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On the Death of the Artist

A Lyceum Member proposes, as a topic for our 29 November 2023 Happy Hour: “How much does the artist’s intention factor into the meaning of his art? How can semiotic Thomism help us to answer this question? Can there be a more fitting interpretation of the art he makes than the one he intended? Is the more fitting interpretation, the ‘correct’ interpretation, even if it is not the one intended by the artist?  What is fittingness?”

Questions about the nature of art—a perennial inquiry renewed time and again—have resurfaced in recent years and months as intelligence-simulating pattern-recognition and reconstitution algorithms (commonly misnamed “Artificial Intelligence”) dramatically improve their abilities to produce graphical (and soon other) representations of human artistic creation. This is a rather complex way of asking: does AI produce art? To back these kinds of question into those written above, is there art without intention? Who is the artist when someone plugs a prompt into ChatGPT? How does the output of an intelligence-simulator correspond to artistic causality?

AI artists?

The above image was generated in less than 60 seconds with a relatively simple prompt. One can dissect it to discern the influences of various artists, famous, infamous, and virtually unknown alike; one might even be able to reconstitute the prompt from such analysis. So: who created the image? And what interpretations may be made of it?

Exemplar Causality and Intention

At the center of every work of art stands a formal cause: that is, the principle by which are arranged all the material parts making it to be what it is. When drawing a portrait, one seeks to capture the visage of the human person. There are countless material variations through which this might be achieved. A portrait may exhibit technical proficiency but fail inasmuch as the person does not truly appear within it. In this, we would say that it falls short formally. But the intrinsic formal constitution of the artistic work both relies upon and relates to an extrinsic formal cause as well, namely, the idea or plan in the mind of the artist.

This extrinsic formal cause may be termed the exemplar (later Scholastic philosophers called it the idea). As John Deely writes:

The first and obvious way in which a formal cause can be extrinsic to an effect, and the way which was principally considered in the history of the discussion of these questions, is again in the case of artifacts: the architect constructs a building out of materials and according to a plan which he has drawn up, and [1] this plan is then embodied in the building, so that it becomes a “Mies van der Rohe building”, for example, an instance and illustration of a definite architectural style and school; the artist [2] creates a painting as an expression of something within the artist, or models a work, such as a statue or a portrait, on something external which the artist nonetheless wishes to represent. Even [3] when the work is called “non-representative” and so strives to be a mere object with no significant power, as an expression it fails, in spite of itself, to be without significance. Extrinsic formal causality in this first sense came to be called ideal or exemplar causality among the Latins.

Deely 1994: New Beginnings, 160.

There are many points compressed within this paragraph worthy of extended consideration, but we will limit ourselves to the three annotated: first, [1] the embodiment of a plan in the work; second, [2] the internally-expressive rendering of something externally-extant; and third, [3] the invariable signification of productive expression.

Concerning the first [1], this point proves important to a fundamental understanding of art. The work of art terminates the act of the artist. It receives the expressive form in an embodied manner. Even performance art—the playing of music (or even 4’33”), a dance, juggling—requires an embodiment. But it is not just any embodiment that renders something “art”. There must be a definite plan: the exemplar cause. If I slip and happen to make the motions of a most stunning and beautiful pirouette, I fail to perform the ballerino’s art. There was no intent behind my performance, no plan, no exemplar cause.

Now, had there been—had I myself seen the artful spins of professional dancers and wished to emulate them—then, second [2], I would be expressing from my own conception an observation of something external. So too, if I draw a portrait of Audrey Hepburn, I must draw upon my impressions of her in memory, from movies, in photographs, etc. Even the most seemingly-innovative artistic creation relies upon the grasp of a form outside the self which is creatively transformed through the exemplar expression. We are imitative creatures.

To this point, third [3], we cannot create any forms that do not themselves, as existing in the embodied artistic product, further signify to others. Even the most wildly re-constituted expressive form still draws from the extrinsic causality of those things we have first grasped ourselves. Thus, “abstract” art yet falls under the auspices of interpretation.

Interpretation and Specifying Causality

Or, to put this otherwise: interpretation is always a part of artistic creation. This raises a difficult question, however: what do we mean by “interpretation”? It seems a word the meaning of which we often take for granted. Is it the drift of associations? The insight into “what is”? The relation of appearance to context? Anything at all?

