The Artist’s Intent

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“I think writers with actual intentions generally end up saying things they already thought they knew, and I’m not much interested in reducing my vocation as a poet to something like propagandist. I write poems to find things out, not to communicate some previously ossified conclusion.”

-poet Scott Cairns in an interview with Image

Most of my recent posts have to do with various things we can wrestle with as artists and creators. I ran across this quote from Cairns and it evoked a puzzled response more than anything. I can read his quote and think, “Absolutely! Screw propaganda and allow the creativity to flow.” He makes the journey sound beautiful, and yet…

I feel like many musicians and writers do have that intent in mind. They do have something specific to communicate and the end goal already figured out. And I’m sure sometimes they might deviate from that – as they get going, they realize their creativity is a forceful river unto itself, eroding the banks and rushing over land into a new path. But I know that others begin and end with the same conclusion, starting with The End in mind and moving there without distraction. And I still feel like it’s good art.

Am I mistaken? Of course, Scott Cairns is not infallible so perhaps that’s not a blanket statement he made. But what is the tension? What is proper goal-setting for the artist and what is too much predetermination? I’d love to hear from both the artist and the patron on this, because I feel like, as a patron of much, that I can sniff out the rat of propaganda and I hate it. Then again, I can recognize the tension of needing to go somewhere as well.

So have you wrestled with this before? Where did you end up? Did you err on one side or the other?

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


11 Comments

  1. Loren Eaton

    When I write a short story, I usually start with a main theme I want to address — the significance of failure or how we as a society avoid the problem of pain or what have you. Admittedly, it sometimes changes halfway through and I let it, because to do otherwise would render the narrative wooden and unbelievable. But when it changes, it’s usually because some secondary theme already present swells up to take center stage, not because I let my stream of consciousness overflow its banks.

  2. Chris Slaten

    Good questions!

    In regards to method or approach and my personal experience:
    I’ve had crash landings and relatively successful lift offs with both methods. I have a song called “In the Dark” where I knew what I wanted to do from the begining and what I wanted to reach by the end. The verses would chronicle my desire, from childhood to adulthood, to posses and keep things for myself (people, stories, my own record etc.) the final verse would end in joyful resignation to that fact that I don’t even possess myself much less anything I wish to claim as “mine!”, I am God’s. Knowing my destination from the beginning made it incredibly easy to write the song (in one sitting, which is about the only time I’ve ever done that). For the sake of speed, coherence and listenability it can be a very good thing. It was the opposite for another song I wrote called “Shadows and Blue,” which grew a little more organically. It developed from the feeling I get almost anytime I am outdoors and alone in the quite of dusk. The idea was to communicate the tension between the tranquility in being still before Christ and the anxiety of returning back to a noisy dysfunctional working world. I did not plan for the protagonist to eat a banana under a tree in a field, meditate on a stream, gaze at cows and clouds, write a poem on a paper lunch sack and walk on train tracks back to his car that wouldn’t start. The movement of the story all developed as I vomited on paper the first things that came to mind and I followed the rhymes and rythms that developed with the song. Both of those songs seem to have communicated at least a little bit of what was intended, but the interesting thing is that I think the method probably got in the way of each as well. “In the Dark” is so structured that it could come off as formulaic. “Shadows and Blue” is so free flowing and lyrical that the images I wished to paint could be completely missed by someone who is not an extremely intent listener.

    My crash landing came with my senior thesis writing project. I didn’t know where I wanted to go from the outset and 25 pages later I’m not really sure where the story went, even after extensive editing. I think my professor gave me an “A” for effort but that was about it.

    However, I have found that it seems to be much easier to let the story lead the way when writing fiction as opposed to writing a story in a song. That may have to do with the fact that there are a lot more constraints that come with combining music and text.

    In Regards to Propaganda:

    Another thought: David Wilcox, whose songs often come very neatly packaged, once told me that he thinks there is fun in letting the audience unwrap the gift you’ve given them, even if they have already guessed what’s inside and even if you, from the outset, knew exactly where you wanted to take them. It’s all in how well it is beautifully wrapped and how much fun one has made it to open. I think propaganda can be good art. Adbusters can sometimes be a good example of that. They can convey some very strong clear messages that they really seem to want their audience to accept as true, but at the same time do so in a very creative, artistic way; opening eyes to something new or not yet recognized. “How can you live in the Northeast,” by Paul Simon is another good example of that.

