I took the inspiration for this blog from Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” in which she argued that modernity had wrought a critical establishment whose obsession with imputed meaning had blunted the sensuous and psychic experience that occurs when we encounter artistic creations.
In reality, the idea that there could be an interpretation of any work of art, where the meaning colescesces in an unabiguous construct, originated very early in America history by way of the religious methodology and practice of our Puritan forefathers, whose Calvinist rejection of Catholicism led them to strip the language of figurative types (such as metaphor, simile and symbol) because they introduced doubt as to meaning. According to Charles Feidelson, Jr., the “crudity and conventionality” of American literature from 1620 to the third quarter of the nineteenth century “may be attributed no more surely to frontier conditions, provinciality, and industrialism than to inherited mental habits that proscribed a functional artistic form.”
The countervailing idea, that an artwork might have multiple meanings, or be “polysemous” as Dante considered The Divine Comedy, goes back to Medieval Catholicism which, in turn, inherited it from Ancient Greek and Hebraic literature. In this tradition, for example, the rules for allegorical interpretation had four levels of meaning: the literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical. When confronted by the myriad levels upon which an artwork may operate, however, the complexity of the analysis, as well as the education and experience necessary to evoke it sufficiently, seems barely tolerable. The time and commitment necessary to serve as art’s witness, i.e., to just watch, listen or read, appears to be too much for most, and thus art reviews have become like the popular series of books, “________ For Dummies,” or even worse, the equivalent of personal vouching absent the kind of advocacy that historically distinguished eminent scholarship.
Our experience with art must necessarily be a personal one, ultimately dependent upon our own individual intellect and sensitivity. As a corollary, this approach naturally holds that our experience of art is susceptible to evolving viewpoints, whether as the sublimated acts of misprision conceptualized by Harold Bloom, or by virtue of the multiple lenses that the progressing universes of art and culture afford us over time.
Notwithstanding our desire to know the artwork intimately, without having to wear the rose-colored glasses of any traditional or currently popular critical viewpoint, a comprehensive appreciation of art can only come (in George Steiner’s words) with “the vertigo of attention which bends the scholar’s back and blears the eye.” Any intellection that bears upon an our individual interactions with the work of art has value, so critical commentary is important to this process. But the emphasis of these investigations should always be to enhance our experience, as Sontag said:
Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art–and in criticism–today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are . . . . * * *
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted now . . . . Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction: the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life–its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness–conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is that we recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. * * *
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.
In my case, the act of writing and research is the primary agent of my appreciation of a work of art, often forcing me to make connections and come to grips with contradictions, however latent. There is nothing equal to the satisfaction of reaching a level of comfort with an artwork via an informed and well-rounded examination, irrespective of whether that view is ratified by others or not. It is important to me that I can defend my analysis and that it is not merely based upon an arbitrary matter of taste. In the beginning we seem to like or dislike works of art viscerally, intrinsically; however, one can discover whether those first impressions are vindicated (or not) by structural components that give weight and purpose to an artwork.
Critical analysis is not always a dialectic that resolves in a clear vision, for often one’s opinion remains unresolved on one or more levels. While we would like to enter into the world of the artwork free of predisposition (this is the capacity for “negative capability” that John Keats spoke of), the way original artists always seem to do, we need to acquire the equivalent of an artist’s freedom: the freedom to think, see and feel in a way that uses the intermediary of tradition and yet enables us to recognize the intrinsic value of new approaches to age-old problems. Rarely are we fortunate enough to recognize the value of an original work of art — the meaning of a unique mathematical formula, or the possible application of a scientific principle — based upon pure instinct alone.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman writes that we chiefly rely on the fast-thinking part of our associative intelligence, the one that is more instinctive and takes the fastest, easiest routes. This function of our brain is necessary for day-to-day survival and depends upon unadulterated information from the senses. Expression as a form of communication may be viewed as instinctive, but we sometimes forget that we had to learn a language in order to effectively use it, even at the most basic level. Art is a form of expression rendered in the form of communication, but its language is always changing, as is the object of the communication.
Difficult and anomalous forms of art become inevitable when novelty, and not mere refinement, is the governing maxim. “Make it new,” Ezra Pound said, urging fellow artists not to gild the lily, but to seek other ways of rendering it. The advent of French Impressionism and Cubism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively, were new species of expression that, Kahneman would say, required more input from the slower, deeper thinking function of the brain, the one geared toward solving difficult problems, to understand why artists had deviated from traditional visual lines and the mirror of physical representation.
