Against interpretation – essay: My toughts on S. Sontag’s theory

Susan Sontag, New York City, 1979

Art interpretation, as well as a general interpretation of anything in the world, has become, in today’s society quite a common phenomenon. If you decide to enjoy music, painting, film or anything other art forms, there is quite a good chance that there are plenty of different readings of it online, focusing on a specific aspect of it, and symbols and values of a specific interpretation type.

Sometimes these niche interpretations go even a step further where they are making a new art piece while interpreting one. For example, Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” from 1965 is a visualisation and interpretation of Plato’s world of ideas/ physical world/ copy in a physical world gives a new perspective, approach to a classical text and it has inspired probably the next generation of artists who will interpret his work and made something new. Truth be told, humanity is functioning in this way for quite a while, and this gave us Leonardo Davinci’s splendid art piece “The Last Supper” as well as Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”.

Interpreting art through making another art is a rare case, and not always a successful one. With every successful interpretation, there is probably a vast majority of once that are meaningless which than has the potential to turn into the mass production of content, in a long run. Still, even if this is the case, this phenomena might shape the world a bit but doesn’t impact it as some other forms of interpretation.

Still, general art interpretations suffer from something way worse. Let me show it through this example. If one might want to interpret Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” one might say that the key to understanding this film is the opening sequence where “Also sprach Zarathustra” plays in the background, and that, through this musical choice, Kubrick is setting us to his journey towards Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch”. Someone else might notice that the film combines monolith, as a rectangular, linear object that is opposed to the cosmos where everything else has more or less curvy, circular shapes, and because of this that person might try to impose Phytagorean reading of this film. But, truth to be told, Kubrick probably didn’t think about either of these when he was making the film, and even if he did, why is it so important for us to translate the art? Could art be enjoyed purely for what it is, or we need to see, hear and understand the meaning so we can relate to it/ engage with it.

Finally, I mentioned previously that today’s world suffers not just from different types of artistic interpretations, but interpretations in general. If one might decide to read/ watch any type of news media, that has at least a bit of political bias, one will notice that what they are serving is rarely just a piece of information, just a simple news report, What media is doing is showcasing their opinions and readings of what is happening in the world. This, unlike the art interpretations, is, if you ask me, way more dangerous, as it is spreading different, often opposed and untruthful views of the world, that final consumer, who might not be thinking critically, can perceive as “call to action”, a rightful invitation to act and react on its terms upon the world. This is where the true danger of interpretation lies.

With this being said, I think that Susan Sontag in her essay “Against interpretation” gives a decent guideline on how to avoid and surpass all the issues of interpretation mentioned above. As Sontag is, truth to be told, not against interpretation as such, as she understands that it is a part of our nature and approach to the world, she is rather against the current interpretation as a translation of the world through a certain viewpoint.

The roots of art interpretations

So, what is our current way we are interpreting art, and how did it start. As Sontag presents in her essay, our current approach to art interpretation is through taking a set of elements from a whole of an art piece and translating it to a common language. In simple terms, what interpreters are doing is saying this thing X actually means A, thing Y is really B, thing Z is nothing else but C. This type of interpretation, as Sontag states, has appeared in “the culture of late classical antiquity”, the times when people started reducing power and credibility of myth into a bit more realistic, view of the world, that has come upon due to the scientific enlightenment.

Looking from today’s perspective this makes perfect sense, people in the early stages of their development were as curious about the world as we were, but they couldn’t answer their questions in any other way but explaining the phenomenon A by making a story of X, giving meaning to B by naming it Y etc. Sontag doesn’t spend much time explaining this as within the context of the time it makes perfect sense.