    Where have I ended up?
    This question is actually something I struggle with on a daily basis while writing. At the place I am at now I think the approach and method must be as much Spirit inspired as the actual content. A piece of art is such a gift from God. I’ve been in a barren place artistically for the past three years and yet I have tried everything, read countless articles on getting over writers block, spent countless hours disciplining myself to just get out anything, tried exercises and workshops, probably worn out AP’s and Ben’s ears about their approaches to the creative process. I have begged God for another finished song (I have about 15 lyrically incomplete ones). Just one. I believe that He will eventually provide a song or something to satiate my appetite to create, but it seems that right now He really wants me to know that no matter what I try to muster up, no matter what approach I use, anything that is beautiful and good is a gift from Him and He will give it to me in His own time. When He does bless me with more I will know that it is not because I found the secret approach to writing prolifically and excellently, but because He is generous and cares.

    I don’t think that you are wrong in thinking that people who set out knowing where they want to arrive can create good art.

  3. Dan K

    I’ll bring a different “artist” perspective. I am a mechanical engineer/designer. 99.9% of my creative process starts with knowing what function must be accomplished. The labor is in tying the pieces together that can accomplish the function. While it may be fun to doodle, see what shapes can show up, and mentally explore; it must work together and work. Now often the labor in this is the refining of designs; pounding thru sketches, formulae, tweaking shapes, designing for manufacturing & assembly. Often ideas are scrapped as better ones are uncovered. Just to start digging thru the pile of crumpled paper for the 3rd one again.

    “Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% persperation; and in my case it’s at least twice that much.” Norville Barnes, The Hudsucker Proxy. Absolutely true.

    I’ll make the jump that for the most part songs have to meet the same standard. They have to work. AP’s Further Proof (from Appendix A) is a neat song walking thru the process in a very formulaic manner. Granted songs can just go exploring but they tend to stay in the range of pure personal enjoyment at that point. Unable to be shared because the patron won’t understand (and probably won’t buy) the random pieces.

    Mechanics have to serve their patron, they have to work. Some of the greatest joy is in seeing it reach the end though.

    While it’s easy to get frustrated at the the art process being driven by the patron/end and risking being purely commercial. There’s also the danger of hiding the light under the bushel, and burying the talent in the field.

    All that said on some level I understand and agree with the quote. I tend to view poetry (short) and painting (smaller) with an expectation of it being random rambling anyway. Creative sprints in a field (often useful in conditioning and fitness) rather than races run.

  4. Phillip Johnston

    I go to a rather conservative (but not anti-intellectual) Christian college that focuses very much on Christian worldview education. This is great, in my opinion, but we sometimes are taught a hostile view toward art. In giving a summary of art interpretation, everyone is told that the author has one meaning and that we can’t force anything else into the work. I would agree, but I think we need to leave room for how the work of art makes us feel and be open to looking for things that are present in the work that the artist may not have realized they put there.

    I heard a freshman complaining the other day that their Intro. to Lit. professor was teaching them to interpret poetry and “making everything so subjective … poets write poems for a reason … the meaning isn’t what it means to me.” I know that we can’t force a work of art into the mold of our worldview, but one of the main purposes of art is discovery both for the artist and the consumer.

    An artist creates out of their experience. At times they may want to create something with a certain theme or purpose in mind, but even if they don’t, their worldview will be conveyed through their work.

  5. Chris Slaten

    I love the Hudsucker Proxy. The art of engineering as Dan K described really can apply to literature and song as well, sometimes. In terms of writing I’ve found that if I do begin with a skeleton for a piece and know what I want the finished product to be then a very good next step is to lay out the raw materials; brainstorming words, phrases, topics, sounds that would fit with each section or phase of the work. It’s like going into the garage and pulling out all the tool kits and raw materials you can find to see what you have to work with. Once you have the framework and the materials you can start fitting them together in the frame work ” pounding thru sketches, formulae, tweaking shapes, designing for manufacturing & assembly” or “tying the pieces together that can accomplish the function.” The great part about working with creative writing is that as you begin the work sometimes the work begins working on itself, Frankenart, and starts reaching for materials you’ve either forgotten about or would have never thought to use.

