Against Interpretation | Study Guide

Susan Sontag

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Against Interpretation | Main Ideas


Form versus Content

Art is composed of two basic parts—its form and its content. "Form" refers to the art's physical characteristics, also referred to as its aesthetics or style. "Content" is the multitude of connotations these forms take on. Sontag explains that to grapple with art, intellectuals have overemphasized the "content," or supposedly hidden meanings of works of art, at the cost of appreciating art's forms and obvious, unhidden attributes. Sontag champions the "form" or style of art over its content. She argues that good and valuable art criticism "would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art." It should not be the job of the critic and intellectual to translate the "content" of art, but to analyze its form and style.

The History of Interpretation

Throughout history, philosophers have attempted to understand and justify humans' artistic output. According to Plato (428–348 BCE), the founder of Western philosophy, art can only "mimic" life and is therefore useless. Works of art are representations of real things and removed from reality. Because it serves no purpose, Plato also thought that art was not only worthless but dangerous as well. His disciple Aristotle (384–322 BCE) agreed that art was essentially imitating nature and reality but found that art was not dangerous and could be useful. Aristotle maintained that art was a natural, therapeutic human expression. Art was not just imitating but idealizing nature and reality. Plato and Aristotle's mimetic theory of art has persisted into the modern times.

In "Against Interpretation" Susan Sontag delineates how the mimetic theory has caused the need for art to be endlessly "justified." She believes that this has created problems because it has severed art's "form" from its "content" and privileged "content" at the expense of "form." She says that "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." Finding meaning in art has perverted art's essential function because we have become obsessed with endowing importance to works of art, rather than defining and experiencing them for what they are.

Sontag explains that the trend of interpretation began thousands of years ago. Jewish-Greek philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE–40CE) began to dissect the meanings behind Biblical texts around the sixth century BCE. A symbolic meaning was added to the literal meaning in these older styles of interpretation. This is acceptable to Sontag because this process helped preserve some works of art, preventing them from being lost to obscurity and was "insistent, but respectful." Modern interpretation has become a way for intellectuals to assert their supposedly superior knowledge and understanding onto works of art—"it is the revenge of the intellect upon the world." By attempting to make art digestible, they have served to stifle it, force new meanings upon it, and therefore alter it.

The ideas of economist Karl Marx (1818–83) and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) fueled modern interpretation. "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," Sontag writes. Karl Marx was a German economist, philosopher, and political theorist. He called for the working class to unite against the forces of capitalism and his ideas helped spur the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent emergence of communism in the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian psychologist and the father of psychiatry. He developed the practice of psychoanalysis in which a person's subconscious was analyzed by a doctor to discover the root of their mental health problems.

Marx saw society as an epic class struggle between the proletariat (working class) and bourgeoisie capitalists (those that own the means of production). Marx applied this schema to all historical events, from war to revolution. The events themselves took on separate, greater significance in terms of the class struggle by this logic. Marx's economic theories deeply affected not only the study of economics, but also art, history, and philosophy. Sontag makes the connection that the tendency to endow separate meaning on any and every event in history has manifested itself in art criticism in a similar way. Art and literature critics attach their interpretations to works of art, changing their meaning.

In Freudian psychology neuroses and mental problems were broken down as symptomatic manifestations of altogether separate experiences. An oral fixation could be attributed to someone's experiences as an infant at their mother's breast. Freud believed a psychological problem was a representation of a larger, deeper issue. Dreams could be analyzed to determine their true meaning. If a person dreamed of a cigar, this reflected their phallic obsession. Sontag states that the modern approach to art mimics Freudian psychology, wherein everything is a representation of a secret meaning, creating a whole universe of "shadow" meanings.

Interpretation is Degrading Art

Sontag asserts that in the process of interpretation, critics and intellectuals attempt to make art digestible by breaking it down into symbols that can be translated into concepts and ideas. This method of criticism takes the content of a work of art and endows it with a wholly new symbolic meaning. Sontag notes Elia Kazan's (1909–2003) 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' (1911–83) A Streetcar Named Desire. According to the director, the character of Blanche is not what she appears, a washed-up Southern belle, but a representation of the Western culture. This endows the work with a completely new meaning that is entirely separate from its form. Sontag makes the point that this kind of interpretation inherently degrades the work of art because it alters it. Instead of focusing on its form and how it makes us feel, interpretation debases art by forcing it to take on new, different meanings.

Sontag adds that the elements of art that suggest such interpretations are the weakest parts of the piece of art. She notes the stylistic quality of the films of Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007) and Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) but faults them for their pretentious symbolism. "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 in conviction." These flaws that suggest meaning make the work intelligible, not artistic. Although designing works to be appreciated on multiple levels did have value in the past, now "it reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life." This kind of multilayered art is simply not suitable or necessary in modern times when art and stimulation are so abundant.

Some art forms Are More Immune to Interpretation than Others

Sontag writes that sometimes art tries to escape interpretation. To avoid interpretation, art may retreat into parody, non-art, decoration, or another subcategory. She notes that abstract painting is an example of an art form that has fled interpretation because it "is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content." In abstract art the form is reduced to its most basic iteration. It is aggressively free of content so it cannot be interpreted. Pop Art also manages to avoid interpretation because its forms are too obvious to have hidden content.

Cinema is also partially immune to it, although it is sometimes susceptible to interpretation. Sontag believes this is because it "possesses a vocabulary of forms." That is because films are often discussed in terms of their forms, i.e. camera movements, editing, and framing, as much as their content. They are less likely to be interpreted. Film is also considered by many to be a lower art, and has been somewhat ignored by intellectuals up to this point, "they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high culture, and were left alone by most people with minds."

Art should be Experienced, Not Interpreted

Sontag views interpretation as privileging "content" over "form." This forces people to interpret instead of experience. Sontag argues that the way art makes a person feel, "the sensory experience," is paramount, and of far more importance than translating and understanding its supposed symbols and hidden meanings. She calls for transparency in both art and criticism. "Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are." Appreciating things as they are requires an accurate appraisal of form so that they then can be appropriately valued and respected. Without an excessive emphasis on content, art can be better appreciated and experienced.

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