The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and by analogy, our own experience - more than less real to us. The function of criticism should be to -show how it is what it is, even that is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
The paragraph above appears at the end of Susan Sontag's essay 'Against Interpretation' written originally in 1964. It is practically a summary of where she felt art criticism needed to be going in order for it to be constructive or relative to the artwork being produced at this time. The aim of my essay is to analyse this proposal and provide my own interpretation of it whilst considering its implications for both criticism and artistic practice. I aim to do this by firstly focussing on the type of art I felt she was referring to at the time of her writing before looking at a type of work I think is excluded by her proposal before finally demonstrating what I think encapsulates what Sontag terms as "an erotics of art".
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Art criticism that was prevalent in America between the mid 1950's and mid1960's, Sontag argues, was not accurately responding to the work which were being created at the same time. Sontag felt that such criticism was placing too much emphasis on the meanings (the content) of a work, in an art whose main purpose was in contrast, to stress the formal qualities it featured. By generously focusing on the content of such work, art criticism had also indiscriminately attached a kind of "interpretation" that in effect caused such art to loose its "singularity" or as Sontag puts it, its being 'just what it is' (Sontag 1964; p.102). The type of "interpretation" Sontag is arguing against here is;
â€¦..the conscious act of the mind which illustrates certain "rules" of interpretationâ€¦.one where the viewer plucks a set of elements from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation.
Sontag 1964; p.97
In light of this, Sontag is not arguing against all interpretations, she does grant that aspects of a work such as its title, date, medium and size naturally apply meaning. However when it, interpretation, proceeds to imply that a line, colour, shape or other formal quality, is actually signifying a deeper, social, political or cultural meaning, it becomes problematic and unnecessary, especially in art that "is what it is".
Sontag suggests that to be able to respond to such art, art that "is what it is", the critic needs to be more engaged with the sensuous experience they encounter when viewing it, an experience she feels is most evident in movies. She claims that this is mostly because films, especially back during the time of her writing, were new and viewed as part of mass, rather than high culture, and therefore 'left alone by people with minds' (Sontag 1964; p.102). The range of formal qualities that go into the making of a movie is also more expansive than those in "higher" art, providing those who want to analyse, with something other than content to focus on (Sontag 1964; p.102). Lastly, movies as a form of art are also, Sontag explains, more alive and explicit in how they are what they are, they do not attempt to hide their flaws making them more genuine. Yet the main issue here is that being able to 'experience the luminousness of the things in itself, the value of transparence' (Sontag; p.103) is generally, in regards to other forms of art, rather hard to grasp, and has been since the arrival of content in art.
Content, Sontag explains, was originally introduced as a means of defending art against the mimetic theory first applied to it by the Greek philosopher, Plato. This theory defines art as representational 'nothing more than an imitation of reality' (Sontag 1964; p.95). In reaction to this content applies a layer of meaning to it (art), one which is generally, Barnet notes, 'only revealed once the viewer has interpreted the subject matter, form, material, socio-historical contexts and if known perhaps the intentions of the artist' (Barnet 2008; p.55).
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Sontag's problem with this "intellectualisation of art" is that it was still densely applied to an art that was anything but "representational" and therefore mostly "contentless"; art that did not need interpretation to be appreciated. That although, 'it (art) may be less figurative less lucidly realistic... it is still assumed that the work of art is its content' (Sontag 1964; p.96). The visual art of this time was instead Sontag suggests, one in which the distinction between content and form, was illusive, the content was an attribute of form. In other words (content) did not need interpretation because formal elements were the subject matter and mood of a given work.
An artwork of the time that I feel supports Sontag's argument is Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting (over page) created in 1963, one of the artists many "black" or as Reinhardt termed, 'ultimate paintings' ( Moma, 1999). In this example the formal elements are also the content of the work. A sleek application of black oil paint is applied to the canvas, gradually varying from a thicker, darker tone around its rims, to a lighter less severe shade of black towards its centre. These slight gradations of black paint not only give life to faint, fragile, angular line work but also a rather smooth, uninterrupted texture as well. Reinhardt's example, as a fact not as an interpretation, spent the last ten years of his life doing such reductive pieces as a way of creating art that resisted interpretation; to create
â€¦a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting-an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art. Ad Reinhardt commenting on his "ultimate paintings" (Moma, 1999)
Artist: Ad Reinhardt
Title: Abstract Painting
Media: Oil on Canvas
Size: 152.4 x 152.4 cm
However the other main type of art which was on the rise at the time of Sontag's writing was work such as Robert Rauschenberg's Black Market of 1961 (below) which were full of meaning. Unlike Reinhardt's, the concept behind Rauschenberg's work was its critical element rather than the form; the formal elements were in contrast, purposefully used to accentuate its content, to apply interpretation. In Black Market, Vaughan explains, Rauschenberg perched a "combine"; a collage or assemblage, of discarded objects Rauschenberg had gathered (Vaughan 2007; p.346), on the wall of a museum, which with string, was attached to a wooden case found on the floor below it. Inside the case labelled "open", was an assortment of objects. Rauschenberg invited his viewers to take these objects only if they replaced it with an object of their own. The object they had once owned was then to be drawn by that individual on to one of the four notepads fixed to the surface of the "combine". Rauschenberg in this example is fundamentally commenting on the entry requirements of a museum by encouraging his audience to contribute and remove parts of Black Market which in effect also adds and subtracts interpretation.
In this work if we were to assess it from a "that is what it is" approach we would be faced with the same initial problem brought up by Sontag; we would not be viewing or criticising it in the manner it needed to be.
Artist: Robert Rauschenberg
Title: Black Market
Media: Oil, watercolour, crayon, printed paper, printed reproductions, wood, metal, metal box and four notepads on canvas, with rope, rubber stamp, inkpad and various objects
Size: 127 x 150.1 x 10.1 cm
The type of art criticism Sontag is primarily arguing for is an "erotics of art"; which for Sontag means 'dissolving considerations of content into those of form' (Sontag 1964; p.103). This is the part of Sontag's proposal that confuses me, as it seems as though she is asking for interpretations in order to find a type of art that subdues it (interpretation). Yet nonetheless, the type of work that I feel fits Sontag's suggestion is Tim Knowles' Four Panel Weeping Willow (below) of 2006. Here the artist plays a minute role in the work's composition, instead exemplifies the process; how the work is what it is by displaying it alongside a looped video of its production. Admittedly, Knowles hangs 50 pens from the branches of a weeping willow tree and places 4 panels of paper in a particular way beneath it, however the artist does not control the resultant marks made on the panels nor does he imply any meaning on to them, Four Panel Weeping Willow is simply the marks made by a tree.
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Artist: Tim Knowles
Title: Four Panel Weeping Willow
Medium: Ink on paper panel plus projected 6 min looped DVD
Size: 480 x 220 cm projection [size variable]
In conclusion I think the majority of Sontag's proposal is definitely valid. For there was art during this period that needed to be viewed and experienced for what it was and how it was what it was, through being more descriptive of its formal elements and looking more precisely at how the artwork came into being. However, I would not go so far as to suggest this is the only way to view art, other types of visual art were conversely, bent on implying meaning. Sontag has nonetheless, definitely opened our eyes to show that not all art calls for interpretation; that not all art needs to be "intellectualised" to be appreciated. Artwork instead needs to be criticised in accordance to what it is that makes it "that artwork".