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Who wants to admit that they don’t “understand” a work of art ?.
Within Susan Sontag’s essay against interpretation, she suggests that “in most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave a work of art alone . Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art .Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable”.
It could be suggested that interpretation is therefore used to “understand” art. To create an interpretation, content is abstracted to provide a meaning, the meaning is then used to render the work to have a use eg ”reveals a truth” and gives the work value. If the art work is difficult to manage it could be suggested that the work challenges the viewer to question the “reality” of how we interpret contemporary art.
In Albert Camus’s essay The myth of Sisyphus , he explores what he truly calls a philosophical problem which is suicide. The essay questions whether suicide is a solution to the absurd. Camus suggests that to commit suicide it to confess that life is to much, and that you don’t understand, “its not worth the trouble”. Camus is not proposing that suicide is the answer to not “understanding”, although uses the concept of the absurd man to evaluate how we deal with adding value to life when we feel we don’t “understand”.
There seems to be an analogy between the confession of not “understanding “ an art work and suicide, although an extreme comparison, the constant search for a coherent context and meaning in art only seems to epitomize the way in which we rationalize and conduct our day to day lives. He says
”the regularity of an impulse or a repulsion in a soul is encountered again in habits of doing or thinking, is reproduced in consequences of which the soul knows nothing.
Camus believes that absurdity can effect any man at any moment., transforming the rational into the irrational, or the irrational into the rational. He describes the process as,
“It happens that the stage set collapse. Rising, tram , four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work , meal, sleep, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm- this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins with that weariness tingled with amazement. ’Begins’ - this is important . Weariness comes at the end of the acts of the mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of conciseness. It awakens consciences and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes , in time , the consequence: suicide or recovery “.
The ethos of the “absurd man” seems to epitomize the constant search for a meaning and value in art. The absurd man only becomes absurd because he wanted to find a true “understanding”/meaning of life in which he could value. When he feels he has reveled the “truth” he is then free from hoping for a better future or of creating a true meaning. Without a true meaning his life could be rendered to be futile with the emotional response/consequence of suicide. If a artwork provokes the viewer to feel that they don’t “understand” it could also be difficult for a viewer to give an art work value. This could mean that the work is also seen as futile and pointless. This seems to be where recovery is important for Camus. The term recovery could be used to describe the viewer who finds value in an artwork, even if they find it “absurd” or unintelligible.
Therefore does an artwork need a clear “understanding” or meaning for a viewer to be able to give the work value?
In her essay against interpretation Suzanne Sontag uses the logic, innocence of someone who has never addressed art theory to explain that you don’t need to “understand” to really “understand” art., She says “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew ( or thought one knew ) what it did.” Sontag suggests that interpretation stifles the experience of viewing art. By comparing the “unskilled” or inexperienced viewer to the philistine she says, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”.
Sontag is therefore proposing that there is something beyond the world of meanings, which is as valuable to the viewer as intelligible ‘understanding” .
It could therefore be suggested that as the absurd man, an emotional response to the feeling of not ‘understanding’ is a viable way of dealing with a work of art.
For example. If a film makes a viewer laugh but they don’t ‘understand’ why they are laughing, definitively they are still laughing. If Suzanne Sontag’s view is viable, the laughter could be rendered as a true” understanding” of the art work, which could then be given value.
In contradiction in Stewart Sutherlands book irrationality, he also compares the logic of someone with little knowledge with the misguided logic of a small child. He says ”Rationality can only be assessed in the light of what a person knows: it would be foolish for anyone who has minimal acquaintance with astronomy to try to reach the moon, by climbing a tree, but the same behavior on the part of a small child might be entirely rational even if somewhat misguided.
Sutherlands view seems to rationalize Sontag’s. He proposes that rationality takes two forms , rational thinking and rational decisions. He defines rational thinking as a process which leads to the conclusion that is perceived to be the most correct from the knowledge that one has. He describes rational decisions as an action which is most likely to achieve its objective or end. Sutherlands views would therefore render the absurd man to be foolish and misguided, as he ignores the knowledge that once made him happy and peruses to find a “true meaning.” The same could be said for a viewer that finds value in an artwork through a “misguided” emotion. For Sutherland there seems to be a responsibility of making rational decisions. It could be suggested that the viewer has the responsibility to acknowledge or try to find a meaning in a artwork. This is because it would be absurd that an artist would be presenting work which has nothing to say. It could also be suggested that by not finding a meaning the viewer in not only rendering the work futile , but the endeavor in which the artist undertook to make the work and the people/ exhibition in which are presenting the work .
Sontag acknowledges that the viewer is always going to interpret because as Sutherland proposes “it is the rational way to understand” although she perceives it to be a problem. “for now to the end of consciousness we are stuck with the act of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or other means of defense.”
Maybe the only way to make the argument more neural it to evaluate whether either forms of interpretation give the viewer enjoyment.
If the viewer ‘ understands’ an artwork through the means of operations and knowledge does this give them more enjoyment and fulfillment ?
