Quick Reads

Art between Intent & Interpretation

Column: Art & About

Credit : Indie Journal


When one creates a piece of art, sends it out into the world and opens it up to the prying eyes of an audience, is that art then, the property of said audience? Has the artist forfeit the rights over the meaning of the art piece and is it now at the mercy of said audience? Is interpretation superior to intent? 

These are all difficult questions to answer. Questions that were recently brought to the forefront of my mind by the curious case of the “can’t help myself” robot. To provide context, the “can’t help myself” robot was created in 2016 by controversial artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. It is a Kuka industrial robot running on electricity and was programmed to continuously mop up a blood-like substance leaking from it and do animated dance moves, while placed in an acrylic cage while people look on. 

The robot continuously tries to mop this substance but it is condemned to never succeed its unending task like a modern-day Sisyphus (or his arm). The artists were playing around with the idea of art created by a machine to replace the artist and they modified a robot arm by attaching a shovel on its front. Eventually though, the artists chose to use the robot to talk about issues of borders, migration, and sovereignty. The blood-like substance represented the resulting violence and bloodshed and the consequences of authoritarianism and surveillance. 



That was until musician and artist “Kricked” wrote and extremely emotional essay after having deeply misunderstood the meaning of the installation. He saw it as an allegory of capitalism and the slow death of a person crushed under an unforgiving system condemned to a repetitive task that is ultimately pointless, finding less and less time and motivation for the things that truly matter, for the things that bring joy. 

This interpretation was so well-received that it went viral on Tiktok, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit etc. with edits of the robot arm being creating against sad music, people mourning the life of a robotic arm doomed to fail its task and “die”, and projecting emotions like joy and exhaustion onto it. Of course, a frustrated art enthusiast corrected the interpretation and shared the original context but this begs the question: did Kricked co-opt the perspective of the artists? Or rather did a white man speak over two artists of colour? Or do we as an audience have the right to interpret as we see fit? 

This is not the first and likely not the last time that the intent and interpretation of an art piece has differed. Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting “The persistence of memory” which is better known as “Melting clocks” was misinterpreted by an art critic in 1932 who said the melting clocks were meant to signify the liquidity and fluidity of time and space, but the artist when asked about the meaning of the painting, the artist said it was inspired by camembert cheese melting in the sun. 

Often, interpretations and their differences can co-exist as they are not that in contrast to each other. Kricked’s interpretation made a lot of people feel seen and evoked a lot of emotions which is at the end of the day, the purpose of art. Human beings are so incredibly special for being able to breathe life into a chunk of metal and empathise and even shed tears over its trite existence. So desperate are we to be seen that even a slight glimpse of likeness is enough for us to want to fill in the blanks with our own image and experiences. 

Then why is it necessary to draw a line with interpretation? Why can’t art be a wonderful emotional free-for-all? Why must we preserve intent? 


Apart from being a commodity for consumption, art is also a perspective.


Apart from being a commodity for consumption, art is also a perspective, a story, it is derived from a lived experience, perhaps even one filled with oppression, subjugation and violence, and must therefore, must be protected and safeguarded from the co-option and misuse from oppressors, subjugators and those propagating violence. 

A shining example of this is the song “Hum Dekhenge” written by the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who was a legendary leftist poet who wrote poetry on themes of justice, of a rebellion against the ruling capitalist class, against oppression and tyranny. In his lifetime, he spoke and wrote tirelessly about the victory of the common people against evil rulers who suppress and exploit. A revolutionary leftist poet, obstinate in his dream of a liberated world free from inequality and oppression. 

This poem was maliciously co-opted in the vile, hateful propagandist film “The Kashmir Files” created by director Vivek Agnihotri who is known for his islamophobic views and factually incorrect tweets. Just like on twitter, even in the film the director grasps at straws to incite hatred against Kashmiri Muslims and appropriates protest poetry to protest against…protest? 

Famously critiquing the anti-CAA/NRC protests, farmer protests, student protest and having disdain for protest in general, he was quick to feature a song that was sung in the movements against the Hindutva government and its fascist policies and decisions. 

To a lay person it may seem like this was an ignorant mistake on the part of the filmmaker, an oversight, however it is a deliberate choice to stain and pollute a poem commonly used by dissenters to protest state-sanctioned violence and attempt to forever change its context.

Another example is two transgender sisters wrote and directed a film about being transgender that was closeted, just like the writer-directors were when the film came out. However, the film and its themes were largely co-opted by red-pilled incel groups who now use it to spew venomous anti-woman, anti-lgbtq, anti-science, anti-vaccine propaganda. The film in question is ‘The Matrix’ trilogy and the writer-directors Lana and Lilly Watchowski two transgender women have been accused of “misunderstanding” their own creation which would be laughable and hilarious if it was not absolutely heart-breaking.

 The phrase “break out of the matrix” is usually said followed by absurd misogynist ramblings which at best are brain dead in a way that can be mocked, and at worse a justification for rape, domestic violence, abuse, hate crimes and trafficking. 

So, do I wish art could be an emotional buffet? Yes. I wish we could load up our plate with the meaning we want. I wish we lived in a liberated world free from subjugation, but sadly some perspectives are under threat of disappearance and must be protected. Some stories must be told as they are written, and some voices must be heard because there is a force waiting to use their own words against them and beat them into being silent forever. 

As important as it is being moved by art, always remember that art is first and foremost a protest, an uprising and when those on the “up” cannot quash the protest they co-opt it to stop it or distort it before it reaches the ears of those who will listen. So listen. Listen and discern where art has come from and hold space both for the voice of the artist and the voice of your heart and soul that responds to it.