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Monday, May 14, 2007

Against Communication, by Jared Caldwell

In Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation, Sontag discusses art, art criticism, and how they relate to the individual experiencing a work of art. Sontag suggests that interpreting the content of a work of art does not strengthen the artwork; interpretation destroys art. Though Sontag uses strong evidence to support her claims, her overdramatic, albeit logical, argument does not come without some skepticism.

Sontag opens her argument by describing the idea of content within art. She uses diction similar to Stan Brakhage when describing how “[n]one of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself”. The fact that interpretation of art has “run rampant”, Sontag dooms us “with the task of defending art”, “[f]rom now to the end of consciousness”. An example of content and interpretation is that of religious texts. Since the “scientific enlightenment”, what science has uncovered hasn't always necessarily meshed with the literal texts of certain religious scriptures. Sontag suggests that interpretation “is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it”. “To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings'”. To interpret, or “to bring out meaning”, is to completely change the very nature of the work, according to Sontag.

Though Sontag suggests that the only forms of art that are “safe” from interpretation are those that either have no content or kitsch that leaves no room for interpretation, other forms of art with content should not be treated in the same way as that of kitsch. Works of literature, for example, are created with words. Written and spoken languages are all agreed upon symbols, sounds, and gestures to represent objects, or attach meaning to articles. The very nature of literature is to assign meaning to forms through the content in which it is presented. Not all forms of art exist for aesthetic or entertainment purposes.
Though the argument of deciding what is and isn't art is still debated, Sontag suggests that art should not be used as a medium to communicate ideas. Sontag even goes so far as to say that the works of Tennessee William's and Jean Cocteau are “defective, false, contrived, [and are] lacking in conviction” because of the intentional meanings they try to associate with their works. Works of art are created by humans. To suggest that works of art are monoliths, artifacts, or states of existence separate from the effects of humans; and to claim that these works are meant to be experienced solely through their aesthetic properties in a emotional response seems to be a fallacy in Sontag's argument. Art that is created by an individual has a sense of authorship that supplies the context and the content for the work. Even art that intentionally has “no authorship” is still a for of authorship that the work can not be separated from. To “dissolve considerations of content into those of form” is to deny at the very least the authorship of the work.

It seems to Sontag that “art” is divided into two camps: that of communicating ideas, and that of aesthetic purposes. Though Sontag provides evidence of how interpretation can ruin a work of art, she does not address the argument that maybe interpretations that alter the physical structure of a work may be considered misinterpretations. Further, she suggests that since interpretation can destroy art, criticism should only be confined to that of aesthetic responses. With this assertion, Sontag “waves her hands” at statements such as “transparency is the highest, most liberating value in art”, “we decidedly do not need...Art into Thought...Art into Culture”, and charges us on our task to “cut back content so that we can see the thing at all”. She lashes against artists who use their works to communicate ideas without rebutting why communicating ideas is important; and, she claims that transparency is the greatest state any work of art can achieve without providing evidence why it is the most liberating.

Sontag starts her argument with convincing and persuasive evidence; however, it seems that she uses her evidence to segway onto a platform to perform an overdramatic tirade, slamming the interpretation for meaning of art, and praising criticism solely on the aesthetic art without supplying evidence as to why the charges and assertions she imposes on the reader should be executed.


Jake Voorhees said...

You have to give her some credit for consistency of style with philosophy, at any rate. Her entire essay involves "erotics," with an appeal to pathos more than logos.

I'd watch your argument when you start throwing around words like logical, or specifically, "To suggest that works of art are monoliths, artifacts, or states of existence separate from the effects of humans; and to claim that these works are meant to be experienced solely through their aesthetic properties in a emotional response seems to be a fallacy in Sontag's argument."

The latter is a premise, rather than a step in the argumentation -- fallacy shows some error in reasoning, some fault in the step by step application of logic. It undermines your ethos a little bit to equate logic with the actual argument.

Jake Voorhees said...

In fact, I wouldn't even necessarily call her essay logical at all. It seems to follow the form, "if A, then X, and Y, and Z," rather than showing how one step leads to another.

Jared Matthew Caldwell said...

I am gonna re-read what I wrote in a bit. I am sure you are correct! :)