Summary: Sontag mines the history of philosophical aesthetics and art criticism for the reasons why interpretation has held us under its spell for the last two millennia. One such reason is our insistence on the form/content dichotomy and the vestigial prioritizing of content in the way we talk about art. Another reason is the discursive, and thus political, control that interpretation enables. A third reason is our willingness to sacrifice our unmediated experience of an artwork, and our sensitivity to an artist’s intentions, for the sake of interpretative success. To counter these “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling” tendencies, Sontag proposes an “erotics of art” – a new emphasis on transparence, which favors description and appreciation over interpretation. This critical ethos does not only change the terms of conceptual engagement; it also opens the gates for creative approaches to art which explicitly challenge vestigial modes of meaning-making and meaning extraction. Even though Sontag does not specifically single any of these approaches out, performance art is arguably the most extreme of the potential candidates.
Comment: This text offers a seminal critique of art interpretation and should be included in any course discussing interpretation and criticism.