In Art, Intention Isn’t Gospel

In Art, Intention Isn’t Gospel November 1, 2014

Beauty and Beyond

I love Stephen Sondheim. I know – “Gay Man Loves Stephen Sondheim!” is not going to make headlines anywhere soon. But it’s still true. I adore his musicals – and not just the most famous ones. When I was in high school I performed in a production of Assassins, a strange work which sets to music every presidential assassination attempt, giving stirring and disturbing solos to deranged fanatics, and I have loved it ever since. Sometimes when I’m in a particular mood I put on the soundtrack and get lost in the strange musical world Sondheim composed for that show.

Years later I attended a public interview with Sondheim at Harvard. Hundreds of students crammed Sanders Theatre to hear the maestro reveal the secrets of his work. The interviewer led Sondheim through a long discussion of his greatest works, and at one point they began to discuss productions of his shows in which significant changes had been made to the characters or story – including a production of Company in which the main character. Bobby, was gay. “What do you think of that?”, the interviewer asked the composer.

“It’s wrong.”

The answer surprised me. Here was an experienced, hugely talented composer of some of the greatest musicals ever written flatly stating that a reinterpretation of one of his best-loved works was simply “wrong”. Apparently Sondheim has, in the past, even lawyerd-up to protect his interpretation of Company, pushing back against those who wish to present a different view. This strikes me as a strangely parochial, even dictatorial way to approach the artistic process. Sondheim, in that interview, seemed to think that because he wrote the musical, he gets to decide how others think about it

NPH as Robert
Neil Patrick Harris as Robert – Totally Not Gay

I disagree. I don’t believe an artist’s intention is magic. What the artist says about a work doesn’t have to be taken as gospel truth. If we – readers, viewers, audience members – can find new ways of looking at a work which genuinely bring new facets of the art to life, we are perfectly entitled to do so. Frequently these reinterpretations will be disastrous, but sometimes they will enrich our understanding of the piece, just as viewing a sculpture from different angles helps you understand it better.

Many artist friends of mine – and many of the students I taught over the years at Harvard – bristle at this suggestion. They feel that the artist should have the final say as to what a work is “about” – or at least a privileged one. They often think that the best way to understand a work of art is to find out what the creator “meant” by it – which poses obvious problems when the creator is long dead or anonymous.

I can understand that instinct, especially coming from people who are artists, who pour themselves into their work. To feel like you have to give up your art to constant reinterpretation by others can feel like you’re giving up a child, and a similar parental instinct presumably encourages them to want to guide their work through its lifespan, determining how it is and is not to be understood.

But that’s how it works. Once you’ve created a work of art, and offered it to the world, it’s anyone’s to play with. Your child is wandering in the wild, exposed to a million influences and more than a million eyes. You will never be able to control how it is understood – nor should you. An interpretation should be judged on how much it helps us understand a work of art, how it enriches our experience with it, what it reveals and obscures, and how much it takes account of the concrete properties of the work. Whether an interpretation fits with the artists’ intention is irrelevant.

Worse, seeking to ensure that your art is only ever performed or exhibited in precisely the way you intended can hurt the work itself. By stifling the creativity of those who wish to play with your ideas, you make it less likely that they will find something new in what you made. Your work will be less able to speak to different generations, less likely to keep offering insights as times change and what people need from art changes with it.

Legendary opera and theatre director Jonathan Miller once likened Samuel Beckett’s estate – which ruthlessly polices productions of Beckett’s plays to ensure they match his intentions – to a cold, dead claw clutching from the grave. Imagine if William Shakespeare’s estate had prevented Baz Luhrmann’s legendary film version of Romeo and Juliet, or had decreed that Richard III could never be played by a woman? Ridiculous.

Romeo + Juliet
Not What the Author Intended

Knowing what the artist’s intention was – what they wanted for and hoped to convey with a piece of art – is an interesting nugget of historical information. It might give some insight into the work, helping bring to light elements of it that you would otherwise overlook. Speaking to an artist about their work can be a fascinating experience, and can help you get to grips with countless aspects of their oeuvre. But their intention isn’t magic, and what they say doesn’t simply go. The artist doesn’t get to tell us which interpretations are “right” or “wrong” just because they made the art: each interpretation must stand or fall on its own merits.

That’s why I was delighted to read last year that Sondheim – after years of working against it – was considering collaborating on a revised version of Company, this time with an explicitly gay central character. What changed Sondheim’s mind I don’t know, but he’s moving in the right direction: when artists recognize that their intention isn’t gospel, their art can breathe. Everybody wins.

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