Of Susan, Jackson, Lou, Mark and Roy or On Interpretation, Abstract Expressionism, Socialist Realism and the Bhaskarian dialectic

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at SPAMqut.edu.au
Mon Aug 9 22:22:02 MDT 1999

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1<color><param>0000,0000,ffff</param><bigger><bigger>. Sontag on
Interpretation: From Content to Form


Susan Sontag's _Against Interpretation_ was written in 1964. This is an
elegant piece with an engagingly approachable style. The tone is that of
the very well read expert. I imagine her as a distinctly New York
phenomenon -very Irish, possibly Jewish; at once local and cosmopolitan.=20
On the cover of my copy of her book (1967) she looks stunningly beautiful
- dark eyes, black hair and pale brooding face.

Her first move in this essay is to locate historically the relationship
between form and content and to argue that content has been prioritised.
According to Sontag interpretation takes place when we take a set of
elements X from a work and say that they mean Y.  She goes on to argue
that the urge to interpretation begins in the post mythical age when
humanity found the old religious texts such as the Iliad or the Bible as
in some way unseemly and had to rescue them by interpreting them.  Modern
interpretation is however less reverent.  Here the intention towards the
text is often aggressive as the philosopher asserts her superiority over
the work of art.  Sontag cites two principal contemporary schools of
interpretation - Freudian and Marxist.

She does not fight fair here. The examples she gives of Freudian
interpretation are crass in the extreme and no serious Freudian critic
would advance them.  On Marxism she is totally silent.  Were there any
major Marxist critics in New York in 1964? Frankly I doubt it. The Cold
War had raged for seventeen years and its work was largely done. America
was ground zero as far as Marxist thought was concerned. Nevertheless the
reference to Marxism is especially significant.  If I might indulge in a
spot of interpretation myself, it marks the space of that which must be
repressed.  Marx is here the bogey-man of whom all children must be told
in hushed tones and all who hear must close their eyes in holy dread lest
he come to get them.

Such fear of the "Communist menace" was the absolute essence of Cold War
propaganda and it was enormously widespread and lasting.  An anecdote
might illustrate my point here. Once in 1975 I was rummaging through a
church-run second hand store and I picked up a Communist Party pamphlet
from their book-stall.  I was astonished and delighted by my find. I
showed it to the old dears in charge and asked them jokingly how much
they wanted for the communist publication.  I swear, they looked at it in
horror and near terror and one said "Where did that come from?" and the
other said, "Oh, I hope they don't come here."

So for Sontag Marxist interpretation is bad but she won't give any
indication how a Marxist would actually interpret a text. She is more
forthcoming about Freud, but even here there is a whiff of scandal and so
her example is crass and actually atypical. But Sontag is not deterred by
a lack of detail in her argument. She caricatures Marxism and Freudianism
as 'aggressive and impious theories of interpretation' (p 16).=20

Sontag does concede that once interpretation might have been liberating.
Unfortunately she does not give us an example.  She is content to argue
that today interpretation is 'reactionary, impertinent, cowardly,
stifling' (p17). Unfortunately she does not explain how anyone who
advanced a Marxist interpretation during the Cold War could be regarded
as cowardly. Admittedly there is cowardice aplenty lurking in the margins
of this text, but it is the cowardliness of the liberal establishment who
survived the Cold War by staying silent while the constitutional rights
of Communist Americans were trampled on.

Having banished the demon interpretation, Sontag is aware that it must be
replaced. She argues then for a criticism that pays attention to form
rather than content or a criticism which supplies a 'loving description'
of the work of art (p22). There is a rather obscure but nevertheless
crucial remark about 'transparence.' This is defined as 'experiencing the
luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are"

Despite the obscurity we are very close to the philosophical heart of
Sontag's enterprise. The crucial paragraph is

"Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and
creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on
several levels.  Not it is not. *It reinforces the principle of
redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life*." (emphasis
added, p 23)

I have emphasised the last sentence because it is the clue to Sontag's
project.  Despite all the elegance of the argument and the cultural
capital so tastefully displayed hers is nothing less than the old
romantic longing for subject-object identity. It is the hopeless desire
to escape into the woods and become one with the nightingale's song.  It
is the cry from the sad heart of the Beautiful Soul, who seeks the rose
of art as a consolation for the cross of crass modernity. As a species of
romanticism, it is irrational and notwithstanding the haut bourgeois tone
it is essentially anti-intellectual.

