Why Interpret Art?

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Art: “Dreamers” by Shreya

A short course in Categories in Art (posted earlier here, here & here) early this year has left me with a slightly accentuated sense of “works” of art, “artists” and “forms”. It also made me think about what art is and examine why some claim an exclusive “understanding” of art whereas each one of us are capable of experiencing art ourselves. That is as far as that art course helped me. The other outcome – that it generated a range of questions on art. When did understanding take over experience, along the course of art’s journey? A journey which perhaps is as old, in temporal sense, as the history of man.  Why is it that a criticism of art today occupies so much space than practice or experience of it, in our times? What makes the practice of art lose to the critic’s gaze?

Trained historians and art historians at that, will open a can of processes answers to these questions. But that does not settle it. Those who argue that art is always figurative claim that this is universal, whereas an artist – painter, dancer, writer, poet and musician would attest that it is not always that they have tried to make a statement or convey a thought with the pieces that they have created. Sometimes, they are just that, a creation of one’s own because the creator enjoyed the experience – the kinetic or the action element of creating something. Inspiration or the drive to do it can take a backstage or can kick in, in subtler forms. This does not seem to fit well with the mainstream idea of art as being figurative or those who subscribe to the mimetic theory of art.

Personally, it is quite a divergent way of thinking for me and reflects the learning process. A few months earlier, on art criticism and scholarly engagement with arts, I wrote

While I acknowledge that this method oriented experience of arts is too clinical and perhaps doesn’t remain an experience anymore I would argue that it delivers on greater insights into the context, form and style of the art work.

And the other day I tweeted – “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”. This made a relevant point of start to explore the current obsession with interpretation. These are Sontag’s brilliant words on interpretation, which my friend (a non -conforming artist herself) found interesting as well.  And here is the complete paragraph from Susan Sontag’s  Against Interpretation which ends with that line above. The other reason to share it is that I have been exploring Sontag’s writings for some time now. They are remarkable, for they stand as relevant today in the same intensity, if not more, as they were in 1961, when the book was first published.

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.

Sontag seems to be unsatisfied with limiting it to art alone, and goes further to say –

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 enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.

The lines reflect a confidence of thought and belief which the critics and historians seldom reflect. These lines had a near effect of bulldozing the ideas I learnt in that arts course I referred to and also the bulk of modern discourses on art. I am now clearing the landscape of my “understanding” of art and rather building it on “experience” which I should have done to begin with. It is partly to do with the realization that art is an experience first. This experience originates in the action of doing something, connecting and relating to it. The artist embodies art and often becomes one with the process itself. Why is this not important? It appears that we have completely dispensed with the praxis and rather interested in looking only at the end product. This is a clear dumbing down which would are a recipe for impoverished times ahead, just as they appear now. On theory , Sontag’s is a rather clear explanation of the status quo –

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 accessory.

Some distance has sure been covered away from the old mimetic theory to the new as is evident today. It is easier to suggest that art is not merely or necessarily a reflection of an outer reality but that it can be about subjective expression as well. That art is a subjective expression gains currency with the abstract art that we see around. Sontag argues that the main feature of the mimetic theory still persists i.e. of content.

A move away from the urge to interpret art should set us free from the appalling materialistic, exact and predictable future that the society stares at. There isn’t a need to fit subjectivity into formal, systematized forms of understanding, even if it could lend itself to such a rude and ridiculous approach.  In fact, when I look around to my friends and those who I know engage with art in whatever form, they are all individuals exhibiting strikingly different ideas and reflect a highly individualistic experience of art. I find almost all their works fascinating and they make me think about the amazing capacities of human mind that gushes out in these myriad forms in our everyday life.

So what is the point, the reader may ask. And let me run back to make it, with Sontag’s words –

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 is 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. 

Tough times for dreamers?

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One comment

  1. praveenasridhar · July 27, 2013

    Tough times for ‘logically thinking’ dreamers. Not dreamers who just dream.

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