Perhaps the easiest answer: interpretation is the working-out of an object’s meaning. “Meaning”, too, of course, presents a challenge. If, in the context of art, we presuppose meaning to reside principally in the intrinsic formal cause of a work, we simplify the conversation. For the form of the work—the embodiment of the artist’s intention—invariably specifies the audience. In other words, the audience can interpret the work according to its own complex of determinations and indeterminations. If I am somehow conditioned to hate all impressionist art, I will interpret all impressionist art hatefully. It cannot specify me otherwise. If, however, I am not so-determined, but remain open to its specification, I may interpret it other ways.

Sometimes, for instance, when we learn an artist’s intention behind his creation, it appears in different light. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. Other times, we may discover another work of art—or a philosophical premise—which allows us deeper insight into the work. This insight may be entirely outside the author’s intent, and, yet, rings true. But how do we justify these interpretations?

Life of Art?

To many, it may seem that death stands imminent for the artist. Intelligence-simulation threatens artistic life. It will discern and reconstitute patterns faster than we can even conceive them.

Or will it?

Can there be art without exemplar causality? Can machines interpret? Produce expressions? Does “artificial intelligence” produce art or… something else? Is it a medium for a new, emerging kind of artist? Come discuss these and other fascinating questions concerning the nature of art with us today, 29 November 2023! Links below:

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

[2022 Spring] Introduction to a Living Thomism

What is Thomism?  What does it mean, to be a Thomist?  Étienne Gilson once wrote in private correspondence to John Deely, in a letter written in the summer of 1968 that:

‘A thomist’ of whatever brand should find it superfluous to develop a question which Thomas was content to pass over with a few words… [because] it is very difficult to develop such a question with any certitude of doing so along the very line he himself would have followed, had he developed it.  If we develop it in the wrong way, we engage his doctrine in some [new] thoroughfare, instead of keeping it on the threshold his own thought has refused to cross, and which, to him, was still an assured truth.

Étienne Gilson, 28 August 1968 (quoted in Deely 1994: New Beginnings, 36).

This attitude toward being a Thomist, it seems to me, runs directly contrary to the spirit of Thomas Aquinas himself.  There are many problems, difficulties, and issues in our lives to which Thomas’ “few words” provide no guidance in our own endeavors, and yet the resolution of which stands of paramount importance for our intellectual, moral, and cultural well-being.

At the same time, however, Gilson did promote what he and his 20th century contemporary Thomist, Jacques Maritain, called a “Living Thomism” (cf. Gilson 1964: The Spirit of Thomism, 84ff).  In Maritain’s words:

Thomism is not a museum piece.  No doubt, like other systems of medieval philosophy, indeed, philosophic systems of all ages, it must be studied historically… But Thomism [triumphs over time] so more completely than any other [philosophy] since it harmonises and exceeds them all, in a synthesis which transcends all its components.  It is relevant to every epoch.  It answers modern problems, both theoretical and practical.  In face of contemporary aspirations and perplexities, it displays a power to fashion and emancipate the mind.

1934: Preface to Metaphysics, 1.

This emancipative power is not one which resolves the contemporary perplexities by mere repetition of already-stated answers, but one which, in the dialectical manner exemplified by Aquinas himself, weighs and measures the diverse efforts of its time and discerns through or against them what is true in itself.  In this, we see Thomism exhibit a systematic approach to thinking-through honest inquiry while never confining itself to a determinate or closed system of thought.  In this seminar, we will undertake to follow in authentic repetition the Thomistic thinking, in discovering the principles which guide all the inquiries he undertook himself—thereby enabling us not only to follow St. Thomas to his own conclusions, but to seek out conclusions to problems which he himself never had to face.

April 2—28 May
Saturdays, 1:15-2:15pm ET /
5:15-6:15pm UTC

(Additional discussion sessions may be added depending on interest.)

Lyceum Institute digital platform run on Microsoft Teams

In this seminar, lasting 8 weeks (with a break at the halfway point—see here for more information on all Lyceum Institute seminars), we will investigate what the principles of Thomistic thinking and how they apply perennially in all ages and to all questions. The instructor for this seminar is Brian Kemple, PhD, Executive Director of the Lyceum Institute. You can read more about Dr. Kemple here.

Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

One payment covers all 8 weeks.

[2022Sp] Introduction to a Living Thomism – Participant

Recommended for those who are currently students or with part-time employment.


[2022Sp] Introduction to a Living Thomism – Patron

Recommended for those in professions that do not pay as well as they ought and for whom continued education is especially important (including professors and clergy)


[2022Sp] Introduction to a Living Thomism – Benefactor

Recommended for those with fulltime employment in well-paying professions and sufficient resources to provide a little more.


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