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What a painting means rests upon the experience induced in an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator by looking at the surface of the painting as the intentions of the artist led him to mark it." (p. 22)

Wollheim's account of meaning is centred around the notion that the artist's intention determines what is correct to see in the painting. This amounts to saying that if we ask an artist what was the intention behind a particular painting, part of what we are doing is asking, What is really there? What we see in the painting are the physical marks that the artist placed on the surface. Those marks can be seen as representing a figure, we can then become aware of the symbolic representation of, say, a halo behind the head of the figure. Wollheim proposes that at a certain level the answer will pick up some of what might be thought of as mental states of the artist who made the picture, in other words it will collect the artist's intention.

Schier makes an interesting analogy. To try and understand a painting is like 'making sense' of a person (the artist-in-the-painting). A lack of concern with a person's mental life leads us to stop seeing him as a person, we see his actions as mere bodily movements. This is analogous to the thought that looking at a painting without reference to the artist's intention is to see it as an object, not as the product of an intentional act. he proposes that treating a canvas as a work of art necessarily involves being prepared engage with the actual with the point of view of its creator. Wollheim proposes that to understand painting is to come to see it as the effect of an intentional activity. The broad view of intention that he adopts is not just the intention to produce a work of art. The intention must be taken to include:

"...desires, beliefs, emotions, commitments, wishes, that the agent has and that, additionally, have a causal influence on the way he acts." (p. 8)

There are two important points made here, first the role of causality in the explanation of action in terms of intention and second that the intention includes both conscious and unconscious mental phenomena. The entire range of mental phenomena which control the artist's actions are considered relevant to understanding the work.


This notion of causality is a central factor in Wollheim's account of how pictorial meaning is acquired. It is the binding element, the link that allows the transmission and reception from the mental fields of the artist to those of the spectator. Wollheim argues that it is only in the light of its causal history that we can explain an action. he argues that :

"A necessary if not a sufficient condition for asserting a causal connection between an event B and an event A is the assertion of a regularity statement to the effect that whenever events of kind B take place, the events of kind A occur "(Wollheim 1970 p. 575)

From this we can say that any explanation of a painting as the effect of a certain intention presupposes a correlation between similar intentions and similar paintings. This should not mean that we need to find a causal connection between a painting and an intention or between the painting and the experience of the spectator:

" Causal explanation is not a particular but general relation" (Ibid p. 575)

There is a problem in the theory of action identified by Danto in Analytic philosophy of Action in differentiating between justified correct beliefs and knowledge. I can switch off the radio and as the sound goes off I may believe that I caused that action by throwing the switch. The event occurred but in fact it was not caused by my action: the fuse had blown at that very moment.

Epistemic scepticism is a familiar position the causal links that we think exist may be do not. We may hold justifiable beliefs for thinking that throwing the switch has caused that action, but when more information is made available we realize that our belief was mistaken. In painting the equivalent would be two paintings can be indistinguishable but they are different actions because they express different intentions and therefore different causes.

Danto disagrees with Wollheim's view that seeing an action or a painting reveals the correct causal connections that disclose the intention. It is only if we have access to the correct causal history that we can distinguish between them. Danto (1981 p. 48) gives as an example a situation in which we ask a man why his arm moved. If the man cannot give a reason then the question of what caused the movement does not apply. Yet the movement is perceptually indistinguishable from an action. Danto proposes that we see it in the same way, but when we see it as a cause a variety of beliefs and expectations are activated. The analogy is then made with the artwork where the appearance cannot tells us the cause.

Danto's identical paintings are not something that we readily encounter in the world of painting. It has interesting implications for the status of copies and forgeries. It also warns us to be wary of ascribing meaning without historical and contextual information about how and why the painting was produced.

The Artist's Intention

According to Wollheim the artist's intention must include the perceptual belief, implicit in the posture he adopts and grounded in the assumption of a common human nature, that the spectator can see in the picture surface the representation that had been intended. It is a precondition of the formation of intention that the artist should be have the required skill to carry out that intention. This ability permeates the intention to paint a certain picture; a particular intention will emerge in a painting only in so far as it is fulfilled. Intention should not be taken to imply that the artist has a total preconception of the painting he intends to make; it is not a kind of inner image of an outer picture which does not yet exist.

Wollheim, following Anscombe (1957 section 6. pp. 1112) goes on to argue that the work of art is an intentional object which is made "under a certain description" (Wollheim 1973 p. 113), even if we are unable to formulate that description. The artist's intention makes the process of painting into an action just as referency reference to a desire and belief on the part of the agent. The desire and the belief suitably related to an intention determine whether a bodily movement is identified as an action.

