Follow a recommendation in my recent tutorial I have been reading this essay by Susan Sontag. Finally, an essay I feel I can understand- I think writing my own blew some kind of fuse in my head which has made all reading a real challenge in the last month.
Sontag writes in what feels like an evolved way, a post-Greenburg approach to ‘brute’ appreciation of art. I feel excited that a new breath of forward-looking approaches to a less cerebral relationship with art is emerging (will need to read some of her recommended essays to see if that is the case)
As for how this will feed back into my work, it feels like another nudge back onto the path of the maker rather than the critic. We are all perfectly capable of critiquing our work to death in our heads before we even make it, or strangling it at birth by heaping too much concept into the mix. Make. Stand back and think. Make again.
I wonder if these 2 are a good example; Did the initial experience of laying out the cables fulfil my plan better than later arranging them into artefacts?
I think that as it was my first site-specific experience of working, there was definitely an element of reigning in and controlling the situation associated with the manipulation of the materials.
by Susan Sontag
“Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny –
very tiny, content.” – Willem De Kooning, in an interview
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of
the world is the visible, not the invisible.” – Oscar Wilde, in a letter
The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was
an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La
Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that
art was mimesis, imitation of reality.
It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For the mimetic
theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself.
Plato, who proposed the theory, seems to have done so in order to rule that the value
of art is dubious. Since he considered ordinary material things as themselves mimetic
objects, imitations of transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed
would be only an “imitation of an imitation.” For Plato, art is neither particularly useful
(the painting of a bed is no good to sleep on), nor, in the strict sense, true. And
Aristotle’s arguments in defense of art do not really challenge Plato’s view that all art is
an elaborate trompe l’oeil, and therefore a lie. But he does dispute Plato’s idea that art
is useless. Lie or no, art has a certain value according to Aristotle because it is a form
of therapy. Art is useful, after all, Aristotle counters, medicinally useful in that it arouses
and purges dangerous emotions.
In Plato and Aristotle, the mimetic theory of art goes hand in hand with the assumption
that art is always figurative. But advocates of the mimetic theory need not close their
eyes to decorative and abstract art. The fallacy that art is necessarily a “realism” can
be modified or scrapped without ever moving outside the problems delimited by the
The fact is, all 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.
Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as
representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression,
the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art
on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art
as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have
changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that
a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition
says something. (“What X is saying is . . . ,” “What X is trying to say is . . . ,” “What X
said is . . .” etc., etc.)
None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to
justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or
thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck
with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of
defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and
justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to
contemporary needs and practice.
This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been
in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not
so subtle philistinism.
Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from
the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary
hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the
guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most
people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of
content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And,
conversely, 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.
Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which
Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I
mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules”
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?
What situation could prompt this curious project for transforming a text? History gives
us the materials for an answer. Interpretation first appears in the culture of late
classical antiquity, when the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the
“realistic” view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment. Once the question
that haunts post-mythic consciousness – that of the seemliness of religious symbols –
had been asked, the ancient texts were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable.
Then interpretation was summoned, to reconcile the ancient texts to “modern”
demands. Thus, the Stoics, to accord with their view that the gods had to be moral,
allegorized away the rude features of Zeus and his boisterous clan in Homer’s epics.
What Homer really designated by the adultery of Zeus with Leto, they explained, was
the union between power and wisdom. In the same vein, Philo of Alexandria interpreted
the literal historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible as spiritual paradigms. 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. However far the interpreters alter the text (another notorious example is the
Rabbinic and Christian “spiritual” interpretations of the clearly erotic Song of Songs),
they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.
Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary
zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the
troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness,
an overt contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but
respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. 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. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines,
those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics,
aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are
bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be
probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning – the latent content – beneath. For
Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives
(like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work
of art) – all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud,
these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without
interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the
phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.
Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of
mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be
evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts,
interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping
the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly,
Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling.
Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban
atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a
culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the
expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect
Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to
impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is
to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)
The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it,
until we again experience more immediately what we have.
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.
This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For
decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the
elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else. Sometimes a writer
will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work
itself – albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony – the clear and
explicit interpretation of it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative
author. In the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to perform the
The work of Kafka, for example, has been subjected to a mass ravishment by no less
than three armies of interpreters. Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case
studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate issuance
in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see
desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of
his own impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a religious
allegory explain that K. in The Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Josepl K.
in The Trial is being judged by the inexorable and mysterious justice of God. . . .
Another oeuvre that has attracted interpreters like leeches is that of Samuel Beckett.
Beckett’s delicate dramas of the withdrawn consciousness – pared down to essentials,
cut off, often represented as physically immobilized – are read as a statement about
modern man’s alienation from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of
Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide . . . one could go on citing author after
author; the list is endless of those around whom thick encrustations of interpretation
have taken hold. 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. Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan
published on his production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes clear that, in
order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented the
sensual and vengeful barbarism that was engulfing our culture, while Blanche Du Bois
was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings and all,
though a little the worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams’ forceful
psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the
decline of Western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a
handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du
Bois, it would not be manageable.
