What's your reaction to Neil's assertion that your "conclusions are quite often wrong"?

"I only arrived in London yesterday, and heard quite by chance at luncheon that you were having an exhibition, so of course I dashed impetuously to the shrine to pay homage.… Where are the pictures? Let me explain them to you."

            — Anthony Blanche to artist Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited

It seems terribly presumptuous of Anthony—who's only half-joking, if at all—to offer to explain Charles's own paintings to him. But is he really being all that presumptuous? Outside observers can indeed provide valuable insights into art that lie beyond the intentions of the artist. And while I would never presume to try to teach Neil and Chris anything at all about their own music, I hope you, my readers, will indulge me.

First of all, I'm so thrilled and honored that Neil and Chris have visited this website and have said so many wonderful things about it (in their comments during their November 17, 2003, BBC Radio 2 webchat) that I feel positively churlish taking issue with anything that Neil has said about it. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for him and his art. And if Neil regards my conclusions as "quite often wrong"—well, I'm both pleased and humbled that he and Chris consider them worth reading and commenting on at all.

It's certainly understandable that Neil—or any artist, for that matter*—would regard his own intentions in creating his art as the basis for any "correct" interpretation. And, to be sure, what an artist says about his or her own work is a valuable and important consideration in its analysis. But I would suggest to Neil that he does his work a tremendous disservice to imply that his intentions in its creation are the basis of the only "correct" interpretation.

As I suggest on my home page, one of the primary characteristics that distinguishes "good" or "great" art from "bad" or "mediocre" art is the fact that good art lends itself to multiple interpretations. An artwork that lacks ambiguity of any sort—that lacks the complexity and subtlety that encourages varying interpretations by different people, by different cultures, and by different time periods—is, by and large, an inferior work. To put it another way, an artwork that means only what the artist says it means seriously risks not meaning anything to anyone other than the artist him- or herself.

Critics and scholars have long recognized the intentional fallacy, a term coined in a 1946 essay written by critics William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley. In short, it means that it's fallacious to interpret an artwork solely or even primarily on the basis of the presumed intentions of the artist. As expressed succinctly by Susan Sontag in her classic 1964 essay Notes on Camp, "One doesn't need to know the artist's private intentions. The work tells all."

There are a number of reasons for this viewpoint, including:

I could go on, but you probably see what I'm getting at. From Neil's perspective, my conclusions about the Pet Shop Boys' songs may indeed often be "wrong." But if Neil's intentions were all that mattered, then I doubt seriously that there would be as many fans of their music as there are.

From my perspective, which you, Neil, Chris, and anyone else can take or leave as you or they see fit, my conclusions are indeed correct—at least until I change my mind about them, as I have done from time to time. By the same token, your conclusions are correct for you—and the Pet Shop Boys' conclusions are correct for them. I can only hope that others might derive some insight, pleasure, and perhaps even greater appreciation for the marvelous words and music of the Pet Shop Boys from what I have to say.


*I'm pleased to note that the late Walter Becker of Steely Dan also once disputed my "gay interpretation" of "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" as expressed in my 1994 book Rock on the Wild Side—although, in my defense, I maintain that I've never believed that it's necessarily a "gay song," only that it very readily lends itself to a such an interpretation, which Becker conceded. And I firmly believe that, despite what he said about it, Becker and his songwriting partner Donald Fagen (no naifs, they!) knew full well that they were writing an ambiguous song in "Rikki" and reveled in that knowledge. Besides, anyone who has ever listened to or read an interview with either Becker or Fagen should realize that you could rarely if ever take what they say merely at face value. They loved playing verbal/intellectual games with interviewers. Whatever the case, I can always fall back on the intentional fallacy: what an artist says about his or her own work is not the last word on what it's "about."