Who decides what art means? – Hayley Levitt

Who decides what art means? – Hayley Levitt

Imagine you and a friend are
strolling through an art exhibit and a striking painting catches your eye. The vibrant red appears to you
as a symbol of love, but your friend is convinced
it’s a symbol of war. And where you see stars in a romantic sky, your friend interprets global
warming-inducing pollutants. To settle the debate, you turn to the
internet, where you read that the painting is a replica of
the artist’s first-grade art project: Red was her favorite color
and the silver dots are fairies. You now know the exact intentions
that led to the creation of this work. Are you wrong to have enjoyed it
as something the artist didn’t intend? Do you enjoy it less now
that you know the truth? Just how much should
the artist’s intention affect your interpretation
of the painting? It’s a question that’s been tossed around by philosophers and art critics for
decades, with no consensus in sight. In the mid-20th century, literary critic W.K. Wimsatt and
philosopher Monroe Beardsley argued that artistic
intention was irrelevant. They called this the Intentional Fallacy: the belief that valuing an artist’s
intentions was misguided. Their argument was twofold: First, the artists we study are
no longer living, never recorded their intentions, or are simply unavailable to answer
questions about their work. Second, even if there were a bounty
of relevant information, Wimsatt and Beardsley believed it would distract us from the
qualities of the work itself. They compared art to a dessert: When you taste a pudding, the chef’s intentions don’t affect whether
you enjoy its flavor or texture. All that matters, they said,
is that the pudding “works.” Of course, what “works” for one person
might not “work” for another. And since different interpretations
appeal to different people, the silver dots in our painting could be
reasonably interpreted as fairies, stars, or pollutants. By Wimsatt and Beardsley’s logic, the
artist’s interpretation of her own work would just be one among many equally
acceptable possibilities. If you find this problematic, you might be more in line with Steven
Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, two literary theorists who rejected the
Intentional Fallacy. They argued that an artist’s
intended meaning was not just one possible interpretation, but the only possible interpretation. For example, suppose you’re
walking along a beach and come across a series of marks in the
sand that spell out a verse of poetry. Knapp and Michaels believed the
poem would lose all meaning if you discovered these marks were not
the work of a human being, but an odd coincidence
produced by the waves. They believed an intentional creator is what makes the poem subject to
understanding at all. Other thinkers advocate for
a middle ground, suggesting that intention is just one
piece in a larger puzzle. Contemporary philosopher Noel Carroll
took this stance, arguing that an artist’s intentions are
relevant to their audience the same way a speaker’s intentions are relevant to the person they’re
engaging in conversation. To understand how intentions function
in conversation, Carroll said to imagine someone holding
a cigarette and asking for a match. You respond by handing them a lighter, gathering that their motivation is to
light their cigarette. The words they used to ask the question
are important, but the intentions behind the question
dictate your understanding and ultimately, your response. So which end of this spectrum
do you lean towards? Do you, like Wimsatt and Beardsley,
believe that when it comes to art, the proof should be in the pudding? Or do you think that an artist’s plans
and motivations for their work affect its meaning? Artistic interpretation is a complex web that will probably never offer
a definitive answer.

Dereck Turner

100 thoughts on “Who decides what art means? – Hayley Levitt

  1. Random says:

    Given that art is defined as having no purpose other than its own means any intend of an artist is merely an interesting fact. What about a musicians intend to write lyrics that can be understood in many ways different ways so that what he really wants to say or thought is hidden/becomes a riddle? This is how I listen to music most of the time

  2. Tahseen says:

    In my GRE exam one long passage was about artist, their mind, our minds etc. I suffer from that trauma 😭😭😭

    Even Ted-ed💜 could help; that narration is so 👎👎👎

  3. 6kchea ! says:

    Kinda sounds like religious books and english classes. Everyone See's what they want to see and ignore what the authors intended… Specially English teachers, quit being extra theres no hidden meaning let it go give me my A+ Lol

  4. AnxiousOne says:

    You are the Art….We all can interpretate different stories looking at a painting..The painting is the same but the stories change person to person….YOU ARE THE PAINTING…A art is like a puzzle which can be solved in many ways ,Its depends on the person's choice how he wants to solve it

  5. Patrick Bateman says:

    You guys should've came up with the scream painting. Art is something that you could say Ambiguous.

