blogs are on other tumblrs that are primarily gay porn. When I first started noticing this, it would crack me up seeing my image sandwiched between gifs of writhing, pounding bodies. (If you want the visual you can click here to see one screen grab which, unfortunately, does not preserve the animation for the gifs. Don’t forget to click on it to see it in full detail! Definitely NSFW.)

Ultimately it got me thinking about artistic intention and the persistent questions around its relevance or irrelevance. I’m not insulted or bothered that my image is being read this way; I just didn’t get it. What this elucidates for me in a concrete way is the viewer’s power in making meaning of a particular image and how those meanings can be multiple. As an image maker, I find this to be liberating. I think the notion of intention as a singular path from point A to point B is a trap and ultimately limiting for the artist. It also doesn’t give full color to the nuance or complexity of the creative process.

This is obviously a rich topic that can’t be fully covered in a blog post but I will leave off with this tidbit I came across in my web meanderings on intention…

Duchamp’s “art coefficient” dictates that the art becomes less interesting in direct proportion to the degree the artist’s intent is achieved.

Food for thought, or maybe better yet, a reason to play.

One thought on “Does Intention Really Matter?

  1. It’s great that this has come up in relation to that picture, which I find very sexy, notwithstanding the lack of a hardon or hole. Check out “The Creative Act,” a brief talk that Duchamp gave in Texas around 1960 in which he describes that act as social, not individual. The viewer “completes” the work of art, he maintains, by decoding it; by constructing meaning in experiencing an image or text. In making this point, he anticipates the fundamentally emancipatory purpose of Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” which deconstructs the “Author god” while also elevating the previously lowly cultural status of the viewer/reader/listener who, after all, does the work of decoding whatever an artist puts into the world. If I were you, I’d enjoy the hot company you’re keeping on Tumblr, and keep trying in your work to give shape to the situation that led you to shoot that beautiful image of yourself in a pensive moment. When you reveal your intention (the turning away), that detracts from the picture’s quietly sexy expressive potential.

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