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Jones, Amelia, and . Art History / Art Criticism: Performing Meaning

1999, In: Performing the Body / Performing the Text. Ed. Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson. New York: Routledge. 39-55.

Summary: Jones’ essay offers a critique of philosophical and art-historical interpretation. Her main contention is that attributions of meaning in philosophical aesthetics and art criticism are traditionally a manner of top-down bestowal – i.e. artworks are rendered intelligible by certain pre-established and often institutionalized conceptual paradigms. In this, the often unstable meanings of art works themselves are not only inadvertently lost but often even intentionally stifled. To rehabilitate such meanings, and destabilize the homogenous discourses that try to contain them, Jones proposes a “feminist phenomenological approach… deeply invested in performing meaning.” What this amounts to is a newfound sensitivity to all aspects of art – the performative, physical, contingent, messy, gendered, theatrical, emotional etc. – that have been systematically marginalized by philosophers and art critics since Kant. There is, according to Jones, an intractable economy of desire that absorbs artistic creation into the cumulative enterprise of human interaction and, instead of sweeping it under the rug for the sake of stability, philosophers and art critics should engage this economy on its own tentative terms.

Comment: Useful in classes on art interpretation. Can inspire great discussions when read together with (parts of) Kant's Critique of Judgment.

Sontag, Susan, and . Against Interpretation

2009, Penguin Modern Classics

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.