Against Interpretation, an essay by Susan Sontag that appeared in 1964 and which was later published into a collection of her writings, is one of the most important and influential texts on art criticism. Sontag, a cultural critic and scholar, through this essay heavily criticised the intellectual taming of the arts that was on rise during that time. “Against Interpretation” was a polemic against one reductive way of art criticism of treating a work as if it were equivalent to the account that could be given of its “meaning.” She thought this practice seemed misguided and corrupted our direct appreciation of a work’s “thingness.” Instead of relying so much on questions about what elements in a work of art mean, she considered it was important to rely more on questions about how they function-concretely, sensuously, and formally-in the work.
Sontag’s essay came in a very specific historical time when “Conceptual art” was all the rage in 60s. Conceptual art usually was supplemented with theoretical explanation about the artwork. If the viewer did not get the “meaning”, he or she would rather refer to the catalogue or be relied upon critics for their account of interpretation of the artwork. Sontag seems to attack this very situation where a critic in the guise of interpreter or one who reveals the “true” meaning of the art is given undue importance. She held a position that a critic’s job is not to interpret the artwork for others but to tell them what it is. She thought interpreting artworks for “true” meaning would be the overstepping of critic’s role.
The early Greek theories about art being mimesis and representation of reality is where she points the origin of a situation where emerged a need to justify art. The value of art to human life was being questioned by Plato. Sontag writes
[A]ll Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such – above and beyond given works of art – becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.
Though the Greek theories of art being mimesis and imitation now seem to be dated in favour of art being subjective expression of one’s self, the dichotomy of form and content still persists. There is an apparent separation of form and content in artworks and is often treated and dealt with separately. The dominance of content over form is such that the artworks are more discussed for its content over its formal elements. The separation of content and forms makes artworks deductible to a statement or an argument which is the very notion Sontag is trying to critic heavily.
Sontag seems to be against only certain kind of interpretation. In an interview with Evan Chans, she said she is not against interpretation as such, because all thinking is interpretation. Rather she is against reductive interpretation and the making of cheap equivalences. She is against rules of interpretations and the practise of using an interpretative grid over and over to “decode” disparate works of art. For her, interpretation is not in the terms of Nietzscheian sense where Nietzsche says there are no facts, only interpretations but she is rather dismissing the allegorical or metaphorical matching of art works. She says
Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really – or, really means – A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?
This reductive way of interpreting was not only a fad of sixties but largely dominates the criticism discourse in current times too. Almost a half century later since the essay came out, the fanatical project of interpreting artworks is proliferating uncontrollably.
Interpretation ie reading the subtexts into an artwork, according to Sontag, came in a specific historical time period post scientific enlightenment. The power of myth (and hence religion and God) was weakening as against to reasoning and rational thinking. A new reading of ancient texts was felt necessary to make them relevant in post scientific enlightenment era. This led to summoning of new interpretations of these texts to reconcile the texts with modern demands. Further quoting Sontag,
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.
Though she locates the origin of interpretation as we know it in this certain historical time, she is quick to mention that interpretation in our times is even more complex. There is an open contempt for appearances in this sort of interpretative exercise. She says “the modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” Such interpretations are done on grids of modern doctrines. Sontag cites two examples of these prescriptive interpretative grids: Freudianism and Marxism. She quotes a Freudian reading of a scene in Bergman’s The Silence –a tank rumbling down an empty street as a phallic symbol– as an example of a critic relying on “content” (a tank in an empty street), but stripped of the filmic context: “Taken as a brute object, as an immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armoured happenings going on inside the hotel, that sequence with the tank is the most striking moment in the film. Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.” For Sontag this is “an overt contempt for appearances.” The appearances are what is seen and heard on the screen and what should be described by the critic, and they should be supported by extra-filmic evidence only when textual evidence supports it.
According to Sontag, real art has capacity to make us nervous. It has power to “affect” through its form and appearance. Interpreting art for its subtext and content is like taming the art work and making it more comfortable. There are two main points Sontag is making. One is that we should not rely on apriori interpretative grids (Freudian, Marxist, Psychoanalytical, etc.) to “excavate” meanings indiscriminately, and in the process reduce every work to the same story (an Oedipal journey, a class struggle, etc.). In other words, the interpretation should not take the place of the experience of art. Secondly, we should never interpret a work based only on its content. Or put more reasonably, the better interpretations are the ones that take into account aspects of form, style, history, and aesthetics. There is nothing wrong as such with ‘content-based’ analysis, and some of it can be very revealing about how a film may relate to external social, political, or cultural factors. But there is little in such an analysis to distinguish the film from a book, play, or television show. Content-only analysis nullifies medium differences.
