I have just finished reading Susan Sontag
entitled "Against Interpretation". In it, she
discusses the historical basis for the interpretation
"The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek
, proposed that art was mimesis
. It is at this point that the peculiar
question of the value of art
arose. For the mimetic
, by its very terms, challenges art to justify
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
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
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.