Against Interpretation | Study Guide

Susan Sontag

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Against Interpretation | Summary

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Summary

Sections 1–3

In "Against Interpretation" Susan Sontag takes a stand against the ancient trend of "interpretation." Interpretation has dominated art and literary criticism for hundreds of years and has been accelerated by Marxist ideology and Freudian psychology. Revolutionary German economist Karl Marx (1818–83) advocated for uniting and returning power to the workers of the world. Marxist thought reimagined world events in terms of the class struggle between laborers and the owners of the means of production. Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) founded the practice of psychoanalysis, in which doctors analyze a patient's subconscious to determine the latent causes of physical manifestations of psychological issues. Within Marxist and Freudian thought, everything from art to dreams to historical events is symbolic of something else. This has resulted in a shadow world of hidden meanings.

Sontag begins her essay by introducing the audience to the long tradition of interpretation that has dominated critical thought for centuries. She does not mean "interpretation" in the general sense of the word, but specifically as it relates to art—"the task of interpretation means plucking a set of elements from the whole work." Sontag traces the history of interpretation back to Plato (328–348 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) as they grappled with what to make of the human endeavor of artistic expression. To justify something Plato thought of as useless, art had to be "interpreted" and serve some higher purpose. "From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art," Sontag explains.

Sontag writes that the old form of interpretation of late antiquity is acceptable because it prevents artworks from being lost to obscurity by making them relevant to new audiences. Critics defend art by finding new meanings within the content of the artwork. Beyond its form and style, art possesses important "content" that endows the piece with greater meaning. However, Sontag laments that interpretation has gotten out of hand in modern times, seeping into the doctrines of Karl Marx (1818-83) and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). In the theories of Marx and Freud, everything from a dream to a war holds hidden meaning and content that needs only to be interpreted.

Sections 4–7

Sontag explains that "interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art." The critical tradition of interpretation relies on intellectuals and critics to dissect the content of art to "discover" its opaque meanings. Sontag claims that this implies that art is not worthy on its own terms, for its own sake. Sontag details how some modern art forms have reacted to interpretation. She claims the process of interpretation has overly privileged content over form which is detrimental to art. Endowing the content of art with hidden meanings is the pretentious intellectual's attempt to "tame" art. "It doesn't matter whether artists intend, or don't intend, for their works to be interpreted." Sontag points out instances where interpretation has served to debase art and how new forms of art are trying to escape interpretation as a result. The works of Austrian writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924) have "been subject to mass ravishment" by critics' intent on psychoanalyzing the author through his novels. Kafka was especially vulnerable to this because his works dealt with the existential anxieties of modern living. As a result of this kind of criticism, "a great deal of today's art may be understood as motivated by a flight from interpretation." Abstract painting, pop art, and the cinema of the French New Wave of the 1950s and 60s prize the high quality of Hollywood style while rejecting its narratives. These new forms of art manage to avoid interpretation because their style and forms take precedence over their content, insulating them from excessive interpretation.

Sections 8–10

Sontag concludes her argument by laying out how good criticism can help audiences understand and appreciate art without excavating its content. Interpretation creates an unfortunate situation in which art cannot simply exist for its own sake. In order to change this, emphasis must be placed on understanding style and form rather than finding hidden meaning in content. "The best criticism," she explains, "dissolves considerations of content into those of form," such as that of French critic Ronald Barthes (1915–80) who applies formal analysis to works of literature. Good criticism can also be entirely descriptive and "reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it." Criticism should focus on forms, thus helping an audience appreciate the "sensory experience" of art. She implores critics and audiences to focus on art's forms and aesthetics.

Analysis

Against Intellectualism

Older forms of interpretation may have rescued forgotten texts from obscurity. Sontag contends that the process results in the perversion of art's true function. Instilling new and separate meanings on a work of art inherently means that the work itself is not worthy of existing on its own terms. Critics have added their own meanings to make art worthy and useful, thus implying that it was unworthy in the first place. As mass-production increased in the twentieth century, people became over-stimulated. This made subtlety in art even more problematic for audiences. Critics added meaning upon meaning to make art worthier and more stimulating.

