I have just finished reading Susan Sontag's essay entitled "Against Interpretation". In it, she discusses the historical basis for the interpretation of art (whether writing, painting, sculpture, etc.). "The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality. It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For the mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself."

At this point in the essay (the first two paragraphs, mind you), I stopped and considered the previous statement. Should art really justify itself? Why, for example, must it excuse itself for its existence in this world? If a limestone sculpture of a man and a similar sculpture of intertwining abstract forms appeared next to one another, would the image of the man justify itself more easily, because it is essentially mimetic? It would, I believe, and that is sad.

So many people don't understand art, and not only do they not attempt to, but they also don't see that some art simply is not meant for understanding. How many times have I gone to the MoMA and stood in front of abstract or expressionist paintings for thirty minutes and not heard a single introspective or intelligent thought emerge from the mouths of those who pass? Regardless of anyone's opinion of abstract art, or any style or genre of art for that matter, it is a neon sign of ignorance mounted on the forehead of the person who walks past a Rothko or Pollock canvas and dares to utter the sentence "A child could do that." Sometimes I honestly begin to feel violent. As Pollock flung paint at canvas, I want to fling the bucket it came from at their ignorant heads spouting asinine comments.

It is these people who feel the need to interpret art in the sense that Sontag writes about: "Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy....The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation." That which we do not understand we attempt to alter, to negate, to simplify, to reduce, to deny, to tame to the point of eliminating the discomfort we feel when we accept it as it exists.

Thus, when the Ignorant Ones pass a Rothko color-field painting and remark that their four-year-old could do it better, they are reducing the work to a child's drawing, a doodle without thought, without process and without meaning. They do not feel comfortable standing still, staring at a solid black canvas (though in essence it is more) because it makes them nervous. Uncomfortable. Confused, perhaps, particularly for those with no knowledge of art history. So they must interpret it, filter it through their own personal screen (we all have them) in order to pass it without pause and not feel as though they are missing anything. Well, they are.

Node your homework: I wrote this a couple years ago for an English class. I'm no longer certain that I knew entirely what I was talking about, and one could reasonably accuse me of hijacking Sontag's article for my own nefarious purposes. Nevertheless, I think it does have some strong points. You be the judge.

My overwhelming reaction in reading this essay was one of profound satisfaction. I've been nursing a hatred for the cult of "content over form" for quite a while now, and was even working up to formally registering my disgust with the university's English department. Every required English class I've taken, both in high school and college, seems to have had a monomaniacal love for the so-called "discipline" of literary analysis, as if we can all look forward to work as book critics. Of course my malevolent diatribe probably wouldn't have had much clout with anybody, but nonetheless several weeks ago I idly jotted down the beginnings of an outraged manifesto during a geography lecture:

"Literary analysis is a useless and regressive pastime in which art is systematically stripped of its value and presented as a series of mundane ingredients. I would argue that art is not a reversable process at all, and that those who think they can derive a simple, condensed and easily communicable meaning from any work of art are only deluding themselves. If art were merely an encryption of certain "messages" which can be unlocked or decoded through analysis, then the art itself would be frivolous. Why encode a message when anyone receiving it would have to decode it in order to appreciate it? Art amounts to more than the sum of its individual parts; its true message IS the work of art itself, in its entirety, unblemished by the opinions of middleman interpreters."

Obviously, my position is more of a general condemnation of analysis than is Sontag's, who is mainly disdainful of "interpretation" which threatens to replace the work it is interpreting. In fact, she allows that certain critical work has merit, when it examines form rather than content. This is really the only place I'm not sure I agree with her, maybe because I've never seen an example of what she's talking about. Formal literary analysis, it has always seemed to me, is a misapplication of the scientific method to a medium which lies well outside the realm of science. Science is concerned with describing the physical world around us using theorems which seem to explain the mechanics underlying observed phenomena. The key word here is "observed." Because observation of physical phenomena tends to vary only slightly between dispassionate observers, there is little room for dispute about what is happening. The reason I say the scientific method is "misapplied" to art is that science always avoids questions of meaning or intent. No scientist speculates on what a rock might "mean," much less tries to answer such a question. Finding meaning in nature is irrelevant to science, which only asks "how," not "why." Such imponderables as "Why am I here?" are left to religion to answer, and religion, like literary analysis, comes in plenty of diverse and conflicting flavors.

This is not in itself a problem; the problem is that it parades around as some kind of formal discipline, and yet it produces any number of contradictory theories about the same text. What does this tell anyone about meaning? Nothing. It's fine to have a theory as to what the artist was trying to convey, consciously or unconsciously, through his or her art, but at best it's a convincing argument. At worst, it's just hand-waving.

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