In this second part of our epic postmodern saga (first part here), we’ll tackle the question that every student has asked themselves at least once in literature class “what the fuck, it’s not at all what the author meant!” (or, in your case, “there’s no way the Spice Girl wanted to sing about the meaning of life”). Because as much as I have no trouble believing that Hideaki Anno was out to deconstruct the mecha genre and his own saga, I’m pretty sure that the runners of Korra or Community season 4 had no postmodern agenda and it was just that bad.
The intent behind a work of art is a question that hit me first watching stuff like Batman (1966) or The Room. I mean when you’re faced with dialogues like this
Or acting like this
You can’t help but wonder if comedy is what they were shooting for or simply a byproduct of a colossal failure. Failing on purpose is not that rare, even though sometimes it fails… Failure is acclaimed as a didactic tool, or recognized for it aesthetics. Failing is easy, but failing hard and creatively much less so, and whatever the reason behind it, a failure of magnitude is really something to be admired. Bad movies are legions, but the ones widely renowned and acclaimed for their monumental failure are very rare.
The line between accidental failure and intended failure is thiner than you may think! It’s hard to narrow down what makes a good bad movie and how intent fits into it (discussed at length in PBS idea channel). Sharknado seems to have been intentional, and The Room seems not to, but who can tell anymore? Aren’t they both enjoyable? Where does truth lie? If
Deception and ambiguity are part of its very fabric. The exact circumstances of the genesis of a work, so fleeting and influenced by billions of factors, will forever remain unattainable and unreproducible even to their author, for the world and people are ever-changing. No matter how much you research it, you’ll never get inside Tomy Wiseau’s head, even less during the making of The Room. Under these circumstances, does it even matter what the initial seed is, and with it the intent of its birth? The best you can hope for is imperfect uncertainty, the only thing you can know and observe is the work as it is, which stands immutable as the only solid truth between an unknowable genesis by the author and an ever-changing perception by the reader.
With the work of art being what it is, the same unchanging piece, does its past or intent even matter? Does It Matter What Evangelion’s Creator Says? You may even say that the work of art has taken an independent existence of it’s own, untied from its genesis and author. As Roland Barthes would put it, for all intent and purposes, the author is dead to its creation. “There is no other time than that of the utterance and every text is written eternally here and now“. Which Jacques Derrida would complete by a corollary “there is nothing outside the text“, meaning that everything is always already interpretation. A work of art only exists in its complex interaction with its reader.
And that’s why your whiny “but there’s no way that that’s what the author meant” you snarkily retorted to your literature professor is complete bullshit! It doesn’t make the analysis any less true: literature commentary is not so much about the author’s intent as about what the work of art mirrors of its author, both at the time of its creation and as a human being as a whole. It’s a door towards new frontiers, a base to extract meaning from as much as build meaning upon. There is no such thing as “searching meaning where there isn’t any”, but rather explore the nebulous semantic universe around humans and their nature.
The intent of the creation is only one of the unattainable truths that a work of art captures. In a very quantum allegory, one can only infer about them by seeing the output, the work as it is (in essence, the failure has the potential to be both intentional and accidental). Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder: it’s observation that gives meaning to things, a work or art only exists relative to an audience. Who can decide but you if Tommy is mad or fascinating? If Korra is bad or interesting? Who can decide if Milhouse is a meme except the collective agreement of a global audience?
Noticing that the medium and meta-information on a work contained as much information as the content itself (were already interpretation), Marshall McLuhan stated that “The Medium is the message, and therefore the content is the audience“ (yeaah maybe on some level this article is a collection of my favorite quotes). You can consider, more widely, that the audience is part of and necessary to the work of art, as much as the author. Every work of art is kinda about human nature.
Every work of art is about you.