Although she laments that Marxist ideology bled into art criticism, as Susan Sontag was writing "Against Interpretation in the mid-1960s, she participated in left-wing politics and activism. The intellectualism of the bourgeoisie was viewed as distastefully obtuse by those who agreed with the inherent class struggle of Karl Marx's (1818–83) economic theories. Sontag's hostility to what were considered bourgeois values can be traced to her sympathetic feelings towards left-wing politics.

Sontag felt stifled by academia, especially while studying at Oxford in the late 1950s. She viewed herself not only as a critic and essayist but an artist in her own right. Her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963, a few years before "Against Interpretation." The Benefactor was experimental in style, and Sontag no doubt wanted the avant-garde form of the novel to stand on its own, rather than have critics try to interpret the content of her fiction.

Sontag's calls for "transparence" at the end of the essay is reflective of her rebellion against intellectualism and academia. If intellectuals are not needed to translate meanings for the plebeians, art can be equally experienced by all. Sontag wants to free art from the intellectual middleman and liberate it for all to experience—no translation necessary. Much like how Martin Luther's (1483–1546) Ninety-Five Theses (1517) insisted that people could have their own relationship with God without priests intervening on their behalf, Sontag wants to sever the intellectual from the audience's relationship with art. Personal relationships with works of art are far more profound than any critical interpretation.

Elevating Low Art

Susan Sontag advocated for the elevation of supposedly "low" forms of art throughout her career, such as popular movies, amateur photography, and the campy style of underground performing artists. Her first major essay, "Notes on Camp" of 1964, inaugurated Sontag's commitment to this endeavor. Camp style was a part of the underground gay culture in the 1960s. The camp aesthetic is dedicated entirely to style rather than "content." It is excessive, flamboyant, and intentionally tacky. It is free from interpretation.

In "Against Interpretation," Sontag continues her pro-low art crusade and praises mass arts for their insusceptibility to interpretation. She commends the works of young filmmakers, particularly in France, who are rightfully treating the film medium with respect. French New Wave Cinema was at its apex when Sontag wrote "Against Interpretation." She insists that directors are "auteurs," or artists, producing cinematic art. Like the New Wave critics, Sontag became a champion of the idea of film as a higher art form and eventually began making movies herself as well.

Because art should be experienced instead of dissected, if a lower art form facilitates an experience it is as worthy as any high art. Low art is even more successful in this respect than loftier art forms. Sontag wants to legitimize the study of low art and mass culture, but she refuses to employ the usual method of interpretation. She is not attempting to endow films with additional meaning, instead she emphasizes their technical form and ability to create an experience. "Against Interpretation" essentially functions as a screed against the pretentiousness of intellectualism. Sontag disdains academia and its way of making art needlessly complicated. By emphasizing how lower art forms are less susceptible to interpretation, Sontag elevates them and recognizes their importance in culture. Championing films and other forms of mass culture as high art worthy of study was still relatively new and radical in the mid-1960s when "Against Interpretation."

The Legacy of Aestheticism

In "Against Interpretation" Sontag echoes the sentiments of the Aesthetic Movement, which began in the late nineteenth century. She prefaces her essay with an Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) line from his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890): "It is only very shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is in the visible, not the invisible." Wilde was the premier promulgator of the Aesthetic Movement in art. This school of thought advocated art for the sake of art, in contrast to the overly moralistic sensibilities of the Victorian Era (1837–1901) in which art was used to instruct society on proper values. Aesthetics rebelled against the notion that art needed to be useful. Art did not need to teach lessons to achieve value. It could and should be produced for the sensory experience it evoked.

Sontag sees herself as carrying on the legacy of the aesthetic movement, calling for "an erotics of art." Like Wilde and the aesthetics, Sontag disdains the notion that art needs to justify its existence by being valuable to society. It is this false need for justification that has led to interpretation ad nauseum. The practice of interpretation decidedly does not appreciate art for its own sake. It relentlessly searches for meaning in the content of art, instead of appreciating its forms. Sontag ironically champions aestheticism most effectively through her critical essays, such as "Against Interpretation," which remain much more influential and enduring than her artistic output.

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