  6. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    The artistic process can’t be easily formulated – there is no “right way”. Some songwriters start with a story or premise or idea. Others (like me) start with playing chords and humming melodies into a recorder. For me, I finish the verse/chorus and possibly a bridge melody and chords and then play the recording over and over; lyrics are then suggested by the melody. I began my last record with an idea of it somehow delineating the faith-choice we all face, in light of Scripture and my experience of the Word and daily life. But other than the song DoorWay, in which I wrote lyrics first, I don’t start with very many ideas of What To Write About – I experiment with sounds, chords, melodies, rhythms. The rest comes later – the content of the lyrics determined by the feel of the song, and actual words suggested often by the syllables I hummed during recording the rough work tape. The process is the working-out of the What. Often I am surprised by the idea as it takes shape. Musically, I started DoorWay with the intention of doing more bluegrass, but as the songwriting progressed I found myself in less familiar territory.

    Other artists do it in other ways; I know a group that often finds an intriguing story and then turns it into a song – their songs are well done and moving much of the time. Other people “have a great idea for a song.” The process has nearly as many variations as there are writers.

    One of the things that can really gum up the songwriting plumbing is to allow “what will so-and-so think” to come into the picture, or “I have to write something for this next record.” In a word, pressure. I allowed that pressure during the recording of our last band record (Lonely Runs Both Ways), and just before the last session, not long before the record was completed, I gave up on writing a gospel song for it. I went downstairs to my studio, did my usual Bible reading and journalizing, and then prayed something like, “If You want a song on this record that glorifies You and speaks to believers and unbelievers alike, that’s Your business. I’m not going to try to write one – I quit.” Ten minutes later I picked up the guitar and in 30 minutes had finished the last song on the record called A Living Prayer. A crashing of the lie of self-belief, letting go, and then resting in trust cleared the blockage from the channel, and the song came through.

    There is often “what the artist means” which sometimes can be obscure. But there is also, “What it means to the listener,” which may or may not reflect the author’s intent. The listener carries into the listening experience his own experiences, his perceptions, his limitations, his failures, his dreams, his hopes – and often we hear what we want to hear and miss the point of the song. Lewis talked about this in An Experiment in Criticism – that in order to truly evaluate a work (‘what it means, how well it was done, etc”) we must first fully and uncritically receive the work. That means setting all preconceived notions aside and listening for the author’s intent.

  7. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I have occasionally written something, say an article, and then read it afterwards thinking, “Cool. I never thought of it that way.” Somehow the process of writing prose can bring out things we didn’t see before, and as we follow lines of reasoning during the process we come to new (or at least previously unrecognized) vistas.

  8. Stephen

    I am in a band, and we have really been laboring to write well during the past year. We’ve tried to inject some sort of discipline into our songwriting so that we can get in touch with our creativity more easily. For us, what seems to work is writing whatever comes naturally. The best songs we’ve written have been the ones we didn’t force out. Sometimes we try too hard to say something, and it ends up killing itself. But when we let the song happen naturally, our intent is more effectively communicated (i.e.- it doesn’t come off as propaganda). So, while I think the quote from Cairns has its worth, you can’t narrow songwriting down to just figuring things out. Sometimes that’s how a song comes about, and sometimes it happens with an intention. But however it comes about, you have to let the process happen naturally.

  9. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Some people may disagree with me on this, but this is something I’ve talked with Andrew about before…

    Last year I read two books back to back that made me wonder about my status as “artist”. One was “Walking On Water: Reflections On Faith & Art” by Madeleine L’Engle and the other was “My Name Is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok.

    L’Engle’s book is a generous affirmation of the creative instinct and a call to arms to bring your part to the table of created works. Whether you think you are a great tributary or a tiny creek, the point is to feed the body of water of created work, creating cosmos out of chaos. It’s a wonderful and inspiring read to anyone with a creative instinct. Every page felt so full of truth and insight that I could only read three pages at a time in order to properly ruminate on all of it.

