Friday, March 30, 2007

Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Re. the excellent points Erol raised in the last class in regards to research and interpretation of works by Chinese artists, you can find more on WWSS here:

Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It's

very tiny -- very tiny, content. Willem de Kooning, in an

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery
of the world is the visible, not the invisible. Oscar Wilde, in a

Against interpretation

The earliest experience of art must have been that it was
incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the
paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.)
The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed
that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art
arose. For the mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to
justify itself.

Plato, who proposed the theory, seems to have done so in order to rule
that the value of art is dubious. Since he considered ordinary
material things as themselves mimetic objects, imitations of
transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed
would be only an "imitation of an imitation." For Plato, art is
neither particularly useful (the painting of a bed is no good to
sleep on), nor, in the strict sense, true. And Aristotle's arguments
in defense of art do not really challenge Plato's view that all art
is an elaborate trompe l'oeil, and therefore a lie. But he does
dispute Plato's idea that art is useless. Lie or no, art has a
certain value according to Aristotle because it is a form of therapy.
Art is useful, after all, Aristotle counters, medicinally useful in
that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.

In Plato and Aristotle, the mimetic theory of art goes hand in hand
with the assumption that art is always figurative. But advocates of
the mimetic theory need not close their eyes to decorative and
abstract art. The fallacy that art is necessarily a "realism" can be
modified or scrapped without ever moving outside the problems
delimited by the mimetic theory.

The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have
remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as
mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such
-- above and beyond given works of art -- becomes problematic, in
need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to
the odd vision by which something we have learned to call "form" is
separated off from something we have learned to call "content," and
to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form

Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the
theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the
theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the
mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on
the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model
of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still
comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less
figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a
work of art is its content. Or, as it's usually put today, that a
work of art by definition says something. ("What X is saying is. . .,
" "What X is trying to say is . . .," "What X said is . . ." etc.,


None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art
knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art
what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From
now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of
defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of
defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of
defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or
onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.

This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself.
Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today
mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle

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


Of course, I don't mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the
sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, "There are no facts, only
interpretations." By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of
the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain "rules" of

Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the
X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of
interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says,
Look, don't you see that X is really -- or, really means -- A? That Y
is really B? That Z is really C?

What situation could prompt this curious project for transforming a
text? History gives us the materials for an answer. Interpretation
first appears in the culture of late classical antiquity, when the
power and credibility of myth had been broken by the "realistic" view
of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment. Once the
question that haunts post-mythic consciousness -- that of the
seemliness of religious symbols -- had been asked, the ancient texts
were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable. Then
interpretation was summoned, to reconcile the ancient texts to
"modern" demands. Thus, the Stoics, to accord with their view that the
gods had to be moral, allegorized away the rude features of Zeus and
his boisterous clan in Homers epics. What Homer really designated by
the adultery of Zeus with Leto, they explained, was the union between
power and wisdom. In the same vein, Philo of Alexandria interpreted
the literal historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible as spiritual
paradigms. The story of the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the
desert for forty years, and the entry into the promised land, said
Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul's emancipation,
tribulations, and final deliverance. Interpretation thus presupposes a
discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of
(later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation
is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot
be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an
old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it.
The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is
altering it. But he can't admit to doing this. He claims to be only
making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far
the interpreters alter the text (another notorious example is the
Rabbinic and Christian "spiritual" interpretations of the clearly
erotic Song of Songs), they must claim to be reading off a sense that
is already there.

Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the
contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted
not by piety toward the troublesome text (which may conceal an
aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for
appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but
respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The
modem style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates,
destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the
true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those
of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of
hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All
observable phenomena are 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 wars; for Freud, the events of
individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as
well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) -- 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.

Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value,
a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities.
Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of
human consciousness. 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.


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.

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. 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. ("This world"! As if there were any other.)

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all
duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we

No comments: