Abstract Critical

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation

“Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.”

Sontag’s classic essay of 1964. The link is here.

  1. Robert Linsley said…

    Robin, I love what you are saying. I also like to say it myself at every opportunity, but would rather see results than talk about it.

  2. John Holland said…

    There is a work in the ‘Art Now’ space at Tate Britain that might be the nadir of Meaningful Art- it is about everything from being a critique of contemporary self-definition through conspicuous consumption, a discourse on last year’s riots, through to the current cultural status of the Brookes bicycle saddle and the disappointing lack of comfort all too often experienced by the purchaser of a knock-off one.
    At no point in this unintentionally hilarious discourse does the writer of the offending wall-text mention how this gumbo of meaning might actually be manifest by the installation- it’s taken as read, like an act of sympathetic Magick.
    The visual facts of the thing, what it looks like, are wholly arbitrary- they are the pizza-base upon which you put all your toppings.

    The fact is that for many people in the ‘art world’ now, the way things look is simply not interesting. I think it’s seen as a bit childish. (See also the Pre-Raphaelites as avant-garde next door)

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    Don’t you just love that Oscar Wilde quote?

    I like this essay by Sontag too, and considering it was written in 1964 (as a defence of Minimalism?), it’s a prescient bit of writing. Half a century later, and we are now in the position, in the art world in general, and sadly even in large sections of abstract art in particular, of having interpretation rammed down our throats at every opportunity, by critics, by curators, and especially by the artists themselves. In fact, interpretation now very often precedes (or in the extreme case of conceptual art, usurps completely) the making of the art; it becomes, at the least, an expectation and at the worst a foregone conclusion that the art will ’mean’ something, because the artist says it will (for the latest idiocy on this score, try Googling ‘Intentism’). This is nonsense of the first order, and sadly but undoubtedly applies to lots of so-called ‘abstract’ art, particularly a prevalent stream of abstract painting channelling cod-spirituality, pretentious phenomenological effects, fake significance or pseudo-sublime ‘meaning’. Maybe this stuff is non-figurative, but it is hardly abstract, I think, in having such ‘subject-matter’. To think otherwise, to think that abstract painting is merely a signifier for other ‘worlds of meaning’, has ironically become the vehicle for a kind of re-hashed formalism, just as stuck in reductivist modernism as any of the most homogenous and boring formalism of the sixties was. This toxic mixture of a dated modernist aesthetic and a dated 19th century spiritualism needs to be dropped out of abstract art altogether if it is to progress.

    So I’m with Sontag to some extent on this; and if her essay was written as a defence of Minimalism (or even just minimalism), I don’t spurn that either. I have a soft spot for art that tries to rid itself of superfluous guff; I’m for ‘what you see is what you see’ and ‘an art of the real’. I’ve always thought that is where abstract art should be, in the ‘real’, whatever that might mean. The trouble with Minimalism is that it’s bloody boring; so the trick now is to keep all the crap out but yet make the painting or the sculpture really exciting/complex/interesting/inventive, in and of itself (and paradoxically, this ‘reality’ must, I think, involve illusion). That’s difficult, but do-able.

    So here is where I differ from Sontag, though it may be a case merely of definition: abstract art needs content; as much content as possible. My use of the word ‘content’ is therefore different from Sontag’s. I define it as the intrinsic visual/physical activity of the artwork, what it is ‘doing’; Sontag’s definition equates it to extrinsic subject-matter. As I’ve said before, abstract art needs to drop the subject-matter and find the content. That way, abstract art stands a chance of getting beyond both Modernism and its familiar aesthetics altogether…perhaps…?