Susan Sontag ‘Against Interpretation’ essays 1966

I found this book to be another pivotal point in how I felt I wanted to approach my final project. There were a number of essays contained within the book but I found that the essay 'Against Interpretation' itself to be the one that seemed the best fit for the ideas that would form my base alongside Craig Dworkin's previously mentioned essay. I recognise Sontag was writing in the 1960's and that additional theories are postulated but one takes certain ideas and uses them to stimulate their own creativity rather than seeing texts read as being necessarily prescriptively all encompassing and decidedly a full stop in a complex discussion. I wanted to begin my final project by looking at artists and writers that helped develop my 'ways of seeing' rather than looking for theories that in some way I would present as ultimately definitively true.

In Susan Sontag's recently published diaries entitled as 'Consciousness is harnessed to flesh' 1964-1980 a 3rd of March entry in 1966 the year of 'Against Interpretation' publication, shows Sontag developing the idea of 3 stages to a work of art. The first was its conception, the second was the doing and understanding (of the artist) and the third was the defending of it. She felt this was a taken for granted process although she felt uncomfortable with the third stage which she described as posthumous but more in a egregious sense of that word rather than its formal meaning of just being past. She interestingly presented a notion of the artist being somewhere else at the point of finishing and ground upon the notion of being 'locked' which she felt one had to be in order to defend the artwork. She concludes her diary entry by saying such demands are stupid.

I wasn't taking Sontag's arguments literally but I rather would use them in order to again liberate some of my own ideas. Sontag spoke in several places in her diaries that the madness of others in some way gave her permission to explore her own madness. Sontag was using the word madness in a loose sense and I feel expressing the idea of the personal freedom to create and to explore oneself. There was a strong feeling of a metaphysical freedom she wanted to explore and her feeling of being weighed down by intellectual duty or rather her own intellectualism.

In 'Against Interpretation' she starts by identifying the original purpose of art as ritual, incantation, spiritual and possessing an inherent magic. This echoed Dworkin's reference to Brakhage who also longed for the period of the untutored eye or at least wanted to re-explore that place. Sontag then speaks of the Greeks and particularly Socrates and Plato's distrust of art as being purely a memetic representation of forms that were themselves not worthy of being represented. This links very much with the early Greek dismissal of the body in preference to the soul. Thus if art is imitation then art begins from that point its need to culturally defend its value. The Greek experience of art at this time was of course figurative but for Sontag this was the point in 'Western consciousness where the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation' began. It is through this theory that art as such – above and beyond given works of art – becomes problematic, in need of defence.' It is through this defence that what we call form became separate from content thus making the content essential and the form accessory.

Whilst Sontag recognises critical art theory has moved on and we have the accepted existence of art as both a model of reality itself existing alongside art as a 'statement' of a particular artists expression there still exists at the core the predominance of the content. Sontag felt the overemphasis on the idea of content leaves us with a 'never consummated project of interpretation' and it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art at all. Thus Sontag sees this search for content via interpretation as this unending loop that art has become trapped in.

Sontag wanted to distinguish Nietzche's idea that all was interpretation from interpretation derived from a deliberate process of codification that was consciously put there into the mind of the art viewer. She was speaking of the critical approach of translation such that A means B and really Z means Y. I found this an important idea for me under the title of my project 'ways of seeing' as Sontag was pinpointing this long history of conscious expectations in art that had their roots in early Greek ideas much the same way that ideas of justice and other elements still permeated through from that period. Nietzche in 'Beyond good and evil' had spoke of how Socrates ideas of the soul had bestrode millennium unchallenged. Placing art into this structure as Sontag had was an important point made and of course is liberating if one is looking at their own work and wrestling with the same issues.

Sontag saw reinterpretation as classic cultural necessity as historical periods transitioned such that the previous beliefs were being supplanted by progressive changes in thinking, The most obvious example would be the change from a mythological perspective to a world more based in scientific observation. The need for past culture to be re absorbed into current necessarily led to the preponderance of interpretation such that old texts meaning now altered beyond the words contained within the actual texts themselves. Thus texts began to mean things other than what was presented. They became allegorical, symbolic and timeless, protected from cultural progression by interpretation. Thus interpretation became an essential bind to those that would seek to leave foundations in tact.

This perhaps might be considered acceptable piety but Sontag saw a greater problem in modern cultural interpretation whereby the process had now became one of actual 'excavation' such that the thing itself was undermined completely so that the revelation of what couldn't be seen was more important than what could and thus 'truth' existed in a critical subtext. Beckett she felt was a particular victim of this method. Thus there were 2 approaches to interpretation, one was as a means of revising and reevaluating a cultural past whilst the other was reactionary and stifling and she felt in this essay that this was where current theories of artistic endeavour had arrived at.

I was interested in Sontag's ideas that this 'poisoned sensibility' was the victim of an overworked intellectualism that took place at the expense of 'sensual capability'. I felt I understood this concept of the intellect neutering creative energy and wanted to be alive to it as I explored my project. I was interested in how Sontag saw the intellect caging the creative soul and the intellects own shackling to this world wanted to in some way act its revenge upon the unshackled spirit. Sontag states '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, comfortable.'

It is interesting to note that Sontag felt that abstraction in art or parody such as pop art in some senses alluded this interpretative process when time since has perhaps proved this not to be so. Indeed more column inches and or pixels are expended now upon a re intellectualisation of in particular the American abstract expressionists. They are often seen now as the birth of an intellectual insight that only history in a Hegelian sense has now revealed to us. Sontag saw however that a proper method of describing 'form' in art would ultimately allow it to appropriately flourish such that criticism presented itself as a descriptive process that allowed art to breath as it was, rather than to be suffocated and then reanimated as sub text.

I enjoyed her final call for an erotics of art rather than greater hermeneutics and intellectualism. I felt it a useful document to move forward with and to keep in mind as I approached various different ideas in my work. The erotic seemed to suggest a giving in to the metaphysical aspects of creativity that would foster a spirit of exploration and discovery and allow on to go with ideas that one might initially not engage with for the very fear of a content driven need for immediate explanation. I personally feel I work best this way and my natural responses are instinctive and reflect a sensitivity that words often do little to explain. I feel Sontag was trying to create this space for her own writing within a highly intellectualised literary field but I thought it a very useful essay to form a strong base for my project.


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