What can Susan Sontag tell us about arts broadcasting today?

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In 1964 Susan Sontag published her seminal work Against Interpretation. The essay is fundamentally a critique of society’s obsession with interpretation, calling for a more sensual approach to understanding art and culture; a stance she summarises in her closing statement: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’.

Over fifty years later, and you could argue that the themes explored in Sontag’s work now seem more pertinent than ever. With the proliferation of online social media, whether consciously or unconsciously we seem to be constantly called upon to interpret our cultural world and everyday experiences, categorising them in the form of hashtags or building an image of our lives and who we are through the pictures we share, the places we check in at and the online connections we make.

But how might Sontag’s work inform the ways in which we think about arts broadcasting today?

In an earlier blog post I discussed the notion that broadcasting as a medium often serves to communicate ideas about the arts rather than art itself, with a few notable exceptions. In this article, I want to use Sontag’s work as a starting point to further explore how the arts are mediated using two recent high-profile programmes: The Big Painting Challenge and Grayson Perry: Who Are You?

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The underlining thesis of Sontag’s work is an opposition to the popular notion that art must always be representative of a concept or idea that requires decoding. Further to this, she argues that through interpretation we separate ourselves from experiencing the ‘sensuous surface of art’:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

For Sontag, part of the issue with interpretation and art criticism is the separation of form and content that sees the former as merely an accessory of the latter. Furthermore, she argues, form is often seen as something that must in fact be transcended in order to uncover the content within the piece (a subject she would return to in more depth in her 1965 essay On Style).

In terms of broadcasting, this way of talking about art which privileges content over form is one that I’m sure we’re all very much accustomed to through a plethora of arts documentaries that take this approach. The presenter’s role is often to guide us through the symbolic meanings of each piece so that we might feel that we better understand it. This has become such an accepted modus operandi for arts programming that it is even more striking when programmes seem to break this mould.

A very recent example of this can be found in the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge. The format of an art competition in which contestants must demonstrate their skills across a variety of different mediums requires the viewer to focus much more on the style and form of the piece rather than any underlying symbolism or meaning (or ‘content’). Furthermore, our room for interpretation is also limited by being privy to the artistic process from start to finish, portraying it as one of aesthetic rather than moral judgement.

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To expand on how Sontag’s critique of interpretation is a useful discussion point for understanding contemporary arts broadcasting, I want to return to a quote by Oscar Wilde which is featured right at the beginning of her essay:

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Indeed Wilde, known for being a strong advocate of ‘art for art’s sake’, seems the perfect poster boy for the campaign to end this theoretical duality between content and form. As he writes in the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray:

All art is at once surface and symbol.

It is this quote that I feel most aptly summarises the underlining ethos behind my next example of arts programming.

In Grayson Perry: Who Are You? the Turner Prize winning artist sets out to create a series of fourteen portraits using a diverse range of individuals. Like in the case of The Big Painting Challenge, our interpretation is limited by being witness to the artistic process undertaken by Perry. There is no need for any interpretation on the viewer’s part, as it is all laid out for us as a collaborative process between the artist and sitter through a series of on screen-interviews and discussions. Further to this, Perry takes us through his reasoning behind each artistic decision at each stage so that we might understand how it contributes to the finished product.

However, what is particularly striking about the series is the ways in which the medium and style of the portraits are portrayed as a fundamental part of their ‘message’, from the fragility of the smashed pot for disgraced politician Chris Huhne, to using a hijab as the canvas on which to depict Kayleigh’s conversion to Islam. The style of the piece is the content.

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Towards the end of Against Interpretation, Sontag calls for an approach to discussing art that uses a more descriptive, rather than prescriptive vocabulary. One in which form and content are not treated as distinct categories and ‘the sensory experience of the work of art’ is not taken for granted:

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.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art-and, by analogy, our own experience- more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I would argue that broadcasting’s ability to display the artistic process provides us with an insight into ‘how [art] is what it is’. Through limiting the need for interpretation, we are presented with a far more aesthetic experience of art in which the distinction between form and content seems more like the ‘illusion’ that Sontag argues it is.

Although there is certainly a place for both approaches to mediating the arts, it is interesting to note how arts programming that privileges aesthetics over interpretation tend to have more popular appeal. In this respect, it might be interesting to consider whether we place more value the interpretation of art or the experience of it and whether, as Sontag argues, the two are indeed mutually exclusive.

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