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Against Interpretation

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Title: Against Interpretation  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Susan Sontag, Notes on "Camp", Aesthetic interpretation, 1966 books, The Silence (1963 film)
Collection: 1966 Books, Books of Literary Criticism, Essay Collections, Interpretation, Works by Susan Sontag
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Against Interpretation

Against Interpretation
Author Susan Sontag
Country United States
Language English
Genre Literary criticism
Publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Publication date
OCLC 171772

Against Interpretation is a collection of essays by Susan Sontag published in 1966. It includes some of Sontag's best-known works, including "On Style," and the eponymous essay "Against Interpretation." In the last, Sontag argues that in the new approach to aesthetics the spiritual importance of art is being replaced by the emphasis on the intellect. Rather than recognizing great creative works as possible sources of energy, she argues, contemporary critics were all too often taking art's transcendental power for granted, and focusing instead on their own intellectually constructed abstractions like "form" and "content." In effect, she wrote, interpretation had become "the intellect's revenge upon art." The essay famously finishes with the words, "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art".


  • Contents 1
  • Summary 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5



"Against Interpretation" is Sontag's influential essay within Against Interpretation and Other Essays that discusses the divisions between two different kinds of art criticism and theory: that of formalist interpretation, and that of content-based interpretation. Sontag is strongly averse to what she considers to be contemporary interpretation, that is, an overabundance of importance placed upon the content or meaning of an artwork rather than being keenly alert to the sensuous aspects of a given work and developing a descriptive vocabulary for how it appears and how it does whatever it does. She believes that interpretation of the modern style has a particular “taming” effect: reducing the freedom of a subjective response and placing limitations or certain rules upon a responder. The modern style of interpretation is particularly despised by Sontag in relation to the previous classical style of interpretation that sought to “bring artworks up to date”, to meet modern interests and apply allegorical readings. Where this type of interpretation was seen to resolve conflict between past and present by revamping an art work and maintaining a certain level of respect and honour, Sontag believes that the modern style of interpretation has lost sensitivity and rather strives to “excavate...destroy”[1] a piece of art.

Sontag asserts that the modern style is quite harmful; to art and to audiences alike, enforcing hermeneutics- fallacious, complicated “readings” that seem to engulf an artwork, to the extent that analysis of content begins to degrade, to destroy. Reverting to a more primitive and sensual, almost magical experience of art is what Sontag desires; even though that is quite impossible due to the thickened layers of hermeneutics that surround interpretation of art and that have grown to be recognised and respected. Sontag daringly challenges Marxian and Freudian theories, claiming they are “aggressive and impious”.[2]

Sontag also refers to the contemporary world as one of “overproduction... material plentitude [sic]”,[3] where one's physical senses have been dulled and annihilated by mass production and complex interpretation to the extent that appreciation of the form of art has been lost. To Sontag, modernity means a loss of sensory experience and she believes (in corroboration with her theory of the damaging nature of criticism) that the pleasure of art is diminished by such overload of the senses. In this way, Sontag asserts that inevitably, the modern style of interpretation separates form and content in a manner that damages an artwork and one's own sensorial appreciation of a piece.

Though she claims that interpretation can be “stifling”, making art comfortable and “manageable” and thus degrading the artist’s original intention, Sontag equally presents a solution to the dilemma she sees as an abundance of interpretation on content. That is, to approach art works with a strong emphasis on form, to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.”[4]

See also


  1. ^ Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), p. 7
  2. ^ Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), p. 13
  3. ^ Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), p. 11
  4. ^ Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), p. 14

External links

  • Page for Against Interpretation on official Sontag site
  • For and Against InterpretationLouise Norlie, essay in response to Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation
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