Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Against Interpretation

Susan Sontag's 'Against Interpretation' essay from 1964 briefly combs the history of art and interpretation in order to expose both the period in which art could no longer exist without being defended and the dangers of over-interpretation in our modern times. Sontag begins by telling of how there was once a time when paintings could be of real objects, and the art of painting itself was believed to be purely mimetic, meant only to imitate reality. Interpretation sparked near the dawn of scientific enlightenment, as old religious texts and accounts were being challenged. It became necessary to interpret the literal text in order to save the stories and keep them afloat in a time where science was beginning to explain the mysteries of our world. The same concept transferred to art, and it was no longer acceptable for a painting or piece to simply be. It needed to be interpreted and dissected, or it was purely because a human being couldn't look upon something anymore and be comfortable with what they see. Work needed to have some meaning to it in order for people to be contented with it. According to Sontag, modern times have gone too far with interpretations. She claims that it depreciates the value of art rather than supporting it. Offering a few examples of what might elude this issue, Sontag claims more form in necessary in art, among transparence.

After a couple of rounds reading this essay, not to say I'm thick or anything but a second read is often necessary, I agreed to an extent. Interpretations given tend to muck up the original content. I can't begin to list all the stories I have read that have been dissected by literary critics and debated over meanings of this and that without considering the fact that the very story itself might be just what it reads off the pages. Once one solves a mystery, or in this case decodes what one has seen or read to their comfort, one loses interest in the mystery altogether, dismissing it as yet another 'Alice in Wonderland' or biblical allegory--whatever it is comes to mind. No one seems to really appreciate something for what it is, and if they can't find a way to interpret something they indeed become uncomfortable in its midst.

But I can't help feeling this essay is pretty outdated, maybe even for its own time.

It is true that interpretation is a condition that runs rampant in the world even today, but it has extended even into cinema. Movies are now awash with meanings, morals, and symbols more exhausting or as exhausting as your occasional product placements. Art seems to have reached its evolutionary limit the moment The Fountain was introduced to the world. Now, even some of the most meaningless pieces of art are still being abused by interpretation.

So what exactly does Sontag mean when she declares that it is 'form' that can save an art piece from interpretation? Does she mean this in the sense of making something so unmistakably literal that it defies interpretation? Hasn't that been done already? "Look, it's a urinal, but I'm going to call it art." When I draw a boot, a pickaxe, and a light helmet do I need to make every detail as sharp as possible so no one could call it any more than a nifty still-life? Does form apply to the texture of the work itself instead? How far can this go and how far has it already been taken?

When I read parts 8 and 9, my mind couldn't extend past the simplest ideas. It almost seems that if your goal is to avoid interpretation, your art needs to be entirely meaningless. That, or the meaning has to be so blatant and simple that even a child could guess at it and there could be no other possible explanation for the work. I like the idea that art should be felt and truly seen rather than dissected, but I want the art to be a joy for me to make as well. I don't want it to be easy to craft or simple to understand. Interpretation, as evil as it sounds, doesn't strike any fear into me. I've had my work misinterpreted several times before. If there's anything I'm really taking from this article, besides the learning of a few words I had to look up, it's that there's a range of humanity and therefore a range of possible interpretations. If I made work and I don't want it to mean more than one or two things, I'm going to have to make the meaning as clear as possible without any mucking about of my own.


  1. Good job. Much better than mine. I really gotta find the time to put more effort into these.

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  3. Hi Sandra -- just read this--impressed--want to read it again in the next few days and comment when I have more time. For now I just wanted to let you know I was here.