Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Role of Intention in Art

Just returned home from attending a concert by the great Leon Fleisher, who was asked about his fabulous capacity for playing with phrasing and pacing. Fleisher noted that "we (pianists) are responsible for every note." But that sometimes in the learning of the notes, the musician concentrates too heavily on mastery of just that, the notes. "Playing gets easier if we understand the intention behind it."

I think there's a lesson there. Behind every great work of art, there is intention. It's the purpose for the act that makes it valuable and meaningful.
As an example, the photo above is a piece of art by El Anatsui, an African artist. Looks like a piece of fabric, doesn't it? It's actually made of flattened bottle caps. Part of his vision is the erosion of African traditions by prevailing modern forces. Now, think about this a second...he's using trash as a metaphor for the breakdown of tradition. He's taking objects that could be/should be found in the garbage and reconfiguring them to stand as mute cries against the loss of tradition. When you understand a portion of his intention, his art becomes ever more meaningful, doesn't it?

I'm thinking about intention as an author. Before I sit down to write a book or a short story, I first spend time wondering, "What's my intent? What am I trying to show? What feelings am I trying to evoke? What message do I want my reader to take away?"

By starting with my intention, I avoid what Fleisher called "accident upon accident." My intention becomes the central thread that binds all my characters, plot and action together.
I'm curious, do you see the role of intention in art? If you are an author, do you start your work with an intention in mind?


Camille Minichino said...

Very interesting!
I think good art is a happy combination of accident and intention.

It seems important to have a "message" but also to be open to where the creative process takes us.

Very thought-provoking post, Joanna.

Monica Ferris said...

I agree with Camille. You can't be entirely focused on your "intention," or you end up writing an essay or editorial or even a diatribe. On the other hand, having some idea in mind of a message you want to convey can give your book a focus it might otherwise lack. Anyway, mysteries already have an intention, they are about justice.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Mostly, when I write fiction, I want to tell an intriguing tale that will hook my readers, following the characteristics of the genre I'm writing in. That's always my intention!

Betty Hechtman said...

Interesting post, Joanna and interesting comments from everybody.

I have noticed that when I read something fun, I feel physically good at the end. Like I'm smiling inside. I would like to be able to write books that leave readers with that same kind of feeling.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Oops. What I wanted to say was that I just saw the Publisher's Weekly review for Photo, Snap, Shot and they said that "the subject of racial prejudice makes this a cut above..." and that was exactly what I'd hoped to do. Of course, Linda, it has to be in service of the story. And yes, Monica, all mysteries are about justice, but I thought I could give my readers a bit more by exploring race issues in the Midwest.

Linda O. Johnston said...

How great that you got such a good PW review, Joanna! And actually, I do intend that some of my stories have messages. I've recently sent in the manuscript for the first of my new Lauren Vancouver, Pet Rescuer mysteries, and all of those stories will have an underlying theme of taking good care of pets.

Terri Thayer said...

Great job, Joanna. Congrats on the PW review.

Intention is just that - an intention. Not an agenda or a blatant promotion of an idea. I just hold the notion that I'm writing about something bigger than just a murder mystery. It helps me to stay interested.