This becomes clearer when she complains of how modern life has dulled our
'sensory faculties'.   The program that Sontag advances in this context
is seeing, hearing and feeling more. The absence of any notion of
'thinking more' is very striking.  It also  reveals a body-mind duality
with Sontag preaching the politics of the body.  This is very clear in
her last sentence -'In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of

So there we have it - a stunning piece of reductionism passed of as the
latest critical chic. Stripped of its gloss it lies revealed as a fairly
commonplace piece of extremely late romanticism from the alienated.  But
one should not let the dishonesty of the piece pass by either.  It is a
palpable nonsense to say that the problems that afflict the modern world
are caused by an excess of thinking or interpreting and a loss of=20
sensory awareness. We must also reject the ideological move which offers
us art as consolation for the antinomies of modernity. This move goes
back to Kant's aesthetics where art is offered as a resolution for the
splits and divisions caused by the uneven distribution of wealth and

2. <color><param>0000,8080,0000</param><bigger><bigger>The Return of
Content: Lou on Jackson Pollack


I would like to continue this commentary by attempting to link up with
the themes of Lou's great posts on art and also engage very indirectly
with Mark's recent post on Socialist Realism. This will take us into the
realm of the politics of the aesthetic a subject that is probably
inexhaustible.  I have been scathing about Sontag's attack on
interpretation, yet there are impressive features of this article which
need to be acknowledged.  It is actually a piece of proto-postmodernism.=20
In this and the other essays in the collection Sontag anticipates many of
the themes of  the poststructuralists. This can, perhaps, be seen must
clearly in her endorsement of the Nietzschean dictum that  "There are no
facts, only interpretations". (p15)

More importantly Sontag is close to the truth of things when she demands
a sensory response to art. It is an essential aspect of art that it
occupies a space that cannot be equated with the cognitive.  Art works on
our bodies as well as our minds. It is indisputable that Sontag's essay
is a piece of Cold War evasion. It does reek with the bad faith of the
American Liberal establishment. She does err in advocating the splitting
off of form from content. Nevertheless her argument also points us in the
direction of a truth.=20

Before revealing what I think this might be, let me stress here that I
absolutely acknowledge the necessity to consider the impact of the social
and political conjuncture when evaluating and responding to art and any
particular movement in art. Thus I gained a great deal from Lou's posts
detailing the social and political context out of which Jackson Pollack,
in particular and the abstract expressionist movement in general, came.=20
However it will not do to simply reduce abstract expressionism, which
Sontag championed, to a flight from left politics into the arms of the
CIA.  There is more to Jackson Pollock's dribbling and splashing than his
lost idealism, his venality, his alcoholism and his repressed
homoeroticism.  Lou is of course aware of this, but his posts avoid the
problem of form and in a mirror image of Sontag they concentrate on
content (Proyect, 1999).=20

Yet the truth is that stripped of all the contextual excrescences that
undoubtedly surround Pollack's work, we are still left with the moment of
beauty. The paintings are full of a transcendent vibrant *Intensity and
*Energy. Significantly these are two of the five utopian qualities that
Richard Dyer has outlined in his seminal essay on the musical. The others
are Community, Abundance and Transparency (Dyer, 1981).

Need I also point out that they are brilliantly unique? No one has done a
Pollock before or since. They may have been birthed in the place of
excrement but they also dialectically anticipate the new that was to
explode onto the streets of Chicago and Paris in 1968.

Let me revert to the anecdotal to illustrate what I mean. For me Pollock
is forever bound up with a specific historical moment.  It is 1966 and I
am about to leave Ireland for the first time on a holiday in Spain.  I
had just completed my first two years as a teacher and I was 24 years
old.  I was a deeply alienated young man. I had been crushed by the
neurotic puritannical Manicheanism of an Irish Catholic upbringing and I
had been oppressed by the vicious bigotries of a Protestant state within
which I was always the feared despised Other. For reading matter on the
trip I picked up A. Alavarez' _The New Poetry_ in Gardner's Bookshop near
Queen's University. On the cover of the book was the Pollack painting,
_Convergence_.  At that moment in 1966 the excitement and the shock of
the newness of the poetry and the painting were one. Thus my first
encounter with Pollack was a moment of emancipation, of liberation from
the nightmare weighing on the brain of the living and I have been
profoundly grateful ever since.=20

I did not know it at the time but I was responding to the key move in
Pollack's work.  He absents the representational. He spurns mimesis. This
of course made him suitable for appropriation by the CIA, but it also
made him suitable for appropriation by people like me who wanted to
absent the existing state of affairs. To borrow a phrase from Roy
Bhaskar, the Pollock paintings come from the 'pulse of freedom'. If the
left had not been so wed to the pious inanities of Socialist Realism they
would have embraced artists like Pollack and in so doing they would have
outflanked the CIA.

