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Psychology & intent in art & science

"The Artist is a trickster."

People have long described the role of artists as "tricksters", and rightfully so. They serve as social commentators, satirists, philosophers, and comedians without being fully direct. An innocent looking painting can contain symbolic imagery that viewers might pass up at first glace; a set of sculptures can criticize the stark and unfortunate differences between cultures; an object on display might challenge our perceptions of the material world, and some works just seem to want to poke fun.

If someone has an explicit message to convey, clear and concise writing may be the choice medium for doing so. Think of this blog, for example: I have thoughts, I turn them into words, then you read them and interpret them. There might be some room to wonder about the purpose of such an article or the intent of a set of ambiguous words, but the point is usually relatively clear.

Art on the other hand, if you want my definition of it, is the most direct way possible to convey an idea. It's the conveyance of an idea in its most pure form, short of telepathy. I can't claim that art is necessarily an idea before it may be put into words, or else I'd be excluding poetry, novels, and every lyric ever written. Maybe that's as purely that thought can be expressed, unique to the artist-- and it's unfair to tell someone a better way to convey their own idea unless you're in their head! So I say whether the form one's thoughts take is visual, musical, written or otherwise is up to the one having the idea.


In any case, a key component of making art "speak" to people is the symbolism used therein. Maybe it's employed in a traditonal sense, but a lot of art uses symbols and motifs that hold meaning to the artist, and not necessarily anyone else. Or, more broadly, because art is so subjective we may say that each viewer is going to interpret those things differently according to his or her own psychology. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as any message is in the mind.

This is one area where art becomes more of a science than most people may credit: understanding the psychology of your audience. This might be best explained if we use advertising and marketing as an example:

Let's begin by speaking in terms of color. If we are advertising a product the we want to be seen as exciting, we might choose bright red as the dominant color. Think Legos, sports cars, and lipstick. What if it's a service we'd like viewers to find comforting? Many ads for healthcare, relaxing vacations, and spas have a pale blue and white color scheme. People are predicted to respond to those colors in a similar way, and so they are often applied in systematic ways.

If we get a little more complex, however, that predictability becomes less accurate. Suppose we want to advertise a country-themed restaurant and choose a weathered wood texture as the background for a sign. We may intend for viewers to associate that nostalgically with old barns, farm houses, hand-made furniture, etc, but someone from a modern metropolitan area may not have those connections. That weathered wood may remind them of worn-down buildings and slums, and therefore not be appeasing to them. Floral wallpaper might get the job done better. Advertisers thus often make sepeate ads for different regions-- a particularly common practice when advertising internationally or cross-culturally.

Now just imagine what you have to account for when making a complex ad: words, colors, textures, shapes, images... it all resonates differently with different people.

An artist who wishes their intended message to be understood will keep this in mind, creating art in a way that is both meaningful to them and to their audience.


The tricky thing, then, is figuring out what a work of art "means". Unless you've got some documentation of the artist's thoughts behind their work, a deep understanding of their psychology, or a key to their "code" of symbols, it's nearly impossible to accurately (or fully) discern its message. It's perfectly common, and even expected, that people debate the "true meaning" of artworks with no firm solution in sight.

So how important is it that we ultimately interpret a work as intended? Should an artist provide explanations behind their works, or are they best left up to individual interpretation? What if the "message" gets lost or distorted? If no one "gets" the idea, is it an effective work of art at all?

This makes the assumption that an artist somehow knows the full meaning of their own work.

Of course it may seem silly to suggest otherwise! After all, they're the ones who had the idea, did the thinking, and put together the "message". Did they not have to know?


Allow me to change tracks for a moment and talk about the use of scientific research.

At the moment, a good understanding of the process of evolution underlies the entire field of drug development. Without it, we would not know how to keep up with changing viruses or be able to explain why antibiotic reseistance develops. Yet when Darwin was walking around the galapagos, I'm sure he wasn't looking for a cure for cancer. It would seem he simply wanted to come up with a good explanation for the differences in animals. Likewise, while Linnaeus may have had some curiosity about the method by which to breed the most healthy pea or beautiful flower, we can safely assume he didn't intend to cure blindness with gene therapy.

And research leading to something totally out-of-the-blue isn't isolated to long periods of time like that by any means. One of the most amusing examples in my opinion is using the body shape of puffer fish to design more aerodynamic cars (which, by the way, is a lovely marriage of art and science). It's hard to say what research in particular led to that one, but if I worked for an auto company, my first thought wouldn't be "hey guys, let's check out how puffer fish swim."

My point here is that we are constant;y building upon the knowledge of others, and we can't predict the potentially massive scale of our actions. Our intentions behind anything often have very little impact on the future.

Back to Intent

Personally, I don't think in the least that I know the meaning of anything I've ever done-- art included. I may know what I began with, but I'm often most fascinated by the things people come up with when seeing something I've made. And sometimes, even though I didn't make a piece with a certain thought in mind, I will discover one in it later. In my mind, that meaning was there all along. Perhaps it was hidden in there subconsciously...

Or maybe my changed interpretation of the work changed its meaning.

Am I the only one with the authority to do that?

Is a scientist the only one able to decide how their work is used? To decide its significance?

If not, then why should your interpretation of a work be any less valid than the interpretation of its creator?

Interpretation & Use

With that, I argue that it's no less fair to think that the intent of an artist's work is law. If the point of a work of art is to convey a thought, idea, or emotion, we have to understand that the process doesn't stop there. What do people go on to do with their experience of that work? An artist can give them a suggestion of how to see their work or what they'd like it to accomplish, but only in the same way a scientist may suggest "further research" in the discussion section of their paper. Their work of an artist or a scientist may be viewed and used as intended, but very likely something unpredictable will come of it.

Either way, we are moving forward.

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