What matters more: the artist’s intent or the audience’s interpretation?
Take, for example, John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic “They Live.” The movie is about aliens plotting to control humanity, and Carpenter intended it as a rebuke of Reagan-era materialism. Naturally, progressives are often incredulous to learn it’s a favorite of anarcho-libertarian conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
But they shouldn’t be. Failing to understand why a movie about media infiltration and subliminal messaging might resonate with the paranoid Jones is a prime instance of the intentional fallacy, or the mistaken attempt to interpret art based on the meaning the creator assigned it rather than on one’s own experience with it.
As critics William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote decades ago, art "is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it.” French essayist Roland Barthes argued that prizing authorial intent above all else reduces creative work to a totem rather than elevating it into an experience: “To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.”
Consider the reactions to “Don’t Look Up,” writer-director Adam McKay’s new Netflix satire. Staunchly defended by the professional political left and fellow artists as a powerful metaphor for climate change, McKay’s film about a comet headed toward Earth has been coolly received by critics.
As someone who authored a mixed but ultimately negative review of the film, I can say the most effective defense I’ve seen was offered not by the climate change activists McKay might have targeted, but by conservative Kevin D. Williamson in National Review. Williamson “can’t think of a better recent cinematic satire of what political tribalism actually looks like in our own strange time.” Indeed, when the film works, it works because it, at heart, evinces almost Burkean conservatism; its poignant final moments highlight the importance of social ties, and throughout the picture, we are given reason to distrust both populist mobs and sclerotic bureaucracies.
Also, as my podcast co-host and Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg noted, a deadly comet is not a particularly good metaphor for global warming, but it is a pretty decent stand-in for something like … a pandemic. As a result, one can’t be surprised when average audiences see Leonardo DiCaprio’s bespectacled scientist who has been co-opted by the government to push its damaging policies imploring people to trust the science and think, “Oh, I get it — he’s [Anthony S.] Fauci!” (The pandemic wreaked similar havoc with the metaphor at the heart of Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead,” which posited a scenario in which forehead-temperature-gun-wielding agents of the state used unfounded fears of an airborne zombie plague to imprison political dissidents.)
An artist can never predict how a metaphor will evolve once it has been birthed. Consider the “red pill” in the original “The Matrix,” that symbolic capsule one takes to shake off the chains imprisoning humans in a computer simulation. Directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski have said the whole thing — assuming a new identity by taking pills and adopting a new name — was a metaphor for their gender transition.
But, as with “They Live,” the key metaphor in “The Matrix” — that society is secretly being manipulated and only a select few doing their own research knew the truth — was, perhaps, destined to be adopted by a nascent online right emerging from a relatively narrow news sphere to a limitless information ecosystem supported by social media.
One way to read “The Matrix Resurrections,” then, is to suggest it is a reaction by Lana Wachowski against this appropriation of the franchise. But “Resurrections” is, itself, open to multiple interpretations, particularly with regard to its antagonist, the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris).
One progressive read on the Analyst is that he is trying to control Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) from discovering their true identities, rendering the character a critique of psychiatrists who stymied their trans patients. Conservatives, meanwhile, will pick up on the fact that the Analyst insists feelings matter more than facts — a clear inversion of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s mantra — and insist he’s a dismissal of therapeutic culture writ large.
This is not to suggest that every takeaway is equally valid; foolishly, even dangerously incorrect interpretations of art have always and will always be with us. Look no further than the bad “Matrix” readings that inspired real-life violence. It is merely to suggest that authors must accept that art is prone to inspiring disparate, and potentially conflicting, responses — and they can’t do anything about it.