Art, Harm, and Interpretation

A long and interesting discussion about art and interpretation at last nights Understanding Philosophy Meetup. We started with Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” and went from there. One of the issues that came up was the potential for harm caused by art or interpretation.

Since Plato philosophers and critics have acknowledged that art can be dangerous. For Plato this was a major reason to banish poets from the republic; art could only distract us from real world of truth and forms. Sontag thinks this fear of distraction is foolish and wants to push us closer to a direct experience of art. For her the danger is the interpreter who erects barriers between the audience and the art, too much interpretation and the erotics of art is lost. I don’t believe Plato’s account that art takes us away from the truth, so I’ll assume that art doesn’t harm us.

But consider the harms of interpretation in more detail. There seem to be at least three cases of harm that interpretation may lead to.

  1. Interpretation may harm the status of a work of art as a work of art. Suppose a novel is hailed as a masterpiece of modernist fiction by 20th century critics, but future critics, in say the 22nd century, decide that it is not worth discussing. Is the work still an artwork in that future time? Accepting the power of interpretation may mean that what is art changes over time. The particular time frame, future or past, is not important to this example because all you need is a long enough period of time for interpretations and canons to change.
  2. Interpretations may harm the viewer of an art object by giving him or her a mistaken or incorrect understanding of the artwork. The idea here is that there are some interpretations of an artwork that are better than other interpretations. In particular the intention of the artist needs to be given some weight. Consider an artist who paints a picture, enters the picture into a contest, wins the contest, and then finds out that the picture was hung upside down. Surely we want to say that a mistake was made, something went wrong, the experience of the artwork for the audience was different than expected or intended. Is this mistake enough to alter the status of an artwork to a non-artwork?
  3. Interpretation may harm the ability of a viewer to appreciate or experience the work of art. Someone who reads about A Streetcar Named Desire as an allegory of the conflict between a brutish barbarism in our culture and the delicacy of Western civilization before they see the play for themselves loses something in the experience. “The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” Sontag cites Freudian and Marxist interpretations as particular examples of harmful interpretations.

I think that Sontag’s major goal is to reject the third type of interpretation. The first is never really mentioned, but may be dealt with elsewhere in her work, and the second is mixed together with her objection to the third. For Sontag the possibility of a correct interpretation, or gradations of correct interpretations, seems questionable. She is more worried about the totalizing dangers of interpretation, for example Freudianism, than privileging any intentions the artist may have.

I don’t think there is any real harm to the viewer of an artwork from interpretation. First of all, interpretation is always already occurring when we encounter a work of art so why worry about it if we can’t escape it. Sontag says “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means. In place of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art.” I’m not sure what this could possibly mean, perhaps I need to read more of her criticism to understand it. This feels like some type of foundationalism, that art would be pure art if we could just get close enough to it, just tear through the curtains of interpretation and experience.

Furthermore, I think that interpretation may actually be a benefit to the audience, may reveal something someone had not considered before. Interpretation slows us down and forces us to pay attention to the artwork that is in front of us. I think that Sontag is not asking us to abandon interpretation but to recognize its limits. A Freudian reading of Streetcar is not correct or incorrect, harmful or safe. It is merely one, among many, possible interpretations, an addition to our potential understanding of the play. Our stance toward an artwork should include an awareness of the cloud of interpretations that surround it. The more we know about these interpretations the more we can appreciate the work of art.

The problem with my reading of Sontag is that it requires a very sophisticated education about art, and possibly even philosophy. The harm question fails to mention the spectrum of abilities that an audience has when it approaches art. I think it is much more likely that a naive art viewer would be harmed by an implausible interpretation than an expert. At the same time the expert can become overconfident and bogged down in overinterpretation to such an extent that a Sontagian encounter with the sensual experience of the artwork may be useful. Sometimes we need to just step back and ask ourselves “What do we see/hear/read here?”

To me the second and third harms can be ameliorated or easily dealt with. I just don’t think that the third holds much weight as I’ve tried to demonstrate because the totalizing danger of interpretation is no longer a live possibility. In part we can thank Sontag for this change. The second harm of mistaken interpretations can be addressed by further discussion and education. Where this leaves the intention of the artist/author I will leave alone for now. The final harm is one that most art philosophy and criticism rarely mentions or even deals with. There is a lot of discussion about the process of canon formation in literary theory, and numerous examples of artistic recovery where a previously forgotten artist or artwork is dug up from the past and reassessed by new standards. Are these changes actually harmful to art in any way? This will require more thought.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.