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Liza Lou, Fire, 2002.
Mixed media, glass beads, and Swarovski crystal

In her 1964 essay Against Interpretation, philosopher and political activist Susan Sontag argues that within the context of our over-stimulated culture of excess, art interpretation just adds more noise to our lives. “Hermeneutics” may have been amazing, creative, and radical in Plato’s time, but now it’s just more “translations.” Artworks are always already translations anyway, so to translate the translation into more words and ideas is redundant and may actually harm more than it helps.

Sontag uses “interpretation” and “translation” interchangeably, and marks certain kinds of art criticism as examples of the impulse to take everything apart and associate the pieces with meanings and references outside themselves. She compares interpretation to automobile fumes, toxic waste, and even to a kind of vampire: “To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.””

It turns out we lose feeling and consciousness when overstimulated (think circumcision). Sontag was writing in response to the encroaching television, but this is even more true today. Thanks to our smartphones, we are living in a state of perpetual interruption that used to be endured only by 911 emergency operators or air traffic controllers. Our phones are exhausting us, yet they are also extension cords into more knowledge, more translations, than ever before. We need to take a moment and make sure that artworks aren’t inadvertently joining this bombardment of information dulling our senses and minds. To regain feeling, and silence, Sontag suggests we release everything extra, and continually return our attention to the art object. “Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”

We should spend less time generating meaning or content, and more time just looking — looking deeply at the form, at its origins, at the sensual reality of its existence: the surfaces, the temporality, the “thingly character of the object,” as Heidegger puts it. Sontag: “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Only then can we give the art our full attention. Otherwise, it’s magic remains lost in space, lost in thought, lost in translations.

Also, with interpretation, no one really transforms or grows. We are given a new way to think and feel about the artwork, and by extension, about ourselves, but not a new way to be human in the world. It has become “translative instead of transformative,” as philosopher Ken Wilber puts it — another version of the “map” eclipsing the “territory.” Art interpretation eclipses the direct experience and transformative power of the artwork itself.

Sontag concludes that in place of a hermeneutics of art, we need an “erotics of art,” where the body and its materiality ground the work into this world — the one we share with the dirt, stones, plants, and other animals. Then, we can experience “the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are.”

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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