  6. Will D. Skies says:

    This works with both art and poetry. Authorial intent is most important, but you can connect a work to things in your own life to give it a meaning in your personal context. You cannot, however, say definitively what the author was saying with their text. For example: would you go up to a famous author or artist and tell them exactly what their work means, even calling them wrong if they argue?

    But at the same time, a lot of what goes into art/literature is subconscious or unintentional. I find this a lot editing people's poems and short stories. Elements they didn't expect just end up there and can alter the interpretation.

  7. Ry The Zombie says:


  8. Kyla Sharma says:

    The artist does

  9. cecep sukendat says:

    post christian argument

  10. Carol Aparecida says:

    2:14 lol is that Donald Trump?

  11. Edgar Ryan says:

    President Trump is not a pollutant. The real problem is the radical left using illegal immigration and he real people who need help as hapless pawns for their own political gains on want of power

  12. Rockstar* says:

    I love the "Nietzsche is dead" shirt

  13. Rockstar* says:

    Generally, I'd say I agree to the more "open" interpretation theory but I also think, it matters what the intention has bedn if we'll take a look at the piece of art as a whole (so connected to the creator, rather the entire artwork) . it depends on the perspective, I like having my own and different interpretaions, and thats often what art is for (and its also inevitable since we all have different associations due to our individual memories), but sometimes, knowing the artists intention adds another layer, or just offers another interesting point of view. I often find myself, letting things open for interpretation as I create something and I think other artists do so aswell, which probably simplifies the debate (or intensifies it). oh dear, its so hard to talk about these kind of things because they're so fluid ^^

  14. Tanner Gatewood says:

    Why bring specific politics of one side of an issue into this? Seriously the Trump pollutant fairy? That has nothing to do with this lesson yet you’ll try to shove your leftist agenda in any place you’re able. Why?

  15. Alec Avalos says:

    I think it'd be cool if the artists' intentions and my interpretation were the same. After all we always liked those who understand us and I think that's what we want when we see someone's artwork.

  16. jrpipik says:

    Those who hold with Artistic Intention should consider that artists may lie about their intentions. For instance, John Lennon said many negative things about his work with The Beatles. When George Martin asked him about it, Lennon replied, "I was high when I said that." A similar reply he made to Paul McCartney was, "They're just things that come out of my mouth."

  17. Luna Beech says:

    I believe an artist is a vessel for expressing human experience. The interpretation of their work is as individual as each humans life.
    Each person interprets life and art based on their own individual experiences.

  18. Ria says:

    This is why I LIVE MY LIFE by "The Death of The Auther," the creator doesn't decide on what it means, you do.

  19. Lugh Summerson says:

    If the artist's intentions do not matter, then you are treating it as a found object, not art (the word means skill, craft, creation).

    "He's the one
    Who likes all our pretty songs
    And he likes to sing along
    And he likes to shoot his gun
    But he knows not what it means"

  20. Mohammad Tausif Rafi says:

    No offence intended to anyone, but why does this even matter? Art is overrated. Just my personal opinion.

  21. satnamo says:

    Nietzsche is not dead;

    some man is reborn posthumously.

  22. Katti says:

    Always reducing art to a semi-abstract painting makes it much easier to argue for the intentional fallacy. However, not all art is paintings, and there is plenty of art where the intention of the artist is unmistakable. There is even art where the intention of the artist is the only thing that makes the work a piece of art in the first place, or even remotely interesting. With art expanded to its full complexity, it becomes impossible to argue for any of these interpretations convincingly.

  23. Riya Nambiar says:

    I believe the whole meaning of art lies in the way each of us percieve it..and our perceptions naturally differ….an artist's intentions may or may not be different from ours but the art holds meaning from what we take from it

  24. any you like says:

    Escanor decides it

  25. Gatchaman Series says:

    Yeah, like the white painting that was sold for a million dollar?

