Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag’s second book, was published in 1966, but some of the essays date back to 1961, when she was still writing for The Benefactor. Sontag had come to New York in the early 60’s, eager to become the writer she so longed to become. Her ideas at the time of a writer was someone interested in “everything.”
Against Interpretation is regarded as a quintessential text of the 60’s. “It wasn’t the Sixties then,” she writes. “For me it was chiefly the time when I wrote my first and second novels, and began to discharge some of the cargo of ideas about art and culture and the proper business of consciousness which had distracted me from writing fiction. I was filled with evangelical zeal.”
Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. 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.
Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.
…interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality.
to avoid interpretation, art maybe become parody. Or it may become abstract. … Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content,t here can be no interpretation.
Our Task With a Work of Art
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
Art is not only about something; it is something. … Art is seduction, not rape.
Morality is a code of acts, and of judgments and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, which prescribe a standard for behaving or tiring to behave toward other human beings general (that is, to all who are acknowledged to be human) as if we were inspired by love. Needless to say, love is something we feel in truth for just a few individual human beings, among those who are known to us in reality and in our imagination. … Morality is a form of acting and not a particular repertoire of choices.
The Metaphor of Art as an “Argument”
The metaphor of the work of art as an “argument,” with premises and entailments, has informed most criticism since. Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.
Love and suffering
The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness. We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, but one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. … For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.
If this has you curious, you should read the entire book.