In response to: “Against Interpretation,” an essay by Susan Sontag
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
The way writer Susan Sontag used the word “interpretation” in this reading prompted me to dig deeper into the application of the word in film criticism and art as a whole. I would say I don’t agree with her when she said that art, especially at this time and age, should not be interpreted. She specifically raised how “commentary about art” should focus more on “form” rather than “content.” She was very careful on using the word “interpretation,” separating it from the word “commentary.” For me, focusing on form requires perception, which can easily change from one person to another. Perceiving something means the mind maneuvers around and I don’t think the thought process should be censored in any way, even if it gets to the point of exploring content and not just form.
Art fosters discourse. At some point, some would even say that a particular work of art is so bad that it turns out so good. For me, discourse puts value to art. I believe that there will never be a singular nor absolute “judgment,” interpretation, or description to any artistic work, as people are as different as each one’s fingerprints. Yet, every expression of an idea can have value in the society, especially if there is discourse, no matter how big or small, coming from it. It doesn’t matter whether the viewers’ take on it is neutral, good, bad, or anywhere in between – the very discourse sprouting from it already services the art work and its audience. Possibly, it would incite a reaction or even a call to action. Such things put further value to art in the society, whether positively or otherwise.
In the reading, Sontag mentioned how Aristotle said that art is “medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.” I find this as saying art is therapeutic. Art, which functions via half the human brain (right brain), balances the functions of the left brain, which is meant for tasks involving logic, including science and mathematics. With that, art is part of human lives. Art is as important as science. Art is life.
It is human nature to seek knowledge, search for answers to the most enduring questions. In line with this, interpreting art is human nature. The reading expresses how according to Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, artistic works are prone to elaborate systems of hermeneutics and theories of interpretation. “They have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret.” This doesn’t mean that meaning and interpretation of art should be absolute. It will never be, if you ask me. The merit of these works goes beyond meanings and interpretations. In the case of cinema, as far as I’m concerned, how a film elicits any kind of emotion to a member of its audience already puts a certain value to it. If it reaches people who initiate discussion of the film, the discourse puts even more value to the work.
Interpreting art as a good or bad thing, as a beneficial or worthless thing, is always worth a debate. What should primarily ground people in doing such are respect and sound judgment. As the reading said, “In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.” For me, when interpreting and critiquing art, both objective and subjective insights will always be there in one way or another. Moreover, in the case of criticizing or reviewing a film, one would sometimes try to suggest a better thing that could have been done by the filmmaker on a specific scene or element found in the story. I think the standards in film criticism don’t give an exact answer on whether this should be done or not. I think it depends on the context of what is written. It is on a case-to-case basis.
The issue on form vs. content in art will always be debatable, as supported by the reading saying, “It also perpetuates the very distinction between form and content which is, ultimately, an illusion.” Respect and open-mindedness among peers, filmmakers, and film audience should bridge such differences in interpretation.
When a creative expression based on an idea translates into a work of art, what it means initially relies on the intent of the artist, but the approaches to feeling it, and often times, interpreting it, evolve upon reaching an audience. Members of the audience can have similar or completely different interpretations of the work. Such is part of the beauty of the creative process and the “magic” of art. Critics become a bridge between the artist and the art audience – their perspectives bridge specific viewers coming from the diverse larger audience. When one is tasked to write a review for a business newspaper, the writer should take into account the paper’s kind of readers. If one discusses a film in a magazine like Variety, the critic should craft the writing based on the magazine’s target market. If one writes for an online entertainment portal meant to guide the mass audience on whether to watch the film or not, then the review should cater to these people expected to read the article in the said platform.
How people and societies look at art evolves with culture. Even film and communication theories evolve that earlier ones with dated insights that are clearly not anymore acceptable in the more modern world are not merely discarded, but instead studied as part of history and development to understand the more modern approaches. Art allows individuals to have a grasp on uncertainties escaping science or math as their sensory faculties attempt to understand the different facets in questions with no absolute answers. Somehow, art pacifies the complexities in life, which are beyond humans’ mundane understanding of the world at large. Indeed, art allows people to survive in a world full of non-absolutes. At the end of the day, when they discuss the work, the work gains value.
It is great for people to feel art more than just consume and objectify it. It is worth noting though, that incorporating a capitalist approach to specific art projects shouldn’t be judged as an automatic evil, for as long as creativity allows the work to breathe and still have a life of its own. In the case of film, the medium entails cost that is not always as affordable as other art forms, and financial stability is crucial for sustainability of production work.
To cap off, while the main point of how I understood this essay where one should not “interpret,” but instead “comment” on “art” with focus on “form” rather than content, is something that I don’t completely agree with, I would say that, more importantly, this essay allowed me to further widen my perspective in appreciating art and how people apply art and criticism in their lives.
Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation,”Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 1966.