Rather than following Susan Sontag's advice in her famous 1964 essay "Against Interpretation," critics have continued in the direction she derided. Students from high school to the post-graduate level are taught to approach a work of art, from a painting to a short story, with an analytical attitude. They are encouraged to describe what the work says rather than how it says it. They are asked to make judgments on whether they agree with its "message" in accordance with the dominant ideology. It is hard not to sympathize with Sontag's view that the joy and power of art is diminished by this practice.
Sontag's stylish and persuasive essay suggests that the interpretation of the content of art detrimentally ignores matters of aesthetics. Sontag presents her theme as a radical one; she says that form and aesthetics have been disregarded and disparaged since the days of Plato and Aristotle. However, a careful comparison of her ideas with the currents of historical thought reveals that this essay is not quite as innovative as it purports to be.
Sontag writes that criticism should show "the luminousness of the thing in itself." Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet and critic, wrote a century earlier that the purpose of criticism was "to see the object as in itself it really is." This method claims to result in the discovery of profound and universal truths, yet it leads us to ask if it is possible to define an "object" in words without interpretive semantics.
Walter Pater, another Victorian critic, subtly challenged the possibility of objective revelations of "things" by his own peculiar solipsism. According to Pater, to know a work of art "as it is" is only to know it in a personal way and to realize it through one's own impressions and sensations. Later, Pater's aesthetic criticism was dismissed by the stern literary morals of T. S. Eliot. Eliot felt that such criticism was of little value because it was limited by the background and abilities of one individual.
Similarly, Sontag writes that criticism should make us "feel more." She ends her essay with an exhortation that "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." This is a fine concept and has its applications, but the same response that Eliot directed at Pater is relevant to Sontag. A purely emotive response to a work of art should not represent the limits of criticism. Critics would become those elite few whose sensory perceptions are considered the most refined. Interpretation would be little more than a marvelous description of how a novel or a sculpture makes them feel.
The importance of content is essential to this essay's purpose, but Sontag does not resolve several contradictory remarks which are clearly stated only to be forgotten. First, she says that there may not be any such thing as content. Later, she mentions that content should not be made blatant. Further on, she asserts that experiments with form that deny content are not desirable in the long run. Her indecision is conspicuous.
Furthermore, Sontag makes certain generalizations that are intellectually superficial. She separates critics who gave allegorical meanings to classical myths from those who explore Freudian or Marxist interpretations of modern literature. Their approaches are ideologically but not structurally different. Sontag dismisses social, psychological, or religious interpretations of Kafka as relating to the content but not the form. These interpretations undeniably involve the intermingling of both aspects of his writing.
Although there is certainly repetition and error in some Freudian or Marxist interpretations, an independent framework from which to develop an objective response is ultimately a useful tool. Sontag recommends that a "vocabulary" be invented to describe forms and appearances, but this would have all the weaknesses of words without a structure of ideas behind them. An impartial and widely recognizable framework, similar to what has developed for content, would be needed to interpret forms and appearances with clarity.
Another possibility that Pater explored was that a work of criticism, at its best, is a new work of art inspired by another. Sontag, on the other hand, does not see any creative power in the act of interpretation. She says that interpretation no longer has the potential to be revolutionary or imaginative. This inflexible attitude limits what art can bring to the world in both its form and its content.
Sontag indicates that in the excesses of the modern environment, we have lost the ability to appreciate the sensory nature of art. This is true; we may want to take an occasional retreat from the constant assaults on our senses in order to create and interpret art with a fresh and clear perspective.
Nevertheless, the conclusion reached in Sontag's essay, like the "transparency" which she declares to be the highest value of art and criticism, is not as straightforward as it appears to be. "Content" and "form" are not two discrete entities but the theoretical extremes of a continuum between which the focus of literary criticism is forever shifting.