The Futurist Corporation

Notes on Interpretation
4 June 2010, 6:51 pm
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Still from Dovzhenko's Earth

I cannot prevent myself asking what comment and interpretation really mean… Can scientific investigation ever really triumph so long as men refuse to busy themselves with this question, or so long as they are content to engage themselves with amazing energy upon the work of interpretation with the most superficial understanding of what interpretation really is? For me, at any rate, the question of the true nature of interpretation is the supreme question.

–Karl Barth
The Epistle to the Romans

Susan Sontag wrote in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” that “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” Sontag’s argument was that the act of interpreting a work of art involved divesting the text with some new meaning no where to be found in the work itself. In this schema, the work itself is negated in its own-most presentation. The work is glossed over by new meaning that detracts from the work as it stands. Sontag describes interpretation as “the compliment mediocrity pays to genius.”

This essay will outline a new interpretive model. Not only will we see the importance of interpretation, but we will also show that the act of interpretation is an inevitable part of meeting a work. This essay will critique the idea that some forms of interpretation are permissible while others are suspect. The purpose of this paper is to open up a new freedom to the interpreter and vindicate him as a creative agent.

An excellent example of the need for interpretation is in Upton Sinclair’s social realist novel The Jungle. In this case we know what the author’s intentions were. Sinclair was a socialist, and he wanted his novel to reveal the appalling labor conditions in the meatpacking industry so that working standards for laborers in all industries could be improved. The work’s reception provoked an entirely different reaction. The book lead to widespread reforms in government industrial regulation and prompted the creation of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate food production.

The author was horrified that popular interpretation of his text departed so radically from his own. Sinclair famously lamented, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

In this case, the meaning of the book extended beyond what the author originally had in mind. If politicians and literary critics had not separated the author’s intentions from the text, and formed a new interpretation of the text, those reforms may not have taken place. By giving the text an interpretation not supported by the author’s intention, the work inspired lasting reform.

The fact that no definition conclusively can be reached as to what interpretation really entails indicates that interpretation itself must be interpreted. The sundry discursive accounts of numerous other aesthetes and legal scholars as to the true nature of interpretation indicate that interpretation itself must be interpreted. How can a single interpretive model ever be decided upon? That perfect model would enter into a relation to the critic who reads about it, and the model creates itself anew in this interpreter’s brain. The same human subjectivity that “prevents” us from reaching a universal conclusion as to the correct account of constitutional authority or the authentic reading of a Haydn fugue, acts upon us in our attempt to apprehend interpretation itself. To announce naïvely that a single interpretive model is the authentic one shows the same sort of myopia that the Freudian or the Marxist reveal when they announce their philosophical schema illuminates the “true” meaning of an artistic text.

Arthur C. Danto presents an interpretive model in which interpretation is broken down into “surface interpretation,” and “deep interpretation.” In surface interpretation, the reader analyzes only those aspects of the work that the author himself would have known. (Though this move of trying to get inside someone else’s head may be pretty psychologically suspect, we persist). Surface interpretation involves, the author’s “clear” intentions for how the work is to be read, it’s technical considerations, and the basic, substance of the text which requires little elucidation. Deep interpretation considers the way in which the reader understands the work. This type of interpretation considers the meaning of the text, its implications, and its meaning. Whether this is the meaning the author had in mind or if it is applied to the text from some other standpoint is irrelevant.

Danto admits that deep interpretation can leads to a plethora of conclusions about a particular work. However, he maintains, this can only be done after a surface interpretation of the work is established. This surface interpretation should remain relatively fixed no matter what other schema one wishes to apply to the work in a (later) deep interpretation.

Danto defines these forms of interpretation as loosely correlative of the distinctions inner and outer—a distinction he all the while admits is itself problematic. Danto’s model then becomes suspect when we examine the implications of separating what can “easily” be said about a work, and what can only be found “deeply” in the work.

When we look at the painting of Francisco Goya, Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, the title clearly indicates that the subject matter is Carlos IV of Spain and his family. It is a fairly straightforward group portrait, commissioned by the royal family. When we look at the painting, we can recognize a group of men and women of various ages standing together in royal-looking attire. Thus, a concession that this painting is, in fact, about Carlos IV of Spain and his family, seems not at all unreasonable.

A surface interpretation of this painting then would say it is a portrait depicting Carlos IV of Spain and his family. A deep interpretation of this work might argue that this painting is actually an indictment about royal abuses of power, or a subversive mockery of royal excess or incompetence. This interpretation might even be justified by historical evidence, such as Goya’s later politically skeptical works or his written feelings towards the monarchy.

This interpretation invokes historical knowledge about Francisco Goya to arrive at a “deep” conclusion. Such evidence is not necessary to make such a claim. A deep interpretation might refrain from invoking such historical documents and external points of reference. The same sort of reading of Carlos IV of Spain and His Family as a subversive political statement might be reached from an examination of the uneasy body postures of the subjects, the uncomfortable amount of space above and below the figures, or the brooding darkness that creeps in from the left canvas space.