In his preface to Freud, Wollheim (1990) writes that an action occurs when someone does something, that is explained bd to the action only when the belief indicates that very action as the best way of satisfying the desire, In this case the action is said to be 'rationalized' for that agent, the desire and belief jointly caused the action. But Wollheim warns, it does not follow that this is the reason why he did it; he might have done it for some other reason or perhaps without a reason. To close this gap, or for a reason that the agent had for doing an action to become the reason why he did it, this reason must be causally efficacious.

Freud deepened what Wollheim calls the desire/belief schema by introducing unconscious desires and beliefs that give rise to an action with unconscious motivation. In painting these are expressed through what would otherwise be seen as ineptitude on the part of the artist: slips of the brush, unusual distortions in depictions and crudeness of technique.

Gaut (1993) argues that features of the painting such as brushwork depend on what the artist typically does. They may be skills that are either innate or the result of habitual practices that were acquired and exercised without being intended.

Wollheim (1985 p. 51) categorizes skill as a fringe case of a mental disposition and as such it must be at least tinged with causality. The causal theory of mind that underpins this is reflected in Freud in that:

"Every instinct is a piece of activity: if we speak loosely of passive instincts, we can only mean instincts whose aim is passive." (Freud, p. 122)

Doubts About Persons

Wollheim claims that to understand paintings we need to refer to the intention of the artist. Artists paint in order to express their experiences. Culler (1975 pp. 2830) writes that postructuralists would argue that there is no self to express. This, he explains, begins as a reaction to Descartes' dualism of mind and body. In this view, which parallels the argument that Wollheim has proposes in painting, physical things get their meaning from the activity of the mind.

A word is a physical entity, it can be physically described, and as such it is dead and meaningless. A word gets its meaning when an individual mind, a person speaking, attaches meaning to it, or imposes meaning on it by an act of volition intending that meaning for it. If we were to ask what someone meant by an utterance, we would be given another statement of which we would again have to ask what is meant, and so on. We are caught in an infinite regress and meaning, in this view, can never be clarified. Meaning, in language, depends not on individual volition but on public agreement.

But this infinite regress does not happen in pictorial meaning. If we take a word like 'tree' it is a sound and physical mark that has an arbitrary relationship to the object that it refers to. It's meaning is defined by intersubjective agreement within a social formation. A picture of a tree refers to the object differently, it represents the object. If the picture has enough isomorphism with the object depicted, the tree can be directly seen in the picture by any human being who has the sensory concept 'tree' [i] .

If someone asked, What does the picture mean? the question would refer to something other than, What does it re-present? This public account of meaning becomes an attack on the Cartesian concept of a separate consciousness that gives meaning to the world. The individual can no longer say by 'I' , 'I mean....' because the words by which the meaning of the term 'I' is explained in terms of the public rules of a language that give sense to the notion of the 'I' of a person. From this it has been argued that our sense of what we are as persons is given to us by the public, meaning giving structures of language. The notion of a person is constituted by the changeable structure of public rules that give meaning to the concept of a person. It is not the Cartesian notion of some entity lying behind and giving meaning to our words, actions and world. The implications of the social determination of language is that the notion of a person as an individual consciousness responsible for the meaning of its words is undermined. This in turn undermines the claim that we should refer to the artist and his intention if we wish to understand a painting.

Culler (1975) writes that these arguments lead to the proposition that persons are no more than the point at which the meaning giving structures of our language intersect and become concrete. We do not give meaning to language, it gives meaning to us. With no objectively existing "natures" or "essences" to limit the possible generation of meaning, and with the meaning of signifiers conceived as a function of the whole group, the possibility of any continuity or commensurability from one community to another, either in time or space is remote. There are no identities which subsist through successive stages of history, according to this position.

This notion of separate worlds populated by human beings whose culture is so different does not make sense. This does not mean that adequate levels of agreement, or objectivity, cannot be reached about which interpretation is acceptable. There is a high level of agreement about works of art. As Davidson (1984) argues, total disagreement cannot be made intelligible as an idea because the concept of disagreement presupposes relative agreement to begin with:

"Different points of view make sense, but only if there is a common coordinate system on which to plot them; yet the existence of a common system belies the claim of dramatic incomparability" (Davidson 1984 p. 184)

If we accept Davidson's argument then there is no need to assume that there is no human nature to ground our view of the world. No need to argue for the impossibility of understanding the production of art as well as any other intentional behaviour engaged in by members of other social formations. We can accept that acts of human agents can be understood only if their perspective is understood, as Wollheim argues.


