Against Interpretation | Study Guide

Susan Sontag

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Against Interpretation | Quotes


Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it.

Susan Sontag

Sontag believed interpretation can be useful if it is rescuing something from obscurity. However, this has also led to the notion that old texts needed to be translated for modern audiences and hence revamped. While historical context can help us understand a work of art, interpretation has gone too far by trying to make old works of art take on new meanings.


The modern style of interpretation excavates and as it excavates, destroys; it digs 'behind' the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.

Susan Sontag

Sontag uses figurative language to represent the assault on art inflicted by interpretation. Critics have become intellectual archeologists going on a "dig," finding hidden meanings covered up by time, the way a scientist might excavate artifacts.


Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities.

Susan Sontag

Sontag's figurative language is evocative of the modern condition to draw a parallel between interpretation and industrial pollution. Interpretation is essentially intellectual pollution, and, like pollution, it is a product of modern times.


Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Susan Sontag

According to Sontag, intellectuals do not like the mysterious nature of art, and so by breaking down its form they have made it palatable and anointed themselves the gatekeepers of meaning.


To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings.'

Susan Sontag

The shadow world of meanings is one of the most frustrating aspects of interpretation for Sontag. When followed to its logical conclusion, interpretation can be never-ending to the point where audiences are all existing in a world where everything they say or do is symbolic of something else. In this process audiences lose sight of reality and live entirely among codes and symbols instead.


By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art.

Susan Sontag

Art should be mysterious, like nature. Imposing meanings upon it is thus another example of modern humans "taming" something natural, wild, and beautiful. Sontag sees the intellectual pursuit of trying to tame art as ridiculous as trying to "interpret" a forest or a flock of birds.


It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it with something else.

Susan Sontag

Sontag shows that adding meanings to art inherently indicates that the person adding such meanings is not satisfied with the work on its own and feels the need to impart further importance or symbolism to make the art what the critic wants it to be.


This is why cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now.

Susan Sontag

To Sontag the newness of the film medium insulates it from excessive interpretation. Sontag is anti-intellectual and advocates for the democratization of the artistic experience. Thus, the fact that the film medium is both relatively young and usually functions as part of mass culture, makes the art form especially appealing to her.


Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it and still being good.

Susan Sontag

Sontag sees many flaws in art films that she finds to be pretentious, such as those of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, but the beauty of the film images themselves outweigh these problems, making them ultimately good art. Film as a medium, therefore, allows for flaws and weaknesses while still being worthwhile in terms of their artistic value.


If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence.

Susan Sontag

Sontag wants art criticism to change and improve. The critical emphasis on interpreting content has long reigned, with other approaches to art appreciation being lost and undervalued. Sontag wants to silence the unnecessary interpretation of content with an appreciation and explanation of form and style.


Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today.

Susan Sontag

By transparence Sontag is again alluding to a directress and lack of hidden meanings to be uncovered. Transparency in art would be a work that is, indeed, obvious in its meaning(s) and does not require the assistance of a critic or intellectual to be able to understand it. In criticism, Sontag is also calling for transparency. This means critics should enhance the experience of art by helping to fully define and appreciate its obvious forms.


Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.

Susan Sontag

Sontag offers that the excessive need for interpretation is a reflection on the fact that people are overstimulated and therefore cannot simply enjoy art for its own sake, but must pile up meanings on the art, to make it function as more than just an experience or a feeling.


The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us.

Susan Sontag

When critics and commentators pile meanings on to art, they are failing to enhance the experience of art because; they are making it needlessly confusing by claiming that there are secret messages hidden in the content of art.


The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

Susan Sontag

Sontag reiterates that the purpose of criticism should not be to translate the hidden meanings of content within artworks, but simply to offer pointed descriptions of art's forms.


In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

Susan Sontag

Sontag closes her essay with this line. She is calling for a rejection of hermeneutics—the excessive quest for meaning in art—and instead an embrace of "an erotics of art." Art should be enjoyed for its own sake and the way it arouses the senses. Erotic in this sense is referring to the way art is stimulating to the mind and how it has the power to stir emotions.

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