Readings For The Week of February 27th

Posted: February 17, 2019 in Readings

Sorry I delayed in posting these. I guess I got a little too excited about the long weekend and went into vacation mode. You should still have plenty of time to read this material before Tuesday. Enjoy your Monday holiday!


Susan Sontag
(1933 – 2004)
“Against Interpretation” (1964)
“Notes on Camp” (1964)


Susan Sontag with Jasper Johns

  1. Jaina Lee says:

    Sontag and Steinberg both mention being in an “uncomfortable state” when viewing new, strange art. Steinberg focuses on the intent of the art and overcoming this sense of uneasiness. Sontag argues that “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. ” Art, in terms of Sontag, is something that should be seen. This constant state of being uncomfortable help to sharpen our senses to become more aware of the art itself, rather than the meaning. She argues against interpretation because depending on where you are and who you are, you can manipulate the art to explain an aspect of modern society. It’s as if you’ve “conquered” this piece of art and are waiting for the next to be digested and conquered as well. At which point, we have our senses dulled and art is no longer art.

    Again we see the idea of promoting the use of the medium rather than the interpretation. Similar to some of past readings (:

    • Abby Citterman says:

      I agree with the parallels you have pointed out. It is very interesting to see different takes on the way that art should be perceived! One aspect of Sontag’s perspective that seemed particularly unique, though, was her call for critics to help audiences to interpret content on their own. It is the critics that should focus on medium, on form, and offer a formal analysis of either the spatial layout of the work or of the surface-level appearance. The goal is to help the art be appreciated by others, not to detract from the art itself. This seems to be in an attempt to leave room for the individual to extrapolate whatever it is that they want from the art. Criticism should not be a means of classifying the meaning of art, or worse, fabricating the meaning. This should be left to the audience, allowing them to interpret it with the infusion of their own experiences and the use of their own senses. Such interesting overlaps and deviations from others’ perspectives!

      • You thoughts on interpreting art for oneself make sense. Still, I’m not sure that’s what Sontag is saying. Is interpretation the same thing as evaluation?

        • Abby Citterman says:

          Was I supposed to evaluate or interpret her work? (: I think that if someone is magnifying their sensory experience, as Sontag values above critique and superfluous significance or meaning, this embracing of all senses will result in a deeper look into the art and a more authentic experience and appreciation. Immersing oneself into art while having critics share what they perceive to be on the surface is a combination of interpretation and evaluation, as I see it.

          • Yes. You’ve hit on the gist of her argument here. Meaning, despite what our high school teachers tell us, is not the point of art. And to focus on meaning serves almost always to distract us from what is the point: to magnify and dwell with sensory experience. This is not to say that interpretation is never necessary. But it should serve as an antidote to other excesses, not as an immediate response. If anyone needs to be interpreted, Sontag seems to suggest, it is first and foremost the interpreters.

  2. John Stitt says:

    I thought that the camp reading was particularly interesting. I found that there were several interesting points relating to the camp aesthetic and the gay subculture. It is interesting to see that the campy aesthetic – while forever changing – is still very present in modern culture. The Met Gala theme this year is “Camp: Notes on Fashion”. While it can be argued that a big Hollywood event won’t be able to accurately portray the camp aesthetic, it is interesting to note that these visuals still have an effect on popular culture. This effect is also noticeably influenced by drag culture – something that I believe deserves more representation. Things like queer balls from Harlem in the ’80s, club kids in the ’90s, and RuPaul’s drag race now all served to further the camp aesthetic. Many drag performers use the fundamental principles of camp to convey a message and a story through exaggerating an idea to convey a story. I believe that this aesthetic has a large impact on popular culture and that this is conveyed in the article. I believe that camp as an art form is something that isn’t often considered and has had a definitive impact on how people perceive and create art and fashion.

    • Yes. I’m so glad you raise the topics you do. It should be clear to anyone in this conversation that the title for this year’s Met Gala is taken directly from Sontag. Sontag never disparages the value of ‘high’ and ‘serious’, or to use a term from Wordsworth, “sincere’ art. Nevertheless, Sontag acknowledges, if only from observing a preponderance of evidence, that a massive amount of the most intriguing art in Western modern culture is the result of a very different sensibility. Her ‘Notes’ is an attempt responsibly to engage with this sensibility on its own terms, but without turning it into a simple recipe. This response strikes me as evidence of Sontag’s awareness that sensibilities, and their associated objects, are indeed forever shifting. One size clearly does not fit all. I’m tempted to say that this interest in the significance of ‘shifting’ relates back to Steinberg’s thoughts on functionalism; which is to say, fluidity of identity and status. This is perhaps a forced juxtaposition on my part. But such forcing, if done with caution and care, can be highly instructive. In any case, Sontag forces the thoughtful reader to consider that much of the matter from which the avant-garde has drawn derive from pop, or Kitsch culture. While Greenberg claimed that Kitsch drew parasitically on the avant-garde, Sontag suggests that it is a two-way street.

