Art and intent

In August, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, where we saw an interesting exhibit called A Matter of Abstraction. One of the pieces we saw there was a sculpture by Ulysse Comtois called “Column No. 6”.

The piece looked sort of like an IKEA CD storage unit: a number of rectangular aluminum slabs mounted on a pole which ran through their center. The slabs were arranged in a gentle spiral pattern all the way up, except for the top three, which were more visibly staggered. I wondered about the appearance of the piece, especially since it was sitting in the middle of the floor, with no barrier or guard rope around it. Did the artist intend to have those top three slabs set off differently? Had a curator set it up that way during installation, either on purpose or accidentally? Or had a museum patron bumped into the piece, or perhaps mischievously moved the slabs?

My wife thought it was obviously intentional, that Comtois was trying to say something by not having the pattern be regular all the way up. I wasn’t sure. There were more works in the exhibit which featured regular patterns than there were ones which had patterns with a tweak, so I was inclined to think that it was accidental in some way, that it did not reflect the artist’s intent.

When we got back to the hotel that evening, I Googled a bit to see if I could find out more about the work. What I found surprised me greatly, because it raised more questions than it answered.

Here’s a photo of “Column No. 6” from a PDF of an academic article I found online. (Incidentally, this is the same photo used in the Museum’s own catalog of the exhibit.)


Wow. Suddenly, instead of my just wondering whether the top three slabs were positioned differently on purpose, now the question became whose hand was responsible for the even spiral of the other slabs in the work’s current installation.


Here’s another photo of the work, from a different PDF. This time, the slabs are still staggered, although it’s a different configuration from the first photo. (I suppose it’s possible that this represents the same configuration, photographed from a different angle, but judging from the different background I think this is unlikely.)

If we assume that the artist was involved with setting up the work for both photos and for the current exhibition, then we have to ask whether he considers the specific arrangement of the slabs to be important to the work, or whether the essence of the work is simply that it allows for a multiplicity of arrangements. I would be inclined toward the latter view if I were looking just at the two photographs, although the museum installation would make me think that he was making a particular statement with the spiral pattern. (I’m still not sure about those top three offset slabs.)

But maybe Comtois had nothing to do with the arrangement. Maybe that’s left to the discretion of the curator, either implicitly or explicitly. Maybe Comtois envisioned installations of the work in which the public is allowed to interact with the work and change the positioning. In each case, we question what the artist’s intent was, and how far it extends.

The question of intent resonated with me because a certain section of the Internet was abuzz around the same time with analysis of a possibly incorrect note in the flute part at the beginning of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. The note is part of a theme which recurs several times throughout the movement, but the note is different in just this one instance. The pianist Stephen Hough, who had long been bothered by the discrepancy, initially wrote about his apparent discovery that Tchaikovsky himself had corrected the note in a manuscript copy of the score; the next day, he followed up with more information, indicating that the correction was more likely made by the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who premiered the concerto, but stating that he nonetheless felt certain that the correction was valid (i.e., that the note in the score was still wrong). And in case you think that settles it, the Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein wrote his own essay in the New York Review of Books which brings in ideas about Russian vs. European cultural norms to support his conclusion that Tchaikovsky either intended the “wrong” note or at least was not bothered by it.

This kind of sleuthing, or inferring, comes up frequently in my work with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Much of the music that Graham used was written for her, and many of the pieces from the 1930s and 1940s are unpublished, so that the only sets of material are the ones in our possession – and sometimes the various sources that we do have (sketches, piano score, full score, parts) disagree on certain points. (I’ll post a lengthier examination of one such piece soon, as a companion to this post.)

Sometimes, even in the case of well-known works written for Graham, like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring or Samuel Barber’s Medea, an examination of some of the unpublished material that I have access to brings up interesting discrepancies. Do the published scores represent intentional changes by the composer? Or do they have mistakes that crept in and were never corrected? Or do the earlier holographs have mistakes that were corrected when the work was published?

The question I keep coming back to, the one that’s most important to me as a conductor, is: Which reading best represents what I believe to be the composer’s intent? Like Hough, I do my best to answer that question with the information I have available, guided by my own musical sense. And sometimes, over time, either because I have more information at hand or because my sense of the piece has evolved, my answer changes. Since almost all of Graham’s composers are dead and therefore unable to comment, I may never arrive at a provably definitive answer. But the process of asking the question continues to have value.