11. Interpretation of Art

I read this excerpt from Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. She’s discussing whether art must be interpreted, and has a pretty negative view of interpretation.

Some Summary

Setting the stage: we interpret art when it’s feeling obsolete, but it’s a dishonest act

The story of the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert for forty years, and the entry into the promised land, said Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul’s emancipation, tribulations, and final deliverance. Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

It’s an act which dissipates the emotions caused by art, it tames the art

In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.

It’s applied everywhere

But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.

And we shouldn’t do it

From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed Last Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations. But the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.

I agree, kinda

It’s interesting bc when people tripping attempt to name or interpret their visuals at least in a very first-order kind of way (it looks like hair! it looks like a fuzzy sheep that’s running through waves of grain!), i generally feel an aversion to that and would try to encourage without alarming the person to expereince it for what it is and to not try to label it, or to enforce that external form or expectation on it. I think Sontag would agree with this.

But also, I have never actually suggested this (“don’t label it!”) to someone while they were in the midst of their experience: My sense is that it would be too jarring, too authoritarian. And I can’t find a way to communicate it in an encouraging way. After the fact or when in a mode of analysis or impersonal speculation I can and have shared this thought… but perhaps the analyst of art Sontag is writing about is also in the midst of their experience. How to do this gently, if it’s worth doing at all!

But also I don’t, really

Alongside all this, I think the project of articulating what one finds important or meaningful about art is a valuable one, and worth pursuing. One reason we haven’t developed this until the 1900s is simply that language and theory had not caught up to the kinds of piagettian game-rules being played. We didn’t have the tools to examine our experience. But now we do! So why not use it?

CJ the X speaks in this video about the ability for one to grapple with meaning an interpretation of art, while maintaining that art is a subjective experience. He frames it as an escape-hatch: if the tools of objectification and analysis are no longer serving us in the project of better articulating our understanding of the art, we simply exit into subjectivity via the escape hatch. It’s true that all art is subjective. It’s also true that we can analyze it with some objectivity–we can play the game of analysis.

And… why be so upset about it

Sontag frames avant-garde art as a defense against interpretation. It’s a very hostile-minded framing, as if the artists themselves demand their art remain un-interpreted. They’re going around shushing people, saying: no no don’t talk about it, you’re enjoying the art wrong.

Art as having a goal of evading interpretation, Sontag posits an arms race:

But programmatic avant-gardism—which has meant, mostly, experiments with form at the expense of content—is not the only defense against the infestation of art by interpretations. At least, I hope not. For this would be to commit art to being perpetually on the run. (It also perpetuates the very distinction between form and content which is, ultimately, an illusion.) Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be…just what it is.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time, a matter of developing a vocabulary for putting into words that which we’re seeing…. But why is Sontag so against this?

The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.

I suppose Sontag believes art is being ruined, or lost in the noise, or at the very least tarnished by the abundance of analysis and criticism and interpretation

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

She longs for a ‘returvrn’ to the way art used to be, back when we had good art, back before we had a language of interpretation and analysis. Back when people knew how to just understand art.

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Look at all those people, just living in the moment. Not a cell phone an art interpretation in sight

Surely, Sontag has encountered things which have hurt her, here. This is coming from a place of trauma. For her, art has been tarnished, maybe her art.

Uh Oh

Me, having written an interpretation of a piece which is against interpretation

But… wait… am I allowed to say that thought? Is this not also simply layering on the hurt by engaging in interpretation? Oh dear what have I done!?

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