If the reader notices the dark tones on the left before noticing, “Oh, it’s a portrait,” his surface interpretation would differ from the critic who sees that the painting is portrait and then examines the artist’s use of color.

In this example we are not forcing the painting into a schema as the argument from historical context does. It is only the immediacy of the work itself that is being referenced. And yet, we still find it possible to reach a conclusion of dubious veracity (that is while still in surface interpretation mode). That is to say, even when interpretation brackets out concerns that Danto would consider “deep,” the reading may still be considered contentious. This blurs the line between a deep interpretation and a surface interpretation.

As will be shown, Danto’s interpretive model breaks down when we move beyond texts that appear representational. Let us now consider Jackson Pollock’s 1950 painting Number 32. Pollock’s paintings depart so entirely from form that any critic who attempts to pin down an absolute subject that is represented could only be ridiculed. The critic who looks at Number 32 and says the painting clearly represents a band of spiders tearing each other limb from limb over a few bread crumbs, would be just as open to skepticism as the critic who claims this painting presents the artist’s disgust with the complacency of bourgeois society.

In the latter of these examples, Pollock’s paintings are much further removed from a representational counterpart in the phenomenal world than Goya’s. And yet, a reading of Goya’s Carlos IV of Spain and His Family that identifies a clear subject matter is considered less contentious under Danto’s interpretive model than a reading of Pollock’s Number 32 that identifies a clear subject matter. Pollock had an intent and a vision to express just the same as Goya did. His visual language is just denser, and less clear than Goya’s. A surface interpretation of Goya’s painting would have to include the sense one gets that this a portrait, but the surface interpretation of Pollock’s painting could not include such a judgment. The surface interpretation of one does not contain the same elements as a surface interpretation of another.

In the case of Goya and in the case of Pollock, both used paint (different kinds to be sure). Both titled their works. Both used stretching boards of a particular size stretched with a particular type of canvas. But even these technical considerations are not made clear to the viewer immediately. I know Pollock used house paint because have accounts of his technique. But the viewer only has the immediacy of the visual impact. Even if one states a seemingly objective fact, such as the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the painting, this information becomes another discursive consideration. It comes after the painting is critically examined (with a ruler), not from a surface investigation of the painting’s immediacy. Even the colors one sees in each of these paintings would differ depending on the lighting of the room in which the paintings are displayed.

To separate out interpretations of artistic works that seem to present overly radical accounts of the text from straightforward accounts is an error. To distinguish between surface interpretation and deep interpretation is to say that one reading of the text can easily be agreed upon, and indeed must be agreed upon, and another reading of text requires heavier speculation. This model presents a particular norm of experience as universal. One could infer from such an argument that not only must there be universal way of reading a text, but that there is also a universal way of experiencing reality.

True story: A critic views Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s film Earth, and concludes that the film is a piece of medical realism, raising awareness for a fatal health condition known as dance-itis. A serious film scholar reads this interpretation and contends that this is an error. The film in fact promotes a move towards a more socialist Russia through dark pastoral portraits, he explains. The shot in which Vasili dies while performing a joyful dance is later clarified as the result of a deadly gunshot. Nowhere in the Russian or the English translation can be found a word that even approximates a condition that could be called dance-itis. Nevertheless, the first critic maintains, the theme of death that haunts this film is directly related to the parallel theme of dancing.

The medical realist interpretation of the film is not a result of deep interpretation—it is in fact Critic A’s immediate reaction upon seeing the shot. Vasili falls—the critic thinks, “Dance-itis strikes again.” The later sequence in which the entire village dances with joy at their renewed commitment to the soil only confirms this critic’s diagnosis.

The same sort of consideration goes for any of the seven deadly critical schemata: Deleuzian Rhizome Theory, Freudian critique, Lacanian critique, Feminist critique, Marxist critique, Social constructionism, or Deconstruction. The classic example of interpretation gone awry is the Freudian screaming about phallic symbols, or the Marxist crying about the plight of the working class after reading a text that most would agree is about neither.

The argument against such wild interpretations is that they force the text into an interpretive schema rather than allowing the text to speak for itself or to be “just what it is.” Sontag’s famous essay is one such instance, but her feelings have become well respected in critical debates.

If we compare Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp and Olympia by Edouard Manet, both show a female nude of pale skin contrasted against a darker background. Manet’s image as not at all difficult to make out. If a critic were to suggest a reading in which Olympia actually shows an empty bed in front of a Venetian lamp, he would be mocked. This is because Manet’s style is clear and fairly representational. However, it is less easy to disprove the critic who claims that Duchamp’s Nude Descending is not nude at all but is actually wearing a bracelet on her right wrist. This is because Duchamp paints less representationally than abstractly (I mean only that his works abstract further from visual forms than Manet’s. I do not intend to associate Duchamp with the American Abstractionists).