From my perspective, the most rewarding aesthetic experiences are those that lead through new doors of perception, and therefore require the acquisition of new tools (often new languages) that make new perception possible. Our appreciation, our way into the aesthetic experience, must be guided by a sense that the unpredictable, the difficult and the seemingly irrational are as vital as our fast-thinking, rule-loving experience. As we become conversant in the newest languages of artistic expression, they become invested in our ordinary intercourse with the world, at which point, we experience the “cognitive ease” of fast-thinking functions while traveling on some of art’s most difficult terrain. That is when the endorphins kick in and we experience the physical pleasure of art, whether the form of expression be via musical, literary and/or visual media.
The goal of this blog is to expose the reader to new aesthetic experiences in poetry, prose, music and the visual arts, with an accent on poetry which I regard as essential to an appreciation of life. I view the present state of the arts, as perceived by the average and even the informed reader, as one where we have become too reliant upon the artistic expression of former ages, the standards for which were established before the last half of the 20th century. When we see a new work of art that is a pop art artifact reminiscent of Warhol or Lichtenstein, do we feel it is a genuine expression having artistic merit or that the artist is merely trading on capital earned 60 years ago? More importantly, do we feel a sense of nostalgia and a loss of the exhilaration that we experienced when we first encountered the work of those primary artists? I believe we are most alive to the transformative nature of art when novel forms of expression find a way of describing our experience.
In fact, there have been many significant poets, writers and artists whose work is not widely known by the general public and who are underappreciated largely because the standards against which their work is judged are not only out-dated, but ill-suited for our time. I wish to make those artists less obscure to readers of this blog and to express my own opinions on why their work should be regarded as significant. This will necessarily involve exhibitions of the work where available on the internet. So, for purposes of illustration, I will use the convenience of hyperlinking and avail myself of select quotation under the “fair use” doctrine in order to avoid any copyright infringement issues (or worse, the ire of the artists whose work I am attempting to promote).
I acknowledge that everything said here is at risk. In poetry, the poet risks everything in the name of the muse, and a reputation’s death by a poverty of the imagination will be mourned by no one, inveighed by all. The same is true of the “poetry critic” who is condemned by his own hand when he indulges in an evaluative scheme that has been honed by others better than himself. Although I am “Against Interpretation,” I am still moved to find genuinely personal ways to explain the work of art to myself.
I hope you enjoy reading what I have posted here.
[Please note that I am an inveterate revisionist of my own work. So any critical or creative writing will likely be revised several times after its initial posting. If you see something you like or don’t like, chances are it will change over the course of its life on the blog.]
One brief biographical note. Although I am a published author of legal articles, literary criticism and poetry, I am not a professor of literature. I had a fairly extensive undergraduate education in English literature, which included a year of study with John Creaser at Mansfield College, University of Oxford, and I have continued to read literature and philosophy throughout my life. Nonetheless, for the better I think, I am a lawyer. I was trained to read, write and speak professionally on behalf of others who require legal representation, and I did so for many years in New York City and Long Island as a commercial and corporate practitioner and litigator. But like many other lawyer-poets throughout history, famous ones like Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, and Edgar Lee Masters, as well as hundreds of my colleagues, I am such a person, separate and apart from my professional status, who is inexorably drawn to poetry, who feels renewed when I read and write poetry, who is humbled as much as fulfilled by it, who is constantly awed by the hand of the muse that leads me toward that ever-refining sense of myself. For me, this blog is one stop on the way there.
“Prayer to Kurt Cobain,” Stone Canoe: A Journal of Arts, Literature and Social Commentary, No. 9 (Syracuse University February 2015).
“Surf’s Up on Wall Street,” 99 Poems for the 99 Percent, ed. Dean Rader (99: The Press 2014).
A Note on Stevens’ “Re-statement of Romance” and the American Law Institute’s Restatement of the Law, Wallace Stevens Journal , Vol. 35 No. 1 (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press Spring 2011).
Steven M. Critelli is a lawyer, business executive and writer from Upstate New York. In association with Utica College he created the Eugene Paul Nassar Poetry Prize which honors the best book of poetry published by an Upstate New York poet in the previous year.