From the quote used in the introduction Hollis Frampton. He says, “ Necessarily, what I have to say will be difficult to apprehend, I it is original enough to be worth saying at all. That is my half of the communicative process. Yours must be to sensitize and educate yourself fully enough to be able to understand. It is only when two people – filmmaker and viewer in this case – can meet at equals that true communication can take place.”
Hollis adversity towards the woman’s response, seems to amplify the major problem of the term ‘ understanding’.
He seems to think that for the woman to truly ‘ understand’ she should have ‘educated’ herself to enjoy his work.
For her to ‘educate ‘ herself he is implying that she should of know the ethos of experimental film as well as the operations and modes of ‘understanding’ before she could justify questioning his ideas. For Hollis is seems that is not his problem if she is to ignorant to ‘understand’.
There seems to be one major problem with Hollis’s adversity. He is not only rendering himself to be a philistine but experimental film .There seems to be a slight contradiction in his argument though. If experimental film is supposed to be form over context, and it is context that makes a viewer feel that they should interpret and make art “comfortable” then it could be suggested that experimental film should be the revenge against the philistine in art.
Therefore experimental film , is in Sontag’s terms is “ against interpretation”. Although as evident in Sontag’s work, Camus, Sutherlands, and Hollises , no viewer or artist, can totally avoid ‘interpretation’ .
So therefore could it be suggested that education and knowledge only amplifies a viewers, endeavor to find the ‘true meaning’ of an artwork.
In Camus essay between yes and no , he compares the “understanding of the world” between a disabled mother and her son. The essay explores the sons emotions for his mother, as he tries to ‘understand ‘ whether he lovers her . Camus says “He feels sorry for his mother; is this the same as loving her? She has never hugged or kissed him, for she would not know how.”
It could be suggested that if the mother was the artist and the son was the viewer, the viewer could feel no need to interpret as they would have no means of ‘understanding’ how to ‘understand’ ;as the son has no means of ‘understanding’ what true love should be between a mother and her son.
In Turn the artist would have no expectations of how the viewer should deal with the work and the artist and viewer would be at equals.
As the narrative of the essay develops the mother is attacked in the families flat. The doctor advises the son that he should spend the night with her. Whilst he lies next to her Camus says, “ With the last midnight trams all human hope seemed drained away, all the certainty’s of city noises gone. The house was still humming with their passage; then little by little everything died away. All that remained was a great garden of silence interrupted now and then by the sick woman’s frightened moans. He had never felt so lost. The world has melted away, taking with it the illusion that life begins again each morning. Nothing was left, his studies, ambitions, things he might choose in a restaurant, favorite colors. Nothing but the sickness and death he felt surrounded by . . . And yet, at the very moment that the world was crumbling, he was alive.
As Camus uses the term ‘illusion’ to imply that the son found another world which was far removed from the world in which was ‘supposed to be reality’ , for he could find no means to value his ‘irrational’ dreams and likes , Sontag also implies that the world of interpretation and meaning only depletes ‘ the true world’ to try to make another.(“ This Worlds”! As if there were any other.)
As Camus and Sontag , maybe a true ‘understanding’ is far beyond anything that is comprehendible through a world of meanings, although its seem daft to not rationalize whether thinking in such as way , can really make a viewer happy.
As for any art form , most people that go to a experimental film screening are going to have a certain interest in experimental film . Whether it be that they already believe that they ‘understand’ and have knowledge of the operations and implications of experimental film ;or that they are a novice viewer that’s wants to learn more .Therefore they must be gaining some form of enjoyment from the process of going to and watching experimental film. Could it therefore be suggested that interpretation is a key to enjoyment of the arts. As people want to ‘understand’?
There seems to be no implication in the real world of having knowledge , it only seems to open opportunities. For example . A viewer that has knowledge and feels comfortable talking about experimental film , is going to have more chance of getting into conversation with someone one else who also has an interest in experimental film , in which they can gain enjoyment.
If its all lie where is the fun in that !.
In Camus myth of Sisyphus ,”the gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
Camus describes Sisyphus as the absurd hero as he says “ I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain!. One always finds ones burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity than negates the gods and raises the rock. He to concludes that all is well.
For Camus the absurd hero is the man that through all his troubles accepts his fate which is to carry “on rolling” ‘trying’ which allows him to be happy. Even though the absurd hero still feels burden it is how he deals with his burden that makes him the absurd hero.’ .Camus says
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate, He is stronger than his rock.
There seems to be a link between the absurd hero and the viewer. If we have to accept that we are always going to interpret , consciously or unconsciously, then maybe the viewer should make it more engaging by applying knowledge, and embarrassing there’ task’. Which could be to give artworks value thought interpretation and meaning.
If the viewer enjoys embracing such a ‘task’ with conviction , maybe interpretation is not the revenge of the intellect upon art, but is the pursuit to make the world a more interesting, exciting place and the push boundaries.