It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be
interpreted. Perhaps Tennessee Williams thinks Streetcar is about what Kazan thinks it
to be about. It may be that Cocteau in The Blood of a Poet and in Orpheus wanted the
elaborate readings which have been given these films, in terms of Freudian symbolism
and social critique. But the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their
“meanings.” Indeed, it is precisely to the extent that Williams’ plays and Cocteau’s films
do suggest these portentous meanings that they are defective, false, contrived, lacking
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.
Again, Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the empty night
street in The Silence as a phallic symbol. But if he did, it was a foolish thought. (“Never
trust the teller, trust the tale,” said Lawrence.) Taken as a brute object, as an
immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armored 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.
It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction
(conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.
Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of
items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a
mental scheme of categories.
Interpretation does not, of course, always prevail. In fact, a great deal of today’s art
may be understood as motivated by a flight from interpretation. To avoid interpretation,
art may become parody. Or it may become abstract. Or it may become (“merely”)
decorative. Or it may become non-art.
The flight from interpretation seems particularly a feature of modern painting. 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
A great deal of modern poetry as well, starting from the great experiments of French
poetry (including the movement that is misleadingly called Symbolism) to put silence
into poems and to reinstate the magic of the word, has escaped from the rough grip of
interpretation. The most recent revolution in contemporary taste in poetry – the
revolution that has deposed Eliot and elevated Pound – represents a turning away from
content in poetry in the old sense, an impatience with what made modern poetry prey
to the zeal of interpreters.
I am speaking mainly of the situation in America, of course. Interpretation runs rampant
here in those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde: fiction and the drama. Most
American novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen
sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program
music. And so rudimentary, uninspired, and stagnant has been the sense of what might
be done with form in fiction and drama that even when the content isn’t simply
information, news, it is still peculiarly visible, handier, more exposed. To the extent that
novels and plays (in America), unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any
interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by
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. Is this possible
now? It does happen in films, I believe. This is why cinema is the most alive, the most
exciting, the most important of all art forms right now. Perhaps the way one tells how
alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still
being good. For example, a few of the films of Bergman – though crammed with lame
messages about the modern spirit, thereby inviting interpretations – still triumph over
the pretentious intentions of their director. In Winter Light and The Silence, the beauty
and visual sophistication of the images subvert before our eyes the callow pseudointellectuality
of the story and some of the dialogue. (The most remarkable instance of
this sort of discrepancy is the work of D. W. Griffith.) In good films, there is always a
directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret. Many old Hollywood films,
like those of Cukor, Walsh, Hawks, and countless other directors, have this liberating
anti-symbolic quality, no less than the best work of the new European directors, like
Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless and Vivre Sa
Vie, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and Olmi’s The Fiancés.
The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the
newness of cinema as an art. It also owes to the happy accident that films for such a
long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of
mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds.
Then, too, there is always something other than content in the cinema to grab hold of,
for those who want to analyze. For the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a
vocabulary of forms – the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera
movements, cutting, and composition of the frame that goes into the making of a film.
What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not
saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased.
They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the
work of art, not usurp its place?
What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content
provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough
descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary – a descriptive,
rather than prescriptive, vocabulary – for forms.1 The best criticism, and it is
uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.
On film, drama, and painting respectively, I can think of Erwin Panofsky’s essay, “Style
and Medium in the Motion Pictures,” Northrop Frye’s essay “A Conspectus of Dramatic
Genres,” Pierre Francastel’s essay “The Destruction of a Plastic Space.” Roland
Barthes’ book On Racine and his two essays on Robbe-Grillet are examples of formal
analysis applied to the work of a single author. (The best essays in Erich Auerbach’s
Mimesis, like “The Scar of Odysseus,” are also of this type.) An example of formal
analysis applied simultaneously to genre and author is Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The
Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolai Leskov.”
Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp,
loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do
than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber’s film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s
essay “The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’,” Randall Jarrell’s essay on Walt
Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal
the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.
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. This is the greatness of, for example, the films of Bresson and
Ozu and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.
Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative
move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it
is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern
Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary
and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not
need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and
proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer
multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting
tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. 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.
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.
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by
analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of
criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to
show what it means.
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
1 One of the difficulties is that our idea of form is spatial (the Greek metaphors for form are all derived
from notions of space). This is why we have a more ready vocabulary of forms for the spatial than for the
temporal arts. The exception among the temporal arts, of course, is the drama; perhaps this is because
the drama is a narrative (i.e., temporal) form that extends itself visually and pictorially, upon a stage. . . .
What we don’t have yet is a poetics of the novel, any clear notion of the forms of narration. Perhaps film
criticism will be the occasion of a breakthrough here, since films are primarily a visual form, yet they are
also a subdivision of literature. o deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It
is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is
depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more
immediately what we have.