Why did the Left do it?  Why did they prefer works like Fyodor Shurpin's
_Morning of Our Motherland_ to Pollack's frenzied _Blue Poles_?  I
believe we can find the answer to these questions by realising that it is
not Marxism that values the old over the new.  Rather it is a species of
Hegelianism which as Roy Bhaskar has pointed out longs to halt the
dialectic and to declare the end of history has been reached with the
arrival of this or that "Great Helmsman" (Bhaskar, 1993). It is the same
conservatism which fears absence at work and it is the same conservatism
which united Stalin and Hitler in their persecution of homosexuals in
1936, and which united Senator Dondero, the Cold War Warrior, and
Zhdanov, the Cultural Commissar in their Philistine condemnation of
modern art.

3. <color><param>ffff,0000,0000</param><bigger><bigger>Form and Content
reunited?: The fantasy dialectics of Socialist Realism=20


I would like now, again briefly, to address the specifics of Socialist
Realism.  Mark has endorsed this movement not because it is "realistic"
but because it shows things as they might be (Jones, 1999). Now my
argument here is a little tricky but hopefully it will become clear.  I
think that there is a relevant contrast between the concepts of
transfiguration and prefiguration and that Mark is mistakenly endorsing
one for the other.

Let me try and make my point clearer. The most salient feature of
Socialist realist Art is its mimetic quality.  The figure of Stalin is
recognisably Stalin.  The tank rumbling into the collective farm is
recognisably a tank and the peasants waving in joy are recognisably
peasants (Hughes, 1994: 65-6). Critics have pointed out that the style is
that of painting in the 19th century (Tupitsyn, 1994).  In artistic terms
it was certainly conservative and also so in political terms. It is
moreover the mimetic *form* that holds the key to the problem with the
*content* of Socialist Realism.  The paintings in effect claim that the
reality of the Soviet Union has been transfigured, that Socialism has
been won, that the Great Helmsman, Leader etc cares for and loves his
people, that he is watching over rather than watching them.

Mark for all his dogged defence of Stalin is very aware of the untruth of
all of this. He knows that Lenin, despite his antipathy to modern art,
never, not ever, permitted anything like the cult of personality that
lies at the heart of Socialist Realism.  He knows that Lenin's Commissar
for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, was a true son of the Enlightenment,
a deeply cultured man.  And Mark knows that Andrei Zhdanov, Minister for
Culture under Stalin, was a Philistine bully and a boor.

Mark it seems to me strives to read Socialist Realist paintings not as
transfigurations but in a Blochian sense as proofs of the
'forward-dawning', as prefigurations of how things will be. However with
their combination of realist/mimetic form and fantastic content they
actually constituted as Raymond Williams put it 'the worse kind of

Sontag ended her essay as we have seen with rejection of hermeneutics and
a call for an erotics of art. This was to be based on a radical
disassociation of form from contact.  This move was given its clearest
expression in the paintings of Jackson Pollack. Lou has restored the
personal and political context to Pollack's work. However because he
bracketed off the form of Pollack's work he is still operating within a
dualism, that is he prioritises content while Sontag privileges form.
What we need of course is a rejection of dualism.  Form and content may
be separated in various stages of our approach to art but at some stage
they must be re-united. We need both a hermeneutics and an erotics.  We
need both to interpret and to respond. Much more needs to be said of
course about the dialectic of form and content and if I ever get through
Jay Bernstein's book on the subject I will post more! For the moment I
would merely hazard that the radical dialectic of Roy Bhaskar's is a much
more fruitful way forward than the Hegelian dialectic that underpins
Socialist Realism.




Bhaskar, R. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, Verso: London, 1993

Dyer, R. Entertainment and Utopia in Altman,R., Genre: The Musical,
Routledge: London, 1981: 175-89

Hughes, R., Icons of Stalinism: Soviet Socialist Realism portrayed a
godlike Maximum Leader reigning over a communist heaven, Time, January 24
1994: 65-6

Jones, M. Socialist Realism, Marxism Discussion List,
marxism at lists.panix.com, 1999

Proyect, L. Art & Revolution: Jackson Pollack, Marxism Discussion List,
marxism at lists.panix.com, 1999

Susan Sontag _Against Interpretation_, New York Dell Publishing, 1966

Tupitsyn, M. Shaping Soviet Art, Art in America Sept 1994 v82  n9=20

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