  26. Jaswinder Singh Narula says:

    Taking about art with worst animations possible…

  27. SuicideBunny6 says:

    If the animation in this TED-Ed video is art, then who decides what that animation means??

  28. مريم العريني says:

    لماذا لا يوجد ترجمة للغة العربية؟ ؟

  29. Karolyn C says:

    Donald trump fairy? For real? Cmon can’t even keep politics out

  30. jsalnut says:

    I'm the tourist friend who buys cute junk from the museum store

  31. Jonathan Sharman says:

    I'm firmly in the camp that art stands on its own. Understanding the artist's intentions may help an observer come to understand or appreciate a piece of art, but they don't define its meaning. Meaning and even beauty are objective concepts, in my opinion.

  32. Kim Quilicot says:

    this video is misguided. i was waiting for ambiguity. such a sad attempt to communicate a truth. and the art shown is not even worth an afternoon's tea.

  33. NorthernStal The famously unknown penguin says:

    Stop messing my brain
    My last brain cell is dying!!!!

  34. Kushal Rijal says:

    'Modern art sucks.'
    This is a sentence (take it as art for now). Is it a good art or bad art?? U can decide.
    Now.'hajauakag ahagaoi ahayaiag ahaiyaaiavi.'
    This is modern art. Good or bad?? We dont know because it is all about interpretation.
    Thats why 'Modern art sucks'. Modern art should be called EXPENSIVE DOODLING.

  35. Adrian Pintea says:


  36. Padmé the Cat says:

    “That’s one of the great things about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.” – David Grohl… maybe applies here?

  37. Abdo Abdo says:

    hello to everyone here actualy i want samthing from samone or anybody can help me i have20 years i from in morocco im study but like you know everyone stidies need mony hhh bit my dreams to emegreat to europe for find jod for helo myself and my family plz helo me samone because humanity didnt know any different between any people and the same time i wanna to say sorry if i brothed anyone for what i say and really i nedd to help thank you

  38. Click Here: Law Of Attraction Money says:


  39. Greg Lopes says:

    People always tend to make things far more complicated than they truly are. Semiotics explains it, if you’re willing to understand. When someone, might not even be an artist, produces an “artwork (same for music, poetry, etc) there are two main things to be dealt with. The personal vision or, as stated by the video, the artist’s intention; and the personal interpretations of those that enter in contact with it.

    “Art” is a relative term, a name you give for any personal expression that conveys an emotion or idea, and was expressed through artistic, usually idealized means. What the artist do is dependent of his own actions, and his voice is the main voice when interpreting the idea — but the artwork, in the end, is never defined solely by his personal vision.

    Once an art piece is made, it’s going to find it’s meaning not only in the creator’s mind, but inside other people, too. The good and old Magritte commentary on his painting “This is not a pipe.” So, for some, what’s being called art… it might be art. For others, it might be anything. Maybe something made by someone trying to create art. Maybe the best thing they ever seen/listened/read. Maybe nothing at all.

  40. Asem Khanfar says:

    Surely these philosophers have a reason to have these positions, but for me, I prefer the position in which you can choose to enjoy art either as was intentioned, that is if you were interested in empathizing with the artist or trying to understand him/her or his period…etc; or to enjoy it in the way that it affects you and to observe what it provokes in you or in your own interpretation.

    I don't see why they have to be mutually exclusive.

  41. Zachary. J. DeWitt says:

    I think a great aspect of art is that it can be interpreted in different ways, but the artists intention should always be regarded as important.

  42. fareeda ali says:

    NOT me.

  43. Joan says:


  44. Froehlig Girlz says:

    Just imagine if we considered rhetoric, conversation, and/or news with this much deliberation. Though, it would probably help if we could all agree that compassion is actually a good thing, first.

  45. Blackhole says:

    Nietzsche is dead.

