Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Interpretation, Intentionalism and Assessment


In the following post I sketch out two commonly recognised interpretive strategies (Intentionalism and Conventionalism) and propose a third (Culturalism). I then briefly touch on the research of Susan Orr in order to examine some implications for assessment in art education.


In art theory, Intentionalism is the belief that the meaning of an artwork is defined purely by the artist’s intention. What the artist says the work is about is what the work is about – no more, no less. Few but the most na├»ve interpreters of artworks hold much store by this idea since it leaves precious little room for interpretation at all. We might as well ask the artist to write down the meaning and we can all get on with more pressing matters. For this reason Intentionalism is often termed the “intentional fallacy”.

The alternative to Intentionalism is sometimes termed Conventionalism. Conventionalist interpretive approaches allow for a more expanded view that accommodates the full range of cultural influences available to the artist. What the artist could have meant is now admitted as legitimate currency. It is not difficult to see though, that even this proves an unsatisfactory solution to the vexed question of the meaning of artworks. The artist could have meant all sorts of things but must we credit her with each and every one?

The great advantage of the Conventionalist approach is that, instead of constituting the audience as passive receivers of meaning, it invites them to engage in an active process of interpretation. Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author can be seen as a Conventionalist strategy in this sense because it dispenses entirely with the intention of the artist and places readers centre-stage as active constructors of meaning. For Barthes the key to a text is not to be found in its origin but in its destination: "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author".

Radical as Barthes’ idea appears, the niggling sense that we’ve overlooked something never seems to completely evaporate. As much as we might wish to neutralise authorial intention it is impossible to ignore its presence, whether real or imagined, pervading the work at all levels. And here emerges a fascinating and often confusing confluence of intention, interpretation and discovery. Artists intuitively embed tacit knowledge in the work they produce and this becomes mingled with any new discoveries that might be stumbled upon. The only 'work' to which the artist can rightfully claim authorship, or any ‘reader’ attribute to them, is the work the artist has put in, whether consciously or tacitly – though, of course, this can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tease out. Everything else is either the felicity of chance, the projection of readers endowed with conceptual tools that are, so far, foreign to the author or the projection of readers who happen upon their own discoveries that they misattribute to the artist. The magic, such as it is, is merely a confusion over this complex intermingling of tacit intention and unintended discovery – both those of the maker and those of their audience.

Another method (let’s call it “Culturalism”) of resolving this conundrum is to give up on individualistic explanations of intention altogether. In this scenario both artist and viewer are conceived as products both of and in culture and, as such, the artwork and any meanings generated must be seen as the result of a collective cultural dynamic in which works-of-art and works-of-interpretation are considered as conduits through which meaning is channelled, with subtle variations and additions along the way. When seen from this perspective the cause of confusion amongst Intentionalist and Conventionalist approaches can be understood as deriving from their misplaced tendency to attribute credit to an originary authorial presence whereas, in truth, any such presence stretches back indefinitely through cultural history. However, this should not be confused with determinism. The intent of the artist still plays a vital role but, just as technology never reinvents the wheel but rather stands on the shoulders of previous discoveries, so too does culture.

Within the Culturalist approach both kinds of interpretation - reader-centered and author-centered coexist. However, whilst this proves a powerful means to overcome some of the conflicts of interpretation it raises several very interesting, not to mention problematic, issues for the evaluation of artworks in a culture primarily preoccupied with the achievement of individuals. In the context of education especially, the issues become yet more pronounced since teachers inevitably have to interpret student work in order to assess it.

Interestingly, when it comes to assessment, art teachers seem to be as given to the intentional fallacy as anyone else. Evidence for this claim can be found in the art and design research of Susan Orr where one quoted lecturer makes the following remark:

“It is essential that you know something about who that person is and what they are trying to do, what they…what they think they’re doing in order to….to measure the quality of what they’ve done”.

Orr’s work shows that art teachers employ a wide variety of approaches to assessment, both Conventionalist and Intentionalist as well as Culturalist (though whether they would recognise these as such is another question). However, rather than the what or how, perhaps the real question is when ie: at what point in the process are these strategies deployed, or at what point might they be best deployed? If art teachers employ Intentionalist strategies during formative assessment* for example, then this would seem to be entirely appropriate to the formation of relevant feedback. Feedback only makes sense - has value to the learner - when it takes account of what they are aiming to achieve. Only then can advice be directed toward making this end possible or else redirecting attention toward what the teacher believes may be a more profitable goal. Conversely, to employ a single Conventionalist interpretive strategy at a formative stage would likely burden the student with what Karen-Edis Barzman has dubbed a “Master Reading” that universalizes a singular authoritative interpretation thereby terminating or, at best, inhibiting the ongoing work of interpretation by the student.

The issue of Master Readings also extends into the summative* assessment process where teachers debate the marks of students.

"When artwork is being assessed in the studio the lecturers in my studies privileged the assessment views of lecturers who had worked most closely with the students whose artwork was being marked. What this means is that if there was any kind of disagreement about the mark to be awarded the marking team would defer to the lecturer who knew the student best and had worked most closely with them." -Susan Orr

This process of advocacy might seem like a equitable form of resolving differences of opinion, however, in practice the results are often far from satisfactory. In all walks of life there exist certain individuals who are more given to the expression and maintenance of strong and stubborn opinions. Students who find themselves under the close tutelage of such individuals are therefore far more likely to be vigorously defended than those who are less fortunate. And, in situations (increasingly common in the current financial climate) where single members of staff are often responsible for entire cohorts of students, this strategy easily slips into an unhelpful, not to mention unhealthy, form of sanctioned favoritism.

So, despite the fact that we might be able to access a greater insight into the what, how, when and by whom of assessment, this still leaves completely untouched the more profound question of why?

* Formative assessment is usually understood as a form of ongoing assessment and feedback whereas Summative assessments are generated at the end of a period of study. A more accurate way to think of these two forms of assessment might be as “Supportive Assessment” (ie: Formative) and or “Unsupportive Assessment” (ie: Summative).

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