Intent and Contextuality: Why Authors Don't Matter (Except When They Do)

Once you've released your art to the world, what you meant ultimately doesn't matter.

This is the basic principle of post-structuralism, and by extension postmodernism, and was laid out in the seminal essay Death Of The Author. While there are long, complicated philosophy texts discussing both, each style focuses on the same concept: what matters to artistic interpretation is the intent of the viewer, not the author.

Naturally, this is a controversial subject. While postmodernism is the predominant way of approaching art in the post-WW2 era, there are plenty of critics and philosophers that wish to return to the more formal structuralist interpretation of artistic meaning; art has meaning proscribed by the artist, and that's it. This seems especially common in the modern era, as the definitive nature of information distributed through the internet is an almost natural barrier to the artistic relativism. When anybody can make their intent known, why does artistic relativism still hold weight?

Art Is A Conversation

While there are commonalities to art - rhyming structures in poems, anatomy in painting, scene framing in film, and so on - there is no such thing as a definitive way to approach a subject artistically. This meaning is fundamentally embedded in the word art; when we refer to something that is mastered through intuition and personal expression, we use the idiom, "It's an art, not a science."

Postmodernism is this concept taken to a natural extreme. Because there is no such thing as a correct way to make art - only different ways - there is also no correct way to interpret art. In postmodernism, the viewer's relationship to art matters more than the artist's intention. The act of viewing art is treated in the same way as creating art. As an artist, your meaning only matters as conveyed through the work; if somebody derives alternate meaning, or even meaning where you found none, that's just as valid as your intent.

As such, art is an assymmetric, asynchronous conversation between the artist and the viewer. Two people converse with each other indirectly and at different times, but through the same medium: the work of art. There is no guarantee that either will be heard; the artist's meaning may not be conveyed properly, and the viewer's interpretation will likely never be heard by the artist.

On a more direct level, art is about emotional investment. Emotions can't be directly measured; they can only be intuited or observed. Emotions are also fundamentally relative; how I feel about something is unique to me, and while there are commonalities in how people react to certain situations - much like artistic expression - ultimately how I react is never exactly the same as how somebody else reacts.

Thus, postmodernism, or at least artistic relativism, is the most basic principle of art. It supposes that art isn't about concrete observable phenomena - that's science - but rather about conveying and influencing emotion. Since emotion is relative, so is art.


This isn't to say that author intent or context isn't totally meaningless. This is where contextuality comes into play.

Contextuality is the principle that you can't divest a work from who made it and where it was made. While it's easy to criticize the works of Mark Twain for being racist compared to modern standards, they were ultimately intended to be subversive in the society that Mark Twain wrote them in. Intent and context matter, but only as a lens with which to clarify the viewer's interpretation.

The notion that contextuality trumps all viewer interpretation is definitely wrong, though. If that was the case, criticism wouldn't exist; the vast majority of people don't intend to create art that is racist, or dissonant, or otherwise bad. They intend to create what they create, and it's upon the viewer to see if what they convey is what they mean to convey.

There's also an important caveat to artistic relativism: art can be bad. There are many ways that a piece can be awful:

  • It panders to an audience
  • It lacks subtlety or nuance
  • It is dissonant
  • It is bigoted (racist, homophobic, etc)
  • It is gratuitously shocking

However, the wonderful thing about art is that it can be interpreted however you wish. There are fantastic works of art that use shock value for no discernable purpose, such as many of Samuel R. Delaney's books (especially Hogg, which you should on no account ever read). There are works of art that lack subtlety, like the nuclear detonation scene in Modern Warfare, because they are intended to slug you in the stomach and smoke over your supine form.

So what makes art bad? A lack of awareness, which subsequently means a lack of meaningful commentary. While art can always be interpreted and reinterpreted according to the will of the audience, it's easy to discern when somebody lacks a sense of self-awareness and creates a piece of art that is insulting without being satirical, pandering without being commentary.

Death Of The Developer

Since they are fundamentally artistic works - combining visual, narrative, and interactive art into a strange Frankenstein's Monster of a medium - videogames are naturally subjected to postmodernist interpretations. However, they are also commercial works intended to be consumed by an audience, which means that the developers do intend some sort of concrete meaning, as the case usually is with consumer art.

This makes the waters muddy, but ultimately the important thing to remember is this: when a developer publishes their game, and you buy and play it, that game is outside their control. They may make overtures of controlling your approach - DRM being the most obvious - but ultimately how you approach the game and what you get out of it belong to you alone. Once that art is out in the world, it's alive, and it's a conversation between you in the developer; arguably more so than a normal piece of art, thanks to the interactivity of games.

Developer intent doesn't matter; the only thing that matters is how you approach their work. If you take their intent into account, that's fine. If you dismiss or criticize their intent, that's fine too. Ultimately, games are just like books, movies, shows, plays, poems, paintings, and every other conceivable form of art humans have ever created.

Developers are dead. So are you. Nothing matters in the long run. Derive your own meaning, and don't let anybody else dictate how you interpret art.

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