Theories that place the intention at the central explanatory positions have been labelled Intentionalism and I now propose to look at the criticism that have been made to traditional intentionalist theories and see how and if Wollheim can counter these criticisms. he assumes Intentionalism to be self evident and so basic to our understanding of other persons or paintings that:

"...the burden of proof would seem to fall upon those who think that the perspective of the artist, which means in effect seeing the art and artist's activity in the light of his intentions, is not the proper starting point for any attempt to understand painting. For it is they who break with the standard pattern of explanation in which understanding is preserved" (p. 37)

The simplest kind of Intentionalism [ii] holds that the meaning of a work is what its author intends it to mean. The problem with this is that painters may fail to do what they intended, so that is has been argued that the intention does not establish the meaning of the work but only determines what the artist meant by that work. Gaut (1993) argues that this view fails to distinguish the artist's meaning from the meaning of the work and thereby assumes that they are different things. Wollheim's solution is to add the requirement that the meaning of a work is established by the artist's fulfilled intention. This allows that intention can be unfulfilled in the painting, presumably through lack of skill or other causes, as Wollheim acknowledges that it can be so. This implies that some part of a painting is there independently of what the artist intended. Wollheim would reply that the artist intended these features unconsciously. They may have been caused through unconscious or displaced actions. Wollheim writes that psychoanalysis is:

"...grounded on the principle that everything we say says something: but not necessarily the truth about a present, conscious, mental state. From the junk of our sayings something may always be recovered - but this does not mean that the junk is in order as it stands." (Wollheim 1973 p. 33)

Unintended parts of a painting are explained, in certain cases, by Wollheim suggesting that features of paintings hitherto thought to be inept should be seen as part of a painting's meaning. What appears to be ineptitude he shows to be part of the artist's unconscious intentions and should be seen as part of a broader intentional schema. he argues that if the frontality in some of Manet's painting is not to be dismissed as incompetence we must look for its role. Wollheim claims that:

"Manet intentionally but not consciously inserted these provocative features into the work, and one of them is frontality" (p. 161).

In a sense Wollheim here is proposing that painting embodying unconscious intentions are rather like parapraxes in that they reveal those intentions.

Gaut (1993) argues that to claim that the artist intended these feature unconsciously is to assert something that is testable, and may be empirically false. he gives the example of Edmund Wilson a critic who initially claimed that Henry James intended�The Turn of the Screw to be read as having an unreliable narrator. Reading James' notebooks he later discovered that this was false.

Wilson then argued that James must have unconsciously intended the narrator to be unreliable. Gaut believes that despite the contradicting evidence we can still read James's novel as having an unreliable narrator. This shows that ascriptions of properties to works can be grounded on the work itself without having to suppose that all such properties were intended. There are features that were not either consciously or unconsciously intended, Gaut argues, that Intentionalism cannot provide a full account. If we consider the prominence of the brushwork in Titian's late paintings to be due not to any expressive intention of the artist, but to their being left unfinished. Gaut suggests that we would still see the brushwork as expressive.

Bryson (1986) argues that a preoccupation with the 'intention' of the artist ignores the life of a painting after it has entered into society and its role as an agent of social change he writes that in such statements as 'Now I see what Grunewald understood by humiliation' there is no cross-reference and comparison between present and prior data. he believes that theories that concern recognition of intentions said to exist 'behind' a particular image must fail because, while artists might know that their images correspond to an original perception or intention, this knowledge is not available to the spectator who can only see what the artist has set down on canvas.

But what Bryson fails to acknowledge is that the intention is not behind the painting but the painting is the embodiment of those intention that caused it to be painted. The 'data' or intention, is before the eyes in so far as the painting is complete. The error that Wollheim would attribute to Bryson is this: when he says that we must ignore intention, and look only at the work itself and its social context, he thinks of intention as something wholly private or internal. But meaning in painting is visible in its surface. The intention is not private but through the way it cause the artist to paint it as visible in so far as it is fulfilled in the painting. Bryson assumes that there are inner states of a certain kind that form the artist's intention and that they can be understood separately from the product in which they issue.

Even the broad category of intentions that Wollheim includes in his term does not account for what can be seen in a painting. To argue that all features of a work are intended is to assume that artists are consciously or unconsciously aware of all features of their painting. The problem of accounting for unintended features seems to remain, for the spectator, even on Wollheim's broad construal of intention unless we accept the argument that everything we do under the concepts of art and painting is intentional in the broad sense.

Match between mental states

Even if we accept that the painting provides the means through which the spectator experiences what the artist intended we still have the problem of explaining how those intentions can be understood by the spectator. Wollheim roots meaning in:

"...some mental condition of the artist which, when it finds outlet in the activity of painting, will induce in the mind of the spectator a related, an appropriately related, mental condition." (p. 357)

He must then explain how the painter and spectator come to share the appropriately related mental condition. According to Wollheim this take place because whilst painting the artist tried to fit correspondence to cause. The spectator mirrors this by trying to fit cause to correspondence.