  46. Arthur Diserbeau says:

    I love the voice of the one speaking

  47. Aviv Matas says:


  48. Shaleenss says:

    Who decides the exorbitant prices for some of these masterpieces which seem to have been done by a toddler is still in his diapers?

  49. AJITH P.J says:

    There are people who believe even fart is piece of art

  50. stephiskhan says:

    Who else thought this would be a video about how curators come up with the explanation cards in museums?

  51. Dan Boyle says:


  52. Dillon Mysliwiec says:

    I believe the artist's (painter, author, musician, etc.) intention is important due to the fact that the insights gained from some works of art have lead to action being taken. Sometimes positive, and sometimes negative, but regardless, the negative can be mitigated if the artist's intentions are known (for most works of art). I also personally hated having to interpret what a dead author meant by his/her book and being judged on my interpretation.

    However, I believe you should be able to enjoy the artist's work before knowing their intent, sit on it a while to see what your subconscious gains from these insights and once solidified, learn of the artist's intent. This allows you to get personal insight into yourself, learning more about yourself, and then still potentially absorbing the intent the artist sought to portray.

  53. mobilemarshall says:

    Basically explains the definitive answer, goes on to say there may never be a definitive answer x.x

  54. Bat Signal says:

    Pudding IS delicious!🤔

  55. Brian Wright says:

    If a picture says a thousand words,
    A painting can say whatever you want it to!

  56. Marcel Lutkowski says:


  57. 하람배 says:

    I'm definitely more in line with the first view, but I don't agree at all that "the artist's interpretation of their own work [is] just one among many equally acceptable possibilities". It's like saying that if I were to say something, regardless of what I was actually trying to say, the words you think I said would be an interpretation as valid as what I was in fact thinking (and that that would also be an interpretation). Though you can try to interpret my words and get meaning out of them, I can't be "interpreting" my own phrases, just as an artist doesn't "interpret" their own work; they actually govern the intent behind those actions.

    The artist's thoughts about the art are what it is supposed to convey, but the art means what people have taken from it. To give a more specific example, imagine we're a rock concert and I say "You look rad today", but you hear me saying "You look bad today"; I actually meant to give you a compliment, and that is a fact — to say that I wanted to insult you would simply be wrong —, but you might have felt bad because of that, and that's perfectly valid. What I meant to say is irrelevant in terms of what you're feeling, but I still tried to say something.

    I hope you guys get what I mean.

  58. Fabio Bareiro says:

    The Intentional Fallacy is meaningless, you realize it immediately when you hear the argument of the waves and the beach.

  59. Teia Smith says:

    but the real question is, are they whales or rocks?

  60. Pouring Rain says:

    I think art is all just an expression. People will see it the way they want to see the art for specific reasons they are supposed to. The artist expresses their emotions and thoughts and the viewer fits the meaning to what they need to know.

  61. SKPjoe Coursegold says:

    we're allllllllllllllllllllllllllllll different. many possibilities.


    Nah those are not art.

    Art is me drawing stickman.

  63. Gg Gg says:

    If you think it is art, it is art.

  64. Mugilan Kumar says:

    Why not just leave the art alone?

  65. rina kim says:

    cool video! and amazing animation too

  66. Veloce says:

    Modern art is absolutely terrible, this video was not. Outstanding animation, as always!

  67. Bianca says:

    Definally the wrong people. Sometimes "art"=trash or really easy to make. If everyone can make something without trying really hard it's not really art. And fame should not make something art just because the person that made it is famous. You need to have at least a little tallent. And one important thing that REALLY makes me mad. (If we look at art as paintings etc) It's NOT good art if something looks terrible, and the only reason it is called good art is that it has a deep meaning or backstory! It's needs to look good! I wouldn't have a Picasso painting on my wall even if someone GAVE ME MONEY FOR IT. I HATE how they look, so for me it's bad art.

  68. LORDBADASS says:

    I have to agree with Beardsley on this.