    Potok’s novel about the young hasidic boy who would be an artist is a much more rigorous call to arms. Potok’s book define’s art in a way much like Cairns does. If it has any kind of agenda attached to it, it isn’t art – it’s more likely to be propaganda. I don’t want to spoil the book if any one reading this may decide to read it (and trust me, you SHOULD read this book), but a key plot point is whether Asher will paint the truth of what he sees or whether he will censor himself. The censored version of his vision is still brilliant and worthy of recognition, but the uncensored version is truer and will alienate those he loves and cost him almost everything.

    In reading this book, I came to the conclusion that, though sometimes I might like to fancy myself as such, I’m most likely not that kind of artist. I create in hopes of making hope and truth accessible, attainable. Any offense my work would bring is calculated and a means to a desired end. I’m less self-expressive I think than I am a communicator with a creative instinct. In my case, my creativity is in service to my vocation as a minister – meaning I use my songs to communicate what I deem are worthy ideas in hopes that I might inspire, trouble, or encourage. Though I regard music and other art as something of worth beyond being a mere “tool” that is useful for an evangelical agenda, at the end of the day I suppose my own work is more about creative communication than it is about creating art for art’s sake – which at it’s best may be truer and at it’s worst is a romantic form of narcissism.

    Madeleine L’Engle might encourage me to understand my output as artistic, and I’m grateful for her generosity, but to be honest it was a relief in a way to understand myself as less an artist and more a conveyor and communicator with an artistic sensibility. I no longer had to bear the burden of having to constantly be suspicious of calling myself an “artist”. There is a difference between the work of a songwriter like Leonard Coen and my own work (and most songmaker’s who are a part of the Christian music culture). His work is imbued with an open-ended mystery that gives it a near mystical quality. My work, on the other hand, takes me before audiences who are less interested in being challenged by a mystical piece or art than they are in being moved or helped in hallowing and making sense of their lives.

    I regard this as a very worthy vocation and do my best to serve with my music, always trying to make the hope I hold dear as beautiful as I know how, wrapping it in creative expression that, by the grace of God, I hope will be worthy of the subject matter. I don’t want to fail the material.

    I feel my calling is to serve others and to offer my work in service to my calling. That means I write differently than I would if I were writing merely for self-expression. I love and value artists who do the latter, though, and am grateful for them. I’ve come to the conclusion that both are worthy.

  10. whipple

    I dabble in a few different mediums, one of which is songwriting, and another of which is photography.

    One of the interesting things about photography is, though it is ironically often not as focus-oriented for the recipient as songwriting (by which I mean to say, fewer are the folks who look at shape and flow and light and shadow than the folks who say “wow, that’s a good lyric”), it is quite different in that it leaves so much up to the person viewing the photograph. The photographer’s job is to see beauty or ugliness or something else, and to have the patience and mechanical know-how and wherewithal to convey that quality on paper. The problem with leaving it this open-ended is that, you can take photos like Ansel Adams (I personally like the pictures of the native peoples of the American West), but you can’t particularly control the effect on the viewer as well as a songwriter on the listener.

    Hmm, as I say that, I think, control is the last thing I need to have as a songwriter. Based on L’Engle’s book which has already been recommended above (and the recommendation of which I second), and based upon listening to interviews about the artistic process, I don’t know if the artist is so much the creator as the medium himself (or herself). King David wrote “My tongue is a pen in the hand of a skillful writer.” I know that I can’t claim any responsibility for any miracle that happens when one of my songs or photos or something touches someone on a plane that ordinary conversation might not reach. My own artistic process is perhaps a blessing and a curse in that it’s haphazard enough to keep me leaning towards humility.

    As far as intentions go, I have to keep giving up the idea of titling things before they are finished, because they invariably become something other than what I intended. And when I do struggle hard enough to bring about what I intended in all its fullness, it’s not nearly as enthralling after the separation of a good night’s sleep and a second glance.

  11. Maszyny leśne

    You can certainly see your expertise in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. Always go after your heart.

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