  3. sevinpark says:

    In Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” she opposes the interpreting of art because she thinks it impoverishes and depletes the world. “Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted… What is important now is to recover our sense. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” I thought interpretation is what helped a work of art make more sense and therefore help a viewer see, hear, and feel more, so why is Sontag against the interpretation of art? Although she’s explaining why in the passage, I’m having trouble understanding her reasons.

    • You’re thinking of ‘sense’ in terms of semantics, meaning. This is understandable, since most high school lit classes focus on translating a text, already in English, into something new. For Sontag, however, sense signifies simply sensation, raw or exquisite feeling.

  4. I think Sontag is on to something in “Against Interpretation”.

    “…interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.” is a great observation. The art world is riddled with pseudo-intellectuals that are hell bent on wringing the life out of a piece of art in order to extract meaning- even if there is none to begin with. I find this to be such a good point because it is the first time i’ve seen the topic approached at from this angle.

    The mimetic theory Sontag mentions is deeply ingrained in Western culture and to see it challenged is intriguing. I never noticed how embedded it is in art criticism until Sontag pointed it out.

  5. Kyle Jones says:

    Is the “Camp” about which Sontag writes the same style of campiness that would be found in, for example, the Batman TV show from the 60s or movies like Sharknado? If so, is being asinine, critically panned or even counter-culture necessity for being Camp? That is to say, is Camp a style that reacts to changes in culture or taste, or does it try to be the cause of change?

    • Yes. You have it right. The condition of camp is the failure of seriousness. If something is good on its own intended terms it can’t be camp. One of the things Sontag encourages us to consider is how absurd, or quaint, our culture of ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ appears from outside.

  6. Nick Fontaine says:

    Susan Sontag’s discussion about camp reveals our fascination over the irony in approaching a frivolous subject serious or a serious subject frivolously. I found it extremely fascinating how time can increase campness within older aspects of culture. Does this have an affect on our desire to revive retro designs (clothing, architecture, ect.) ? Also, in the introduction Sontag talks about the formation of an idea when sensibility is crammed into a mold. Does this imply that true sensibility can not be pinned down to a single meaning or definition?

    • It seems to me we return to old styles for various reasons. One is simply the craving for novelty is so great we can scarcely develop new sensations fast enough to keep pace with demand. Consequently, raid the past for matter we can recycle. Another reason for reviving styles is genuine nostalgia for a lost time. I think this come close to Sontag’s interest in Camp. It’s not so much that we miss the look of how things used to be, but we miss the way things used to feel. Sontag is clear that once we have become enlightened and mature, or simply self-conscious about childhood experiences and sensations, there is no going back. We have simply lost our innocence. Camp, however, may offer the closest thing possible to a return. While we may not be to regain our own innocence, it may nevertheless be possible to experience it vicariously through others. Though Sontag doesn’t put it quite this way, I think Camp has much to do with vicarious experience. That might go some way toward explaining Camp’s fascination with artificiality, whatever is second-nature.

  7. Kevin Nielson says:

    The idea of being against interpretation is the very opposite of everything I was taught in art classes throughout my elementary, middle school, and high school education. I can remember in most art classes that I have taken that the thing that the teacher always asks first is for us to interpret the artists meaning behind the work. As a recall my previous school experience very rarely were we asked to focus on the art itself: the medium, the technique. etc as she claims is the important part. I think Sontag has a unique view on how she thinks people ought to perceive the art they are viewing and one that I was never taught.

    • Students tend to be quite surprised when reading this essay, as it does go directly against the grain of all we have been taught in high school. I remember first reading it when I was your age and wondering what in the world to make of it. But that was before I came to see how education in this country is not simply a liberal institution but also a veritable industry. Even if teachers aren’t getting rich – and they’re not – somebody is making a ton of money off the American school experience. Consider, for instance, all the back-to-school sales announced to us every year. I like to believe that schools exist to educate young persons. But viewed from outside of that perspective, they can be seen to serve various other functions. One of those is – as I suggested in class today – the taming of children. This of course depends on not only on what is taught, but – if Sontag is correct – even more so on how it is taught. The search for content – authorial intentions, big ideas, literary themes – if a way of teaching children to be checked out of reality, and this as function of checking out of their as they learn to become oblivious to what is right before their eyes. It could seem to persons that if we didn’t teach students the meaning of art and literature there would be nothing left to teach them. This is an incorrect notion however. We scarcely teach students the meaning of football, and no amount of time and money is spent teaching young persons either to play the game better, or simply enjoy watching others play it well.

  8. Joanna Soh says:

    When reading Sontag’s Note on “Camp”, I felt as thought camp was quite similar to the idea of kitsch that we have talked about in classes before. When doing more research, I found that camp was more of a performance and display of culture rather than how kitsch is the work of art itself. Am I right for thinking this, or am I completely off base?

