Books · General philosophising · Performance & Arts

Critique on Critique on Critique

Against Interpretation and Other EssaysAgainst Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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 what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.

I ended up finding ‘Against Interpretation’ useful. Its central claim is that there is a kind of interpretation that is anti-art in that it diminishes the possibilities for appreciating/enjoying/experiencing the art rather than increasing them, which is what criticism (I would still say interpretation*) should (probably) do. I have no longer any anxiety on behalf of the author, but I still generally dislike the kind of interpretation that Sontag seems to be talking about; the kind that says one thing is another in a text and tyrannically insists on this translation. She argues that even if the interpretation that A Streetcar Named Desire is about the decline of Western civilization rather than this encounter between two interesting characters is ‘correct’ in the sense of being intended and implicit, this is precisely what is weak and ‘contrived’ about it. In my review of To the Lighthouse I felt the need to criticise both of the introductions, which I suppose is me fighting on behalf of the text or of my experience of the text. I evidently feel that something I want to remain open is being closed down when a psychoanalytic interpretation (for instance) is advanced.

However, I am eager to read interpretation and criticism – this is definitely part of my pleasure in the text (Sontag ends by saying ‘we need an erotics of art rather than a hermeneutics’), not only a way to get more pleasure out of it. Considering Zadie Smith’s introduction to Their Eyes were Watching God I can think of the text as a mountain, which has a nice easy path over it, and Smith’s introduction as a kit which contains a map to find the hidden caves and a torch to illuminate their beautiful interiors. So Smith helps me to get more out of reading Hurston, but her intro is art in itself (it is aesthetic; Sontag says the aesthetic is ‘that which needs no justification’). I’d say criticism/interpretation helps me rather than hinders/irritates me more than half of the time… I don’t think the value of the critic is so low

(((*I am very keen on the word ‘interpretation’. The specific meaning it has in museums (phenomenology!) for me from my background (my mum is a heritage educator and I volunteered with her often for many years) is probably a reason for this; when I go to an exhibition I talk about the interpretation – the British Museum have a very high standard of interpretation; if you visited the Ice Age Art exhibition you will remember how much interpretation there was, and how much was needed, to enable such a coherent, pungent (can I say that? I could smell blood and salt in that exhibition…) experience out of a small collection of tiny objects which, the interpretation text repeatedly admitted, WE LACK THE ABILITY TO DECODE in terms of what they ‘really’ meant to the people who made and used them. Conversely, in many museums stuff is heaped up in glass cases with labels like ‘brass, c.1500’. Unless an object has overwhelming aesthetic qualities, creative interpretation by people with learning and passion is a necessary bridge for most of us to experience more than a sort of obligatory, intimidated STUDIUM in its presence. Some people find the British Museum’s approach overbearing, but I disagree; I think it’s ableist and elitist and ethnocentric to insist that the objects should ‘speak for themselves’. For most of us, they will remain silent.)))

((I now have a better way to describe my resistance to The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Sontag describes Thomas Mann (who I haven’t read) hilariously as ‘overcooperative’ in that he inserts intimations of the correct interpretation into his texts. This is exactly what Kundera does that I dislike!))

The second essay ‘On Style’ is about the false dichotomy of form and content, and her prescription to critics to think more about the former, because our idea of content, especially as something hidden inside form or style is a hindrance. It makes us think of an art work as a statement somehow packaged. Sontag tries to explain why there is no distinction between ethics and aesthetics, but somehow I can’t get a handle on her treatment of this. Later on in another essay ‘One culture and the new sensibility’ she says most artists have abandoned the ‘Matthew Arnold idea of culture’, which is ‘art as the criticism of life… understood as the propounding of moral, social and political ideas’. In
Status Anxiety
Alain de Botton explains the view that Arnold sets out in Culture and Anarchy like this: “art as a protest against the state of things, an effort to correct our insights or to educate us to perceive beauty, to help us understand pain or to reignite our sensitivities, to nurture our capacity for empathy or to rebalance our moral perspective.” I’m not sure who is making mush here, because Sontag argues in ‘On Style’ that art can teach us to be more ethical because the mode of being needed to contemplate art is a useful rehearsal for the mode required for ethical behaviour, which is just a ‘form of acting’ or ‘code of acts’, and goes on to say in many of these essays that art ‘educates the feelings’, ‘nourishes’ us, ‘sends us out refreshed’. This seems close to de Botton’s notes on Arnold, to me at least. It suggests the difference is of degree and there is a sort of continuum between socialist realism at one end and Oscar Wilde at the other, but Sontag seems to be aiming for a more radical reassessment. I’m troubled by Sontag’s rejection of art-as-argument, as I’m not satisfied with her account of morality. It remains my obsession to see the political and ethical in everything. If someone can write that ‘being a feminist is passe’ then I can’t trust her.

I enjoyed her comments on the ‘arbitrary and unjustifiable’ in works of art. She argues that what is inevitable in a work of art is its style, an expression of the author’s will. Her main purpose in ‘On Style’ is, I think, to advise critics to find form in content rather than the converse. The rest of the book is mainly criticism of theatre, film and other works in which she apparently tests her own medicine. It sounds good, if you don’t mind being told flatly and frequently that some work is brilliant or vile… I have seen/read little of the material she reviews; I’m unhappy with her negative critique of an exception to that: James Baldwin, and I was unable to get through some of the literature she recommends that I sought out! However, her ‘Notes on “Camp”’ is rightly famous I think; it shows great sensitivity and acuity that she can delineate it so gracefully.

Writing in the sixties, she found nothing going on in literature. The novel is dead, she would have agreed. Innovations in form were the leading edge, and literature lagged. I wonder if she would say that now.

Despite reservations, I feel a sharp, refreshing breeze blowing on my face; Sontag opened a window.

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