Monday, January 26, 2009

Thoughts on Susan Sontag's "Erotics of Art"

Against Interpretation and Toward a New Consciousness of Art:
Thoughts on Susan Sontag’s “Erotics of Art”

When I first read Susan Sontag’s essay, “Against Interpretation,” I knew that I was going to interpret her work on some level like it or not. It’s what I have been trained to do. The process is largely subconscious, it is so deeply ingrained in my psyche. For this reason, I did not want to write a critical essay in response to Sontag’s essay, but upon further meditation (and possibly interpretation) I changed my mind. Sontag’s essay builds up to the final statement, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (7). Sontag does not imply that our experiences with art should be limited to pure sensation, but she does suggest that we, as observers, approach art with a conscious awareness of art as a sensory experience that can be best observed without the weight of content and interpretation on our minds.

Sontag challenges her readers to avoid a traditional and morally oriented understanding of the word, “erotic,” as solely pertaining to the passionate feelings associated with love (“Erotic”). The phrase, “erotics of art,” is difficult to demonstrate because the concept of an erotics hints at something beyond sensuousness. Sontag challenges her readers to think of erotics as neither entirely abstract nor entirely literal, but as a middle ground between the extremes of meaning. The erotics of art that she describes reveals itself at previous points in the essay to be a sensory experience, but she hints that it is a tangible method of observing art through a direct approach. It is a method of approaching art with a raised sensory-consciousness and open mind so that we can experience art in a new, non-defensive manner. In other words, an erotics of art is a method of opening a new set of doors to art by using parts of our bodies and brains that haven’t been exercised or challenged under the hermeneutic approach, and thus transforming the experiences that follow. An erotics of art is flexible; it embodies several meanings and possibilities. As with this claim, many of Sontag’s arguments in “Against Interpretation” challenge readers to strive for a new awareness of the problems with interpretation and approach art with an outlook that is free from the oppressive weight of hermeneutic constraints.

Interpretation, as an element of perception, is a biological process, but it is also a product of hierarchical institutionalization. Humans cannot avoid interpretation, but the natural process of understanding has been disrupted and overpowered by the elitist mimetic theories produced in Greek literary theory. Sontag suggests that art becomes problematic because “Western consciousness” is primarily grounded in Greek theory that suggests that art “is in need of defense” (Sontag 1). While Sontag argues against interpretation as a defense of art, she does not reject it entirely. The experience of observing art is limited because of the defense of art that is manifest in Western hermeneutics. More than interpretation as natural perception, Sontag argues against the institutionalization of interpretation. In response to the exclusionary and strict rules and guidelines associated with art that have been created by Greek theorists and adopted by Western theorists and critics, Sontag proposes an erotics of art.

Unlike with a defensive and disciplined interpretive approach, an erotics of art is not defensive because it is not exclusively a response. An erotics of art is empowering: it allows observers to experience consciousness-raising through the senses. By focusing on the formal qualities of art through the senses and a raised level of awareness, observers will be able to develop a new relationship with art, one that is not bound to the spoken and unspoken rules of interpretation. An erotics of art will change art because it will open art up to new possibilities of thought, experience, and feeling. Through an erotics of art, power dynamics involved in the observation and criticism of art will no longer be skewed (favoring content), and observers will value versatility because they will approach art with a manner of sensuous objectivity that is not manifest in such a way under the hermeneutic approach.

The imbalance that exists between the attention given to content and form is a facet of what Sontag refers to as the “project of interpretation” (Sontag 2). Under this project, content dominates and overshadows form, and so the interpretive experience with art only requires that we, as observers, explore and develop the parts of ourselves that are beneficial in attaining meaning (2). Interpretation as a means of observing and analyzing art has unfortunately become synonymous with content. In order to become more balanced observers—to engage with art in a manner in which interpretation (as content) is not the supreme objective—Sontag urges readers to move away from content and toward form (or toward the middle). Moving toward a formal experience with art will facilitate balance in our approach to art, as well as in our bodies and minds. It will force us to challenge ourselves to experience art more confidently and efficiently. We will be able to rely upon ourselves and the art, rather than upon our interpretive skills and abilities to make connections, which serve to distance us from art. When Sontag addresses content and form, she provides the groundwork for her proposal of an erotics of art as an approach to art that requires balanced awareness and excludes defensive, distancing interpretations.