The fact is that neither image shows a nude at all. They are both merely paint on a canvas. If I see a woman or a display of bourgeois excess or a Venetian lamp, all these are only my own mental constructs and all are products of interpretation. There is no difference. I must use interpretation to reach any of these conclusions. A critic often will not notice this dynamic since he has become culturally accustomed to seeing an image and directly categorizing it. Even if there is not any moment of apprehension between when I see the Manet and when I know that it is a nude woman, the critic still uses his brain to turn the paint on canvas into art.

To give preponderance to a noncontentious interpretation over a less appreciated one is to deny interpretation altogether.

Schemata that argue to the contrary often, but not always, will suffer from the same problematic notion of ontology. A reading of any of these texts as existing in an objective state out in the world will inevitably fall into the problem of assuming that the painting looks “just so.”

Each viewer forms his own relationship to the text. To make claims about the state of this text outside of one’s own relationship to it leads to interpretive bigotry. When the interpreter forgets his position as viewer, he denies that nay relationship exists and insists that this reading or that reading is “reasonable.” The assumption that the work’s properties bear an overwhelming weight towards a single reading, even if it is a broad one, can come only from the critic who fails to see the limits of his subjective position as a viewer. The music of a concerto will change every time it is performed. The listener experience differs depending on where one sits in the concert hall.

A work’s identifiable properties ultimately reflect the state of the critic as much as the state of the work of art. We cannot say that a symphony evokes a certain mood unless we know what this mood is like before listening to the work. We cannot call Mahler’s symphonies “triumphant” unless we know what triumph feels like. We can now understand John Cage’s comment that the function of music is “to help people attain a more intense awareness of their own lives rather than to express a conceit of the composer.” Interpretation is a conversation, and both the work of art and the critic must bring whatever they can to exchange.

One fear with such an open approach to textual interpretation is that a critic could potentially claim to be interpreting a work of art and instead describe something wholly else. Imagine the film critic who describes his day leading up to the film, arrives a half hour late, and writes his review about the popcorn. The critic in this instance could claim that he is reviewing the film when in fact he is just reviewing his own stupid life, and leaves the reader with no idea whether to see this movie or not.

If we have an open interpretive model, there truly would be no way to prevent such an interpretation, or even to prevent its being called an interpretation. For even a piece written thusly could be executed well. Indeed almost every article Hunter S. Thompson ever wrote for Rolling Stone did exactly this. Hunter S. Thompson may not have given a very clear picture of the 1970 Kentucky Derby, or even who the winner was. But in “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” he does give a clear picture of what Hunter S. Thompson does at the races. If I wanted to know the winner of this race, I probably should have read someone else’s account.

In the performance of a piece, say an opera, a gnawing urge remains. It may seem that some sort of homage ought to be given to the original writer. If I were to perform Wagner’s Parsifal it would seem that some manner of respect to the authorial intent or SOMETHING ought to influence the way I present the show. A historicist model of interpretation might examine how the opera was performed at the Second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. A literalist interpretation might look at the near-complete lack of stage directions and production specifications and conclude that a complete absence of set or elaborate costumes must result. A contextualist model might change the setting from Arthurian Spain to the Wild West. But if we are to allow an open contextualist model, how can the snobby opera critic prevent some upstart director from altering the dialogue? Or the score itself?

The answer again is that this cannot be done. It would remain a directorial task to decide if the director’s own dialogue would serve the director’s purposes better than the author’s original words. If such a brazen interpretation causes a riot on opening night, then so be it–good art sparks riots.

Each interpretation is a completely new work. No matter how near or far the performer stays to the original text, it will always be filtered through the performer. The author can make clear that the purpose of this work is to illuminate the genius of Wagner or Gershwin or whomever, but it will always be the director’s creative output. Wagner may have written the script and the score, but someone must still direct the opera. If Wagner’s genius is the theme of the performance, one ought to credit him as such. To do otherwise would be a breach of copyright laws. If the director’s own “genius” is the focus, then that director should take credit for his own ideas. An intercourse between the director’s hand and the author’s cannot be forbidden any more than any other legal, ethical artistic endeavor.

In the same way, the discursive interpretation of an artistic work is also itself a type of creative production. The critic who writes a fuming review of my Wild West version of Parsifal is writing to reveal the lack of genius of the opera’s director, in the same way that I directed the play to reveal the genius of Wagner. Wagner, it might be noted, would not have written this opera at all except that he felt free to give his own liberal interpretation of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century poem Parzival. If this is the case, then perhaps Jean-Luc Godard was right in saying that the best way to criticize someone else’s film is to answer it with a film of your own.

To interpret is to create. Reading a text is to enter into a relation with that text and all one’s individual nuances and background research may come out as one decides how to respond to that text. If one is a Freudian, this will be revealed in one’s review, but if one sees cigars only as cigars, this to will be reflected in one’s response.

One’s interpretation may be a written review of the piece or a straightforward performance of that piece or an avant-garde one. Or one may be inspired to generate a new piece that professes no ties to the original work. One would not be enabled to do any of these things if it were not for those individualizing aspects of human subjectivity. To say privilege a single reading of a text as normative, or clear, is to misunderstand one’s role as an interpreter and to misunderstand one’s position as a human being.

Every act of interpretation is an achievement of the soul.


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