I have finally come around to reading Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”; and “I was never so bethumped with words since I first called my brother’s father dad.” (William Shakespeare, King John) Beautiful essay. I’m yet on the track to read the whole collection of essays included in this book, but I simply wanted to share that everything Susan Sontag described—also some other essays I’ve read—it resonated so strongly with me.
Just the way she puts it, “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.” It should be reminded that this essay went on print in 1964. Exactly sixty years after of what she saw of our “culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experiences’' rings more true and urgent than ever before.
In the past, you needed to have an editor, or at the very least, some individual with the rights to a printing press—so they can spread your thoughts around the general populace. Today, all you need is a web outlet; be it a blog (like this one), a YouTube channel, a TikTok profile (ew), or anything really—you can now go and start calling yourself a “critic.”
With the rise of all the essay YT channels, all those “critics” have meddled with, desecrated, and devalued the works of art they are reviewing by constantly bombarding it with unending waves of interpretation. “This X part means...” or “actually, thi is a beautiful symbolism meaning...”—or as the joke goes, “Why is the door blue?”
What Susan Sontag (S.S.) rightfully describes as a separation of “form” and “content” of any work of art, we have become primarily preoccupied with the “content” part of it; finding meaning, ripping out parts to translate and transpose it onto some lesser terms that would make us tame those works of art that make people uncomfortable, when presented in their original form.
Some thoughts of the surrounding media becoming more reactionary, sensually stifling, and intellectually flattering—so many films, books, shows, and all sorts of media get attacked by hordes of interpreter armies, who are, by S.S., “indicates dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.”
The position I have here is not that all interpretation is superfluous and we should stop trying to interpret works in any way, period; but we should stop constantly digging behind the text, pushing forward some of our own biases, ideals, and “hidden meanings’' we found as some sort of a divine revelation, which we in our grace are bestowing upon everyone else, who did not or could not see what’s underneath. (think of how crazy people go for the Evangelion symbolism)
Every piece of creativity that someone makes doesn’t have to have some deeper intellectual meaning, “finding” which makes some feel much smarter than they really are (sounds patronizing, I know). Art is a medicine, a remedy for the senses, which have been dulled with the constant overstimulation of what is the reality of modern circumstances. I’m happy with more abstract art and similar movements, which treat art as a form of self-expression. In many ways, an active opposition to being interpreted by devoiding themselves of content, thus only leaving their form.
There is nothing revolutionary in interpreting high works of art; nor is there anything new in layering meaning on several levels, so one experiences a work of art on those levels. We are better—I hope so, at the very least—to focus more now on the “form” of art—what it actually is, rather what we want it to be.
By no means am I a clean either. Nor do I intend to put a hypocritical assertion here of “do what I say but not what I do.” Myself, I’m trying to be pretty careful, sometimes, to even paralyzing effect, when formulating my thoughts on something. To avoid going on tangents spawned by the work, which do not mean that is the work itself. It is paramount to stay focused on what is in front of us.
This doesn’t impoverish our “analysis” or the enjoyment of the work itself. Somehow, maybe from Plato’s mimetic theory, we never really had the right tools to describe art in a more sensual and soul-like way. Most of our words and analysis has always been driven by intellect and Freudian-level vocabulary.
I don’t really know what the right solution is, if there is one at all. The innocence can definitely never be recovered, but I like to believe it only makes us more fine-tuned towards the goal of showing something for what it is, rather than what it means. Paying a closer attention to the “form” of something, rather than putting all of our eggs in the “content” basket. Brilliantly put by Susan Sontag again,
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. ◼︎