Modulomag Art Notes: Susan Sontag and “Art’s flight from interpretation”

Lately I’ve been rereading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and other Essays, the titular title essay of which I would like to discuss a little…

Susan Sontag smokes a cig and is herself smokin'

In Against Interpretation Sontag explains what in her view is the problem with “modern art,” or art in general, as a delicate substance pulled taut between theory and praxis, where it often ruptures, over-interpreted by its theory and overdetermined in its praxis, and moreover that interpretation itself has very little to do with actual work in all its sensual peculiarities. Hence why she offers the following quote of Oscar Wilde’s in an epigram, that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Right on.

Monsieur Wilde!

Now, the idea that interpretation always constitutes or at least begins with dissatisfaction felt towards a work of art and a concomitant desire to replace it with something else, perhaps one’s own “version” of it, is a very interesting one indeed. And yet, when taking this above example along with, say, this extract from Sontag’s text (talking about Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence)—”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.”—and though this might sound stupid of me to say (or “philistinic”, in Sontag’s parlance), does this all not comprise an interpretive reading of what it means to interpret? What’s more, the language here is hardly only “descriptive,” as per what Sontag advocates, but ventures into what cannot be only immediately gleamed from the film’s represented events, where the “tank” is taken in its capacity as a sign or cipher, which she then interprets.

While I really do agree with her final, somewhat ridiculously presented statement, I would instead rephrase it: that we need is less of a hermeneutics and more of an “erotics” of art, or to at least read alternately between these lines. (And then again, are these categories in fact two polarities to be read between? I am not so sure.) I also agree that interpretation takes the sensory experience of art for granted, and while we might amend that, as to knowingly pause and explore a work sensually, it is not on the sensual level where our relations with the perceived reside, and ultimately, insofar as there is a life of the mind and not only a life of the body, for they are one and the same, that is, inasmuch as sensing and perceiving find their way into thinking and ideation; the encounter itself is always also an interpretation, e.g. what this means to me, or, even on the most basic level, whether it appeals to me or not, etc. Ultimately, it seems that the awe one feels at the sight of a work of art, that is, upon one’s initial encounter with it, ends up as a mental impression. To merely admire the Nile of Marcel Proust’s language, as Walter Benjamin puts it, for its “Nileness” seems like so much, and yet, just as a river does, this all leads elsewhere, and so too are we taken, we who drift along in its currents. The same of course goes for the visual and the aural; inasmuch as a work impresses itself upon us, it takes on a new life, it inspires new work. The interpretive act is itself what animates the creative process, what allows for the creation of new imaginative space.

Granted, we do not try to look at, say, the Grand Canyon and identify its intellectual “content” or even what it “means” in the same way as we do when looking at a painting or reading a book, yet one was not consciously made and one was; in one there resides the telos present in the willful creation of every singular human work by an equally singular human agent, and in one there is the truly uninterpretable cyclicality of nature, which has no creator, inasmuch as it has no reason-for-being, and that points to nothing but itself and therefore is totally undeconstructible (“what you see is what you get”).

Lascaux: the world's first art gallery?

One thing that I have often overheard said by someone speaking of works of art, or a particular work, which left them in a “state of awe,” is how “God himself could not have done it better” (or at least some variation on that statement).  It might then be said in turn that the extent to which an artwork is sublime is the extent to which it approaches the “condition of nature,” that is, that condition of having no creator or not having been created at all, of never having been touched by human hands. Likewise, nothing can be discovered about the ostensible “products” of nature other than perhaps how they came to be—that is, the total and absolute arbitrariness of natural laws—as where it is solely the position of human works, in their capacity as ciphers allowing the perpetual reconceivability (that is, reformulatability) of their content, that they speak to us, in whose ears their unique signatures register; in this circuit the shared world is crystallized, the void upon which it was founded made, if only fleetingly, traversable. (Though, in the end, we can only recreate the scene at Babel; our world is ultimately doomed to fail, or civilization is a project that will never know completeness.)

"The Tower of Babel" - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1563)

Above all, art is the organ of meaning (or that which at least approaches meaning); as each individual encounters a work of art for the first time there is born a new reading, and it is this very process which one might see as world-building, as it creates new imaginative space that in turn allows for the creation of new works, which in turn constitute the things of the world, as has been said. For even deconstruction is in a way also itself a perverse and radical construction or reconfiguration, inasmuch as the law must be broken for there to thus be new law; chaos is necessary for order, polysemy for the fixity of meaning, that is, its possibility, which is always deferred, hence why we must keep renewing, rereading, remaking and, above all, re-interpreting all that is being made. It is through the interpretation of a work that the “content” is created; the content of a work of art is the individual’s reading thereof. Only when interpretation becomes institutionalized, or a “project,” so to speak, its aggression building in the perpetual gold rush that is academia, that interpretation becomes destructive in its over-determined, traumatic “excavation” of art, which does violence to its fragile particularity.

