(Still) Against Interpretation

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

Oscar Wilde


More than four decades have passed since Susan Sontag famously called for the replacement of the “hermeneutics of art” with an “erotics of art”. Though much has changed in these forty odd years, her essay, Against Interpretation, is still (alas) well worth revisiting, but for somewhat different reasons. Whereas Sontag saw literature as the prime victim of interpretation, today it appears to be the visual arts that suffer.

Sontag describes all Western appreciation of art as having never been able to transcend that original Greek Ur-theory of art: mimesis, or representation of reality. Although artists have long been expected to go beyond the purely figurative, the mimetic ideal still dominates. The only difference now is that the post-figurative artist is not expected to create a representation of a meadow or a nobleman, but rather of his subjective experience, or, say, the evils of capitalism. Inherent to the idea of mimesis is the separation of form (the physical work) and content (that which it represents). She argues that it is through this division that the need to justify and defend art is born, and that the most convenient way of doing this has, throughout history, been to point to its content. She then goes on to locate the apogee of this utilitarian understanding of art in the two theoretical leviathans of her time: psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism. In Freudian as well as in Marxist interpretation of art, the manifest (form) is only relevant in its capacity to reveal the latent (content). Thus, form is nothing more than the means to an end; the aesthetic is in the constant servitude to the intellectual. This is the kind of interpretation that she is against—the kind that treats art as a code to be deciphered or a text to be translated into another language (translate being a synonym to interpret, after all).

In certain cultural contexts she admits that interpretation can be an act of liberation from the literal, the blunt, and the brutal (in the case of religious texts, for example). But in her own context, she sees it, more than anything else, as impoverishing our direct experience of the sensuous world: 


In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. […] Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.


But what about in our own cultural context, which one for (deeply regretted) want of better words might be called postmodern? What is the relationship between interpretation and art in a time where the absolute truths of the last millennium have been deconstructed and discarded? The arrogantly orthodox interpretations of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and religion at least provided some form of reassurance with their annoying certainty. The theories that have come to take their place, on the other hand, are much harder to pin down, and so generate a nervosity in the art world; no one really knows quite what to think, but still there is constant pressure to think something.

Some art clearly invites interpretation. This is especially true in narrative forms such as film and literature. Consider Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Joyce’s Ulysses—these works rely on interpretation(s) to be experienced fully. (Though it is worth noting that they are by no means compromised in form as a result of this.) And, squandered university resources notwithstanding, the integrity of these mediums is not being challenged by interpretation to any alarming extent. Interpretation per se is not, to my mind, significantly depleting the sensuous world in the manner that Sontag proposed. No matter how generalizing or silly, interpretation of literature, film, or music can usually be taken or left be—both by the artist and by the audience. Moreover, interpretation may occasionally help us come to otherwise recondite realizations; theory may tell us something of art, and, perhaps more importantly, art may tell us something of theory. This latter statement is equally true of the visual arts as of any other, but the former is not; interpretation has a way of forcing itself on the visual arts with or without one’s consent.

This will not be another text bemoaning the pretentiousness of conceptual art, or any corollary corrosion of crafts. Nevertheless, much of today’s problems can be traced to the early conceptualists of the 60s and their unprecedented emphasis on mind over matter. As the philosopher, Peter Osborne, has pointed out, this was the first generation of artists who brought university degrees in art-theory with them, and, partially as a result of this, can be said to have brought “the linguistic turn”—which had shaped so much of the philosophical thinking of the 20th century—into the arts. The conceptualists wanted to push the boundary in exploring art as a language game, and why not? My issue is not with these or any other artists, nor with conceptual art in itself. My issue is with the mandate that all art must be defended intellectually.

The continental half of the linguistic turn (otherwise known as post-structuralism) has had more of an impact on literary theory than any other field. But literature, being a linguistic medium in the first place, has not been overly disrupted by post-structuralist criticism in the sense of its creating problems for writers or readers who choose to disregard it. The contemporary visual artist, who chooses to do the same, will, on the other hand, typically be deemed retrograde and rendered unsuccessful.

Sontag saw modern painting as an escape from interpretation. In abstract painting, she says, there is no intellectual content, i.e., nothing to interpret. And in pop art, the content is so blatant that you simply get what you see. This may have been the tendency at the time of her writing, but shortly thereafter painting and sculpture would have the logocentrism of the conceptualists forced upon them, seemingly by merit of their competing for the same grants and gallery space. With non-conceptualized art inviting the intellectual to little more than Wittgensteinian silence, it is easy to see why the critics would rather talk of the conceptual. The relationship between the cerebral artist and the critic is thus not unlike one of Darwinian symbiosis: without something to be interpreted, the raison d’être of the critic comes into question. So, unfortunately, the survival of the fittest does not mean that the strongest art will prevail. The art that will prevail is that which is best adapted to its environment.