Goodman (1968) argues that it is wrong to think that what a painting expresses is what causes it. he argues that this view implies that a happy picture is painted by a happy artist who is happy in the course of painting. Wollheim thinks it wrong. he argues that in pictorial expression the emotion does not have to be currently experienced for it to be casually effective. The emotion can function at a distance because the painter does not rely upon the experience to guide or shape the painting process. Pictorial expression is controlled and boosted by reflection upon and recollection of the emotion. As the artist paints, the activity stirs such reflection and recollection. The same activity, through the triggering of the imagination, is caused in the spectator's mind through looking at the picture surface.

Wollheim suggests that the sharing in the feeling of the character whom one 'centrally imagines'. 'Centrally imagining' occurs when an event is visualized from the 'inside', from the position of either oneself or a what Wollheim calls a 'protagonist'. , in this case the artist, is explained by an association between an involuntary flow of imagination and feeling. In such cases imagining someone feeling pain is very much like the feeling itself would be:

"The match between the way in which the two mental states occur may, in a Hume-like way, lead to a match between the states themselves." (Wollheim 1973 p. 71)

The match between the mental states does not collapse them into identity. Wollheim suggests that imagination leaves us in a state as if we had experienced the emotion.

Wollheim denies that for the spectator to grasp what the artist meant,

"there must be re-created in his mind when he looks at the painting precisely the mental condition out of which the artist painted it." (p. 44).

Geller (1993) disagrees. he argues that Wollheim's theory presupposes and requires communication to bridge the gap between the private mental contents. he concedes that for conscious intentions the problem of match is resolved because the artist fulfils the role of spectator and share a common human nature. The problem of match between the artist's unconscious intentions and the spectator's 'attunement', Geller adds, is solved if we accept the existence of a universal human nature. But how, he asks, can artists be spectators of their own unconscious intentions that are to be found in the finished painting?

Thematisation provides a partial explanation. The painting is the means by which unconscious material becomes recognized in consciousness. But what of the unconscious intentions Wollheim attributed in his deep analysis of Manet and Ingres? Were they spectators in the same sense as Wollheim is in his interpretation of their work? Can artists come to recognize their own unconscious intentions? [iii] It could be argued that they could but that it is not necessary because they would still have meaning to a spectator roughly in the same sense as when an analysand's unconsciously motivated behaviour is interpreted by the analyst.

It is hard to see how that can be if Wollheim really insists that the painting is:

"the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator" (p. 22)

if meaning is to be grasped by the spectator. This can lead to scepticism because it requires and prevents the determination of match between what is transmitted and what is received.

Wollheim writes that it would be wrong to construe that his account of meaning in painting entailed a model of communication. A particular painting may be a communication, but no painting has to be. Necessarily communication is addressed to an identifiable audience. Reference to the contents of the artist's intention are not necessary because if the spectator has, in front of the picture and caused by it, the experience that the artist intended him to have, this is sufficient. There is no reason why recognition of the artist's intention should have to play a part in this causal chain. The spectator's experience must coincide with the artist's intention, but it does not have to do so through knowledge of it.

Wollheim's version of Intentionalism escapes two objections to which standard Intentionalism is vulnerable. It demystifies the notion of match between spectator and artist by calling attention to the universal human capacities that allows communication between artists and spectators. It also explains how the artist draws upon this capacity, namely, by relying on "the spectator in themselves" (p. 88).

Schier (1991) proposes that we must believe that the artist genuinely cares about the paintings that he produces and that he tries to make others care about them too. Wollheim is proposing that we need to try and get into the artist's shoes. Acknowledging an object as a painting involves taking up an emotive attitude towards it. To see the object/someone without feeling is to strip it of its arthood/humanity. If we take an impersonal, objective perspective persons will appear to be mere bodies, paintings will appear to be mere objects.

[i] Wollheim seems to argue that we have a universal preconceptual capacity for seeing in, I am not sure that this subset of perception alone can explain our seeing something in a picture unless we argue that we have innate sensory concepts of what we see.

[ii] Gaut proposes E.D. Hirsch as a suitable a example of a proponent of simple Intentionalism.

[iii] Freud postulated the censor as the entity that blocks the access to our own unconscious. The unconscious bypasses the censor and finds expression only in certain cases such as symptoms, dreams etc. Painting here seems to be another way of uncovering and providing embodiment for unconscious phenomena that is 'visible' to others in a way that may not be visible to the agent who requires analysis in order to make this unconscious action conscious for themselves.