Exquisite Excavators: Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault

However much Sontag says that she means not to advocate a “programmatic avant-gardism…[of an] art…perpetually on the run,” that is nevertheless precisely what has and will occur in the wake of such theories as hers. It is not a question of making art accountable for itself, for that would be to suggest that the work of art itself has inherent—that is, as it may exist apart from a reader or viewer—content and is inherently meaningful, which it is not. It is however a question of art remaining human and within any kind human relatability; that art not become self-obsessed or self-conscious, and thus render itself opaque, for art is not merely what is seen in a mirror, it is a mirror into which we look ourselves.

"Pygmalion and Galatea" - Jean-Leon Gerome (1904)

Art’s “flight from interpretation” is a sham, and above all constitutes a new artifice that has totally abandoned itself to the vertigo, the mania of its highness, for it is higher than high. Moreover, inasmuch as that by “art” one really means the “art world,” i.e. a society of artists, the performativity of art, beyond what is actually performed, has never been so overexposed. For to gain entrance into this “society” is to walk onto the set of a colossal 24/7 performance piece. Here all the artist does is attempt to outdo other artists in to what extent they can flout and piss in the face of some iteration of an oppressive “tradition,” all the while tightening the noose of their marriage with theory to the point where the two—that is, art and its theory—grow so proximal that the work of art already has [its] theory behind it, so to speak, that the work was created with its theoretical interpretability in mind, and indeed as its formal justification. While the dust of an atomized jet engine spread across the gallery floor, the giant skull of a sperm whale obscured behind screens and the anodized, lazer-reproduced copies of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (all works completed by artists shortlisted for the 2009 Turner Prize) (this year’s – 2010 – is even worse) might all dodge interpretation, that is, that they leave the audiences who happen to wander into the Tate Gallery in London confused, they however leave the critics, both academic or otherwise enfranchised, pleasingly appeased, their tastes and theories wholly affirmed.

"Untitled" (pulverized passenger jet engine) - Roger Hiorns (2008)

"Untitled" (sperm whale skull) - Lucy Skaer (2008)

"Black Alphabet" - Lucy Skaer (2008)

What is interesting in the above works is how the artist has narrowed in his capacity as such, even disappeared. They only arrange, if at all; the artist’s profanely originating vision is reduced to a function, an algorithm, not rounded down but itself rounded off. They do not originate, and hence obliquely betray their own influences where noticeable, but consciously derive and quote for quoting’s sake, and are made totally incidental. Here uninterpretability has become conceptualized, a way for an artwork to “function” in that it is a way that it may ultimately be interpreted; or rather, art has become the accomplice, the triggerman for theory’s smocking gun. It seems that Walter Benjamin’s rumination on “captur[ing] an image of history,” that one could discover more about present existence from its passively, unconsciously accumulating detritus (Abfall) (and not its garbage mind you, for garbage is consciously discarded) than from its grandest artificial and active attempts at self-representation has been taken literally, that we have consciously set about to artfully simulate this detritus from the back lots of the Enlightenment, achieving nothing but galleries and museums full of garbage.

—O & M


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2 Responses to “Modulomag Art Notes: Susan Sontag and “Art’s flight from interpretation””

  1. Marvin Jordan Says:

    Confidence in lucidity! I’m swayed by the seamless strides between collected insight and poetic charm.

    Agreed: the proposed opacity between subject/object, art/theory, etc. on the part of Sontag amounts not so much to a “critic’s manifesto” as an encrypted will to dogma. The highbrow tendency to take a god’s-eye-view in analyzing social phenomena coupled with a simultaneous attempt at self-vindication (for what?! — one ought to ask…) is symptomatic of nothing more than hypocritical sophistry.

    Especially, to indulge in an excerpt you already picked, when Ms. Sontag posits: “Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.” –Really? To illustrate the absurdity of such a claim amusingly, let us ask how the dear, introspective Hamlet would frame the matter at hand: “To express a lack of response, or not to express a lack of response—that is the question.” And for a cheekily sympathetic response, “My, Ms. Sontag, how you reach immeasurably into our unconscious repressions and speak to our insecure LACK of responses!”

    To depart on a fruitful note, I shall leave you with a quote from a masterful contortionist of the tongue, Friedrich Nietzsche, who differs from the subject matter here precisely via that essential emphasis on creation, by exposing and allowing us to give shape to the limitless gap between that which is said and that which is meant, and in so doing leaving the allegedly impenetrable text into which Ms. Sontag carved herself fossilized, in the dust…

    “It is to be hoped, indeed, that language, here as elsewhere, will not get over its awkwardness, and that it will continue to talk of opposites where there are only degrees and many refinements of gradation.”

  2. Andrew Says:

    I could have sworn I saw you reading this on the N or D line one morning. How many people are reading Susan Sontag on the morning train?

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