This unfortunate conflation of visual and conceptual art dictates that, now, even more so than in Sontag’s time, is it not enough to, as an artist, simply create aesthetic forms without intellectual justification of their content. With the critics having the authority that they do in the nervously hype-driven market, it is not surprising that artists will, consciously or subconsciously, start to pander to their (the critics) bias in favour of content over form. The “fittest” art now is that which plays into the hands of the intellectual. While interpretation’s “depletion of the world” as portrayed by Sontag is essentially endemic to those who give it credence, we now see a much more direct and inescapable mutation of the art itself.

In literary theory, Roland Barthes’ proclamation of “the death of the author” (i.e., that the text stands alone in interpretation, without consideration of the author’s intention or biography) has been repeated like a mantra ad nauseam. Yet, in the visual arts, the cult of the genius persists. Apotheosis is, of course, a factor in many fields, but nowhere is it quite as arbitrarily decisive as in the art world. This is, frankly, due to the fact that a lot of art simply is not impressive enough in its own right. This, again, is in extension a result of the critics’ emphasis on content over form. If art were assessed exclusively on its aesthetics, there would be no issue. But as things are, it appears that the artist cannot “die” because the art in itself is not trusted without a well-known signature to back it up. What this means for the artist attempting to adapt to the current climate is that aesthetics has become secondary to managing one’s own brand.

That is not to say that conceptual artists are invariably opportunistic. Ironically, conceptualism can be seen as an attempt at to evade commodification by creating art that cannot be appropriated by museums, galleries, and collectors. This is all well and good—honourable even—until you stop and consider that art as commodity is the livelihood of the artist and that which sustains art’s very existence in the system we live in. It is probably unfair to blame conceptualism for the developments of the art market, but at the centre of its imbalance lies the immaterial’s precedence over the material. Thus, the escape from commodification has rather the air of abandoning the gold standard; without any (aesthetic) standard to establish value, speculation takes over, with predictable results.

The emphasis on concept would not have been an issue, were it not for the corresponding contempt for the purely aesthetic. The worst thing an artist can be called today is “decorative”, i.e., aesthetically pleasing but without content. To present some half-baked concept with unimpressive aesthetics, on the other hand, is not shunned to nearly the same extent. This discrepancy is certainly annoying, but while the fear of the decorative is overblown, it is not altogether illegitimate. It would be injudicious to advise a return to the 19th century aestheticism of Oscar Wilde et al., who wanted art only for arts’ own sake. For one thing, the amount of intense but meaningless sensory impressions already surrounding us is far greater now, and we hardly need more clutter. In Sontag’s words:


Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.  All the conditions of modem life—its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.  And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

     What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. […] The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.


These words are as pertinent today as when first written, if not more so. But, while the artist would be wise to not try and compete with the mindless clutter, his response to a world of sensory overload should not be one of aesthetic asceticism. What is needed, both for artists and critics, are ways of bridging the gap between form and content, without neglecting one or the other. Something that may prove helpful in this endeavour is ideasthesia: the ability to sense concepts.

The term has only recently been coined by the neuroscientist Danko Nikolic, who draws on his research of its better-known sister: synaesthesia. Synaesthesia means to co-perceive sensory experiences normally isolated to one form of perception, such as seeing sounds or tasting visual stimuli. Nikolic’s research has shown that rather than being a strictly sensory phenomenon, synaesthesia is often anchored in the semantic. For example, a synesthete might see the number 0 as blue, but when presented with the exact same symbol surrounded by letters, understand it as the letter O, and see it as green. This level of intense synaesthesia occurs only in a rather small percentage of the population. Ideasthesia, on the other hand, is available to everyone. What this means, on a very elementary level, is that practically everyone knows that blue means cold and red means hot. Many associations of this kind are hardwired, but socially conditioned ones are no less real. The more we learn about the brain, the clearer it becomes that the perceptual and the cognitive are interlinked to an extent that necessitates re-evaluation of the traditional understandings of mind and body. Contrary to the intuitive notion of the senses being neutral receptors providing the brain with information that first then can be made sense of semantically, the research on ideasthesia suggests that the sensory and the semantic occur simultaneously; our sensory perception is shaped by our conceptual understanding of stimuli, and vice versa. In fact, the two may be interconnected to the extent that one cannot exist without the other. This would mean that the aesthetic is an integral part of the semantic network through which we make sense of the world. The content-form dichotomy would then be not only counterproductive, but flatly misinformed.

Critique rooted in the notion of ideasthesia could adopt the ideals of aestheticism without neglecting the conceptual component of the aesthetic. Moreover, ideasthesia cuts both ways: not only can the aesthetic induce the conceptual, but also the conceptual the aesthetic. Perhaps criticisms’ espousing of ideasthesia could therefore be a step towards recovering our senses in the way solicited by Sontag. Even more, it could mean an end to forms’ subservience to content, and so allow art to flourish by not poisoning its growing ground with the inimical separation of the two.

Learning from Athens: The Power of Negative Thinking

What to Make of the Yellow King?