  69. Suixice’s F3X says:

    The dictionary does

  70. Wayne P says:

    We feel moments of flight like the sea foam and the splash of stars upon a vast ocean of space. A work of art evokes feelings in us to express what the artist perhaps also felt. Meaning comes later as a story of what we felt in the moment.

  71. Noah Aubrey Linus Sorensen says:

    There is literally no point in art

  72. Alaric Ong says:

    Who decides if the work is an art?

  73. It’s JJOLO says:

    overall, art is what you make it.

  74. Tommy132 says:

    Italian subtitles pleaseeee

  75. adithya says:

    Those animations were just spectacular. Mind-blown!!

  76. Ariel Badw says:

    Our interpretation is what really matters to us, author's attention doesn't matter to our opinion, I think good art is when we are the much closest to what the artist wanted to do

  77. Ariel Badw says:

    I think the order of importance is like this :
    – what the artist wanted to do (if it's something ambitious)
    – how he did it (is it good or bad ?)
    – how well we interpreted it (are we close to what the artist wanted us to see ?)
    – finally, are we impressed ? (If we liked the object)

  78. Szylepiel says:

    One of the biggest influences of my life was when I was yet a kid, like 13-14 or so, when I stumbled across the essay by Roland Barthes "The Death of The Author". I honestly believe one should separate author's identity and supposed intention behind the work from the work itself as framing imposes a limit of interpretation. We should be able to interpret art, whether it's picture, sculpture or a text, however we want and author's interpretation is just one of very many possible.

  79. d Lon says:

    "Not what is art, but when is art?"

  80. Vikas Walia says:

    Science off course

  81. Therese Von Todderud says:

    We all have different backgrounds and therefore interpret things differently. At my university, they say that your analysis is acceptable as long as you have evidence. The author/artist will leave clues, but we have also been told that "the author is dead", which is a good way of looking at it. We cannot discuss the artist's intention, only the intention of that specific artwork/text. It can still mean something else to you on a personal level, but when you have all the tools to analyze it, you will probably see something else than if you let your heart and personal experiences be in charge.

  82. Bidiguilo Chefão says:

    Art is an explosion!

  83. Carter McHugh says:

    Great video, I think both options are useful and compatible. Art is a conversation, sometimes between the artist and the audience, sometimes just among the latter.

  84. Megan S says:

    Well, I'm kind of on a middle ground, but I think it in musical terms, because most of the time I like to know that there is a deeper meaning behind what I'm listening too. I take it into consideration, but it also helps knowing most musical artists don't seem to mind if you have a different interpretation of their songs. And they are self aware of the fact that it can/will be interpreted in many ways.

  85. M 560 says:

    The truth of art lies somewhere in the middle for me. Knowing the intentions of the artist can give so much more meaning to different works of art.

  86. Rajani Bokolia says:

    Everlasting information , great animation works , knowledge = ted ed

  87. Regina Phalange says:

    Add turkish subtitles

  88. Spider Salticidae says:

    art is meh

  89. Rachna Prasad says:

    All of a sudden, the man starts floating in the air
    Then goes into the painting

  90. ImADawgSoDealWithIt says:

    Im here after watching Kimi no Nawa or Your Name

  91. Louie Furio says:

    Explanation kills art

  92. Aulia Ardista says:

    "Do wee need a creator to be able to appreciate the creations?" Wow sounds like a profound theosophical question.

  93. • N o n e n t i t y • says:

    I’m here because I need to do a essay 🙂🙃

  94. Cron Kite says:

    check this short film: DEFINITIONS OF ART / yuriafilm ​@​

  95. idelfonso valencia says:

    It's a matter of every different perspectives that's created by our own different types,kinds, and levels of creativity within.

  96. Treyson Thelusma says:

    My favorite kind of art is photography

  97. Cron Kite says:

    in this video you will find the answer: Definitons of art / film art assignment https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtpaVljGhAc

  98. Hendrick Putra says:

    Thank you for your information! Love from Indonesia

  99. Mo Liesker says:

    Am I the only one thinking that the guy playing with the sand in 3:01 is sooo satisfying?

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