    • Kitsch and Camp are not identical, but neither are they mutually exclusive. Both are considered bad. But one is exclusively bad, whereas the other is exquisitely and deliciously bad. The performance aspect of camp you mention is perhaps tied to the fact that it is not enough simply to knowingly enjoy what is bad, but one must histrionically discover and loudly celebrate what is bad. People who like Kitsch like unselfconsciously and make little ado about the fact that they like it. Kitsch is obvious and ‘low-brow’. Nobody congratulates themself for liking football. Meanwhile, persons who like camp make a great fuss over their latest ‘schlock’ acquisition. Certain persons do exult over finding the most unbelievable ashtray. Camp, though it loves rubbish, is nevertheless scrutinizing and ‘high-brow’.

  9. Aralia Ward says:

    Sontag’s discussion film is unique from the other authors we have read. Like modern or pop art Sontag argues that at least for now, the media of film as an art is free of interpretation mainly because it was not considered art when it began. Interpretation has always been a problem of art, even Plato and Aristotle disagreed on if art was useless or should function as a healing device. What would the art world look like if all interpretation was gone? Could paintings still be sold for money? Would museums become less picky who gets displayed?

    • I don’t think the art world would change all that much if we today threw out interpretation. In Sontag’s day, which was not so very long ago, criticism and scholarship were predominantly concerned with the meaning of literary texts. This concern has filtered down to high school students today, who are constantly urge to look for the meaning of The Scarlet Letter. One reason young persons have not been so thoroughly drilled to find the meaning within paintings is because visual art is not taught with nearly same frequency as literature as literature. Everybody in America has to take and English class, while not everybody has to take an Art History class. When we do study paintings, it is generally by way of memorizing names, dates, and styles, not meanings. There certainly were historians of art who looked for far more in painting that merely the most identifiable features, and some of their work is quite interesting. In particular, I think of the ‘iconologist’ Erwin Panofsky, and the Marxist T. J. Clark. But Sontag, as you have seen, is not especially impressed with the way these scholars have learned to ‘read’ paintings. More, she is interested in scholarship (including key essays by Panofsky) which discuss how art is able to stir up our feelings and deliver us from the banality of everyday life. This view or art might cause some to accuse Sontag of superficiality, and she, following Oscar Wilde, would be the first to admit it. We want from art, according to Sontag, not profundity, but sensation. Hence, her obsession with ravishing beauty. I could also be opined that today’s art market and its hyper-inflated prices are a reflection of this fascination with ravishing beauty. However, I would argue that today’s art market, however much it pledges its allegiance to beauty, is far more obsessed with prestige. One spends $50 million on a painting not because one considers it beautiful – though one will certainly praise it in those terms – but rather because one wants others to know that one has acquired a masterpiece. Here, I think Steinberg’s sociological view of art production and consumption comes into play.

      Your question about museums and what they chose to display is quite timely. In recent years, museums have increasingly come to depend on corporate donors for funding. Exhibits funded by BP and Sinclair are designed principally to attract large crowds who use museums as tourist destinations. People visit museums, much like they visit the Grand Canyon, not for edification but rather to gawk at things they don’t understand. Whatever museums might have been in the past, they now serve principally as theme parks. Any quick survey of the Instagram accounts of leading museums will confirm this. Consequently, I doubt that stripping meaning from painting would lead to a decrease in sales or attendance. If we were to apply Sontag’s thought effectively today, I think the best place to do that would be in Intellectual Traditions classes. Her recommendation would be that we not teach students to look for ‘deep meanings’ in classics of literature, but rather how to lose themselves in a good read how to refine the pleasure they take from a good read, and how to seek out books that offer more exquisite pleasures. While nobody would argue that Intellectual Traditions deliberately seeks to make Honors students hate reading, I wonder how many IT classes are designed to encourage students to have a genuinely aesthetic experience.

  10. Tasia McConkie says:

    I think I understand Sontag’s main argument in her literary piece Against Interpretation: Forced interpretation leads to “dissatisfaction with the work” . Although I do not necessarily agree on her stance (I know, shoot me), I realize her concern is quite valid from personal anecdotes. Interpretation can be affected by personal biases, therefore, it dilutes the pure nature (?) of the piece. Moreover, it takes away from the ‘natural’ or ‘first’ reaction of a piece. As a solution for this, she suggests that criticisms should be descriptions of the piece’s forms/techniques (?). However, can descriptions be biased as well? Depending on the diction and especially the connotations of words, a description can be horrible or lovely.

    • Sontag would not deny that interpretations can be biased. But she would argue, primarily, that the very desire to interpret is already the result of a biased. You may be right to say that descriptions may also be biased. Sontag herself suggests this when referring to Nietzsche’s claim that there are no such things as facts, only interpretations. Nevertheless, it is far harder to infuse a description – here the editor jumps from an establishing shot to a closeup – with any sort of morality. And it seems to me that Sontag’s most fundamental desire is to convince that a world saturated with morality is not a world worth living in.

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