She says that it doesn’t matter if the artists want their artworks to be interpreted or not. We can’t be absolutely sure that whatever we’ve interpreted is the final reading of the artwork and hence doing so doesn’t make any sense. In his non-verbal play titled “Hour we knew nothing of each other”, Peter Handke sketches about 450 characters he sees from a rooftop of a café and just writes about their appearances as they walk past his sight. When the play is staged, there are actors wearing different costumes and walking sequentially from one end of the stage to another. There is no communication between them and hence no apparent way of guessing who these characters are or what are they upto. The audience could ascribe as many narratives possible to these characters. There isn’t any grand narrative to the play but a possibility of multiple sub-narratives. This play could be considered as classic example where one cannot separate content and form since both are fused together so well that they become inseparable.
Sontag cites example of Kafka and how his work has been “interpreted” as a statement about modern man’s alienation from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of psychopathology. She warns us to refrain from doing this kind of reductive criticism.
Does that mean Sontag leaves no room for symbolism in an art work? She’d say it would be foolish thought to take a brute object and make it as a sensory equivalent of something else citing example of scene from Bergman’s film. Not all apples present in artworks symbolise genesis! Reaching to such conclusions, according to Sontag, is expressing one’s lack to respond sensuously to what is displayed.
In a film by Satyajit Ray, there was a shot where a road is show in perspective with streetlamps running parallel to the road. One of the streetlamp was off while all others were lit. Film scholar Satish Bahadur went on to praise this shot in the context of the narrative of the film at a length. When Ray was asked about this, he coldly replied that the lamp just happened to go off during the shooting. The overzealous need for interpretation could lead to such meaningless conclusions and Sontag wants us to resist from doing that.
Sontag optimistically denotes that interpretation does not always prevail and some movements in art making have originated as a response to this interpretative mode of criticism. She gives examples of two such movements in (then) modern painting ie Abstract Art and pop art. She writes
Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content, there can be no interpretation. Pop Art works by the opposite means to the same result; using a content so blatant, so “what it is,” it, too, ends by being uninterpretable.
The absence of content leaves no scope for interpretation in abstract painting while pop art uses content in a very different context, often problematizing it’s meaning so to speak. These movements are the escape routes artists have found for themselves to escape from this bloated interpretative criticism. Even in the case of programmatic Avant-gardism, she notes that by experimenting form at the expense of content, artists are trying to put up a defense against the infestation of art by interpreters but also wary of it perpetuating the illusion of distinction between form and content which she is trying to nullify. She says, another way to elude this army of interpreters by making works which address the audience directly for what they are instead of concealing meanings into some allegorical elements in the work.
Cinema, for Sontag, has been successful in achieving this elusion but we need to note that she is writing this in sixties. The situation in film criticism could be very different in current times. She credits newness of cinema as the prime factor that it has not been “overrun” by interpreters. Also its formal complexities that includes technical elements such as camera angles, edit cuts, sound design etc. make a very unique language of forms. But in current times, films too have been infested with the army of overzealous interpretations. Apart from the Ray’s example cited above, a recent Indian film that has caught attention of the “critics” is Haider by Vishal Bhardwaj, a film set in backdrop of insurgent Kashmir and adapted from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
What kind of criticism is Sontag expecting then? She states out clearly that art criticism should serve the work of art not usurp its place. One needs to give more attention to form in art. Sontag contemplates two proposals, reactionary and the other being proactive. The reactionary proposal has to do with art that demotes content- based interpretation by taking its own structure of formal elements to be its subject matter. This is reactive, in Sontag’s view, because the concept “form” is tied dialectically to the concept “content” in such a way that emphasis on the form in hopes of weakening the content is bound to complicate both. The proactive approach, according to her, is to elude the interpreters as mentioned above by making art works that will directly speak for themselves through their absolute formal structure, thereby not leaving any scope for interpretations.
Through this essay, Sontag makes us all aware of how the “art” of interpretation (or excavation in her terms) can be fraught with indecipherable jargon and dull, repetitive readings. But interpretation also exists on the ‘surface’ for anyone willing to take the time to see, hear, feel, and describe. The call is to fall back on sensual reception of artworks instead of cognitive understandings of art based on prescribed hermeneutic grids. Though her immediate concern is to dismiss such criticism, she also draws our attention to a bigger problem that we as society are slowly heading towards. She writes
Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
The excess of information available is making us less sharp day by day, more so now as compared to the times in sixties when Sontag wrote this. With the proliferation of technology we use to outsource our lives, our capacity to use our basic senses could be put at stake. According to Sontag, reception of arts might be one of the few avenues where we could apply our senses to get affected and we should not let that go by such hermeneutic reception of it. What is at stake, according to her, is nothing less than a mode of worldly experience. For, awareness of art is as much a primary mode of experience in the world as is anything else. Hence, when she ends the essay with “In place for hermeneutics, we need erotics for art”, it’s not merely a conclusive note but more of a slogan Sontag is giving us and asking us to fall back on our sensory experience of the world.