On the other hand, as she says, the modern style of interpretation doesn’t just return the lost, misleading X, Y, Z to their core of A, B, C, but modern interpretation digs behind the meaning of X, trying to find a sub meaning A that might be the true one. She mentions that currently, the two most influential modern doctrines that are using this interpretation type are a Marxist interpretation of society and Freud’s interpretations of the human mind/behaviour. As she explains it:

“All observable phenomena and bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning – the latent content – beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wards; for Freud, the events of individual lives – all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it. 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. [1]

 Sontag’s issue with Marx and Freud, or better yet with their interpretations of reality is that they are leading us to a shadow world of “meanings”, as she states (while in a sense telling the simple concepts of Antisthenes and Diogenes of Sinope, the early cynics). This makes sense as, psychology and psychoanalysis as a scientifical approach have been evolving in the past hundred years we have seen their shift in opinions, which then gives us a chance to say that all interpretations/psychotherapy session done so far was wrong up to a certain degree. The same could be said with Marxism and all the evolved leftist political ideas that came from it. There are still philosophical and political thinkers that believe and find excuses to say that the latest step in capitalist society is actually the one that will lead to its downfall and the long-expected rise of the proletariat. In a sense, Marxist ideas are day by day starting to sound a bit more like common theological interpretations of the current world issues that lead to armageddon.

Against interpretation

But, let’s be honest, Sontag isn’t the first one that had issues with the scientific approaches of Marx and Freud. Karl Popper in his philosophy of science explores how scientific are the methods of these two thinkers, and as they don’t meet his falsifiability criteria he dismisses them. Still, even if we agree with the majority of what I mentioned above,  it is way easier to listen to interpretations as they make the art (as well as the world) manageable, conformable, to put in in the words of Sontag.

Of course in the art world, once again, this is a way lesser problem than in the general interpretations of the world, but still, it is troublesome. The main reason for it, in the art world, is that some things were not intended to be interpreted. Artists just didn’t think in such depth about a certain colour choice or tonal choice in their work, something ended up in it without their intention, by a pure chance… and still, modern interpreters have something to say about it.

As put in Sontag’s words:  Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories[2]. I fully agree with this, and from what I talked about so far I think I’m showing strong points why Sontag might be right. Firstly, we have seen that the issue of interpretation is that it stopped serving its purpose a long time ago. While its goal was to bring a world to a bit more scientific place, over time it became an approach that pushes it further away from the basis of science. Even when, the basis for interpretation might be right it doesn’t really mean that there was some initial intention for the art piece or element of reality to be viewed in that way. And finally, even if this is all true, and everything is interpretable and measurable, we might end up in a place where things, art to be precise, in Sontag’s view, are losing their sense and value as we are merely looking at them as categories.

What if not interpretation?

Still, while everything said so far is a really decent commentary of the state of interpretation, is there a way out of this situation. Is there some kind of criticism, or commentary of art, politics, humanity, that might be useful and desirable today? As I mentioned before, Sontag surely does points out a lot of problems, but she also has a quite interesting idea of how to deal with this. So, she gives the answer to how would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place.

In her words: What is needed is a vocabulary – a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary – for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. Further on she adds that: Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis.

Put into simple terms, Sontag proposes that we should focus on what is shown, not what it means. Here is a quote from her interpretation of Godard’s „Vivre Sa Vie“:

„In Vivre Sa Vie, Godard takes this technique of hearing first, then seeing, to new levels of complexity. There is no longer a single unified point of view, either the protagonist’s voice (as in Le Petit Soldat) or a godlike narrator, but a series of documents (texts, narrations, quotations, excerpts, set pieces) of various description. These are primarily words, but they may also be worldless sounds or even worldless images.




All the essentials of Godard’s technique are present in the opening credit sequence and in the first episode. The credits occur over a left profile view of Nana, so dark that it is almost a silhouette. (The title of the film is Vivre Sa Vie. A film in Twelve Episodes.) As the credits continue, she is shown full face, and then from the right side, still in deep shadow. Occasionally she blinks or shifts her head slightly (as if it were uncomfortable to hold still so long), or wets her lips. Nana is posing. She is being seen.

 As we can see combining the technical knowledge of the art form, of film, and describing what is in front of her eyes, Sontag brings a quite objective, attractive interpretation that gives everyone a chance to judge the film on their own. With this kind of interpretations, everyone experiencing the world of art will have a chance to make their own minds, feel a certain way about things, the same should be with interpretations. They should be out there just to put a close-up on what the artist/world is doing, letting all of us alone be judges of it.

Literature used:

▪ Sontag, S. (1966) Against Interpretation and other essays, Against Interpretation (p.10-17) Picador: New York;

▪ Sontag, S. (1966) Against Interpretation and other essays, Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (p.137-145) Picador: New York;