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For interpretation

April 13, 2010

If Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” can be summed up by two of its sentences, it’s probably these:

Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.

The writ against interpretation, then, is that it is occlusion. It interposes between artwork and audience something external, superfluous, and inhibitory—the ‘meaning’ of the work. It summons ideas to clog the channels of real aesthetic awareness, reducing art to allegory. Everything becomes something else, usually big and shadowy: the protagonist is not a man but Man, the whale is God, the watch is the Inexorable March of Time. Interpretation will not let things—characters, images, canvasses—simply be what they are.

But fortunately lost things, Sontag thinks, can be recovered by setting aside their content, their ‘meaning’, and focusing on their form. We need to go back to what in art is most essentially and immediately felt. We need to appreciate the surface rather than plumb false depths, as it were. Certain genres of art can help us do this. They resist interpretation, as if of their own volition. Pop art and parody have ‘blatant’, familiar, often banal content while abstract and decorative art lack recognizable content entirely. Such art is all surface.

From a certain angle, Sontag’s argument has an anti-intellectual cast. Interpretation is the special task of the intellect, and interpretation is occlusion. The intellect cannot be dispensed with, but it can be demoted, and it should not be our primary conduit of aesthetic experience. We need, in Sontag’s vivid phrase, an ‘erotics’ of art, a bypassing of the intellect.

But, strictly speaking, this anti-intellectualism is an illusion. The essay contains no argument against the frontline use of the intellect in the experience of art. Or rather, any argument to this effect depends on an equivocation between two distinct senses of ‘interpretation’: interpretation as the application of intellect to artwork and interpretation as excessive intellection, as intellect untethered. The latter is to be avoided, and it’s the sense that Sontag has primarily in mind. But for all that she says, there is no reason to deny that seeing things as they are sometimes requires that we use the intellect to peer below the surface, however fallibly. Sometimes–for colors, figures, sounds, etc.—the intellect just gets in the way (and Sontag’s essay works as a bluntly effective reminder of this). But for other things–for characters, narratives, and meanings, and there are meanings attached to things just as inextricably as colors and textures—we would be at least half-blind without it.

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