In “Three Elegies for Susan Sontag,” Ellen Willis suggests that in the seventies, Sontag “ retreated to a more conservative stance on aesthetic issues,” and that her own interests shifted from attaining an erotics of art to questioning morally the pleasures it generates (Willis 3). Willis even goes so far as to suggest that Sontag felt the need to scrutinize art in search of elements of sadomasochism (Willis 3). Despite the possibility that Sontag eventually changed her opinions or further developed them, the points in her essay are relevant and are not dismantled by the possibility that sadomasochism may lurk beneath the surface in some instances where an erotics of art is employed. Even if sadomasochism is involved in the sensuous experience of art, it does not change or render suspect Sontag’s proposal of an erotics of art to “recover our senses” and teach ourselves to “see more, to hear more, to feel more” (Sontag 7). Whereas a hermeneutic approach distances observers from art, an erotics approach allows observers to experience the immediate qualities of art through the use of the senses. The senses are a way for observers to stay with the art and avoid distraction. If an erotics of art is simply a means by which humans are able to “make art real,” then moralistic approaches (which fall dramatically under the category of content) are not relevant or needed (Sontag 7). Sontag separates making art real from interpretation because interpretation is a distraction from art. It is likely that by raising our awareness of sensation, we will be vulnerable to new experiences with art and interpretation, experiences that may be defiant and contradictory.

Sontag alleges that the cinema is an example of an art form that is notoriously direct. She claims that good films are those that are so direct that they “free us from the itch to interpret” (6). While I haven’t seen any of the films to which Sontag refers, I know of this pesky itch and am interested in this idea as it relates to the process of an erotics of art. David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” is a film that brings on an itch for interpretation, but to no avail. I, personally, was not interested in scratching the itch, but my partner allowed it to consume her for awhile. She rented the film repeatedly, until I bought it for her, and then the itch went away. The film provokes a need to interpret with its short, intense scenes, dramatic plots and incoherent storylines, but the need can never be satisfied because there are too many loose ends. Although the film is frustrating for this reason, it is also frustrating for other reasons—it is dark, strident, and sickening. Despite my dislike for the film, it can be watched and understood (with a relatively minute degree of itchiness), if viewers approach the film with an erotics of art.

“Mulholland Drive” encourages viewers to experience the objects and actions in the film as transparent, but it is not utterly successful in achieving this goal because the plots are so intense that they do not allow the viewer to relax and enjoy. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone describes the film as a “sinful pleasure” with “visionary daring, swooning eroticism and colors that pop like a whore’s lip gloss” (qtd. in “Mulholland Dr.”). Travers’ vivid description is much more pleasing to my senses than is the film, but it does demonstrate how the film can be viewed with an erotics of art rather than with a hermeneutic approach. The film may seem distracting and unsatisfying if viewers are primarily concerned with its meaning, but the experience may be completely different if viewers are interested in experiencing its art through their senses. Travers’ description suggests that the film offers the viewer an opportunity to approach art that has a “liberating anti-symbolic quality” (Sontag 6). If readers take Sontag’s advice, they may find “Mulholland Drive” very appealing because they will approach the film with a conscious awareness of art as a sensory experience.

In her introduction to Poetics before Plato, “Poetry, Knowledge, and Interpretation,” Grace Ledbetter claims that “Sontag charges that practicing interpretation tends to corrupt abilities to experience the work of art truly, on a sensuous level” and that Sontag’s “proposal would not reduce encounters to simple thrills or appreciative cries,” but that “she suggests, rather, that there are intricate responses to a work’s form and the experience it induces in its audience” (Ledbetter 3). The erotics of art is the sensuous approach to art, which enables observers to experience art in a way that is tangible. Ledbetter’s explanation of Sontag’s argument against interpretation supports the idea of an erotics of art as a sort of middle ground. Sensory experience is not literal (simple or extreme) nor is it abstract as is the practice of hermeneutical interpretation. It is not just a sensual experience, but a commitment to a direct approach to art that requires that observers look, feel, or see art as it exists and not as it should be or as it was meant to be. Through an erotics of art, observers will be better able to experience art because they will approach art with an sensory awareness that will allow them to grasp its immediate qualities.

Works Cited

“Erotic.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Ed. Oxford UP. 5 Mar. 2006 .

Ledbetter, Grace M. Introduction. “Poetry, Knowledge, and Interpretation.” Poetics before Plato. Princeton UP, 2002. 5 Mar. 2006 .

Mulholland Drive. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller, and Robert Forster. Universal Pictures/Studio Canal, 2002.

Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. 1963. 37 pars. 13 Oct. 2004 .

Willis, Ellen. “Three Elegies for Susan Sontag.” New Politics X.3: 22 pars. 5 Mar. 2006 .

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