In 1964, Susan Sontag wrote an essay that rocked the cultural world. It is called AGAINST INTERPRETATION. It is my opinion that this had more to say directly to the art, music and literary world than did the seemingly more noteworthy, NOTES ON CAMP, of a year earlier.
I am writing about her ‘64 essay because it laid the foundation of fundamentals for the way in which art, music, and literature would be perceived thereafter. And those fundamentals still hold true. They are a set of fundamentals that are shown by Sontag in the essay in reverse. In other words, she does not begin the essay by writing about the fundamentals, but she lays them bare by tearing away at what she saw as at that time the world of the critic. The result of this tearing away yields how she thought art, in the general sense, could be. It is as if Venus is rising out of the half shell. And standing there exposed is a meaningless form of art, the way in which it is derived, the way in which it is conceived to be greeted by its percipients, fresh and without baggage. The baggage is what you take away. It is the baggage that the critical liaison between art and the public packs onto the art.
Accompanying this essay for me were the seminal days and my study of Conceptual Art. That art, which is not really visual, not really sculptural, not really filmic, not really musical, but is all combined into one experience. That experience, the artist may have intended to last in time for one second or less, or to stretch over distances, to be documented, to last for eons until the end of time or, more importantly, as both. Conceptual art in its incipience was considered the purest form of art, reaching beyond the confines of the traditional in innovation but perhaps using it within its specifically defined scope. Art was without gender, without context, and very much its own form.
The implications of the context that I am building may seem foreign to jazzreview.com. But, in fact, I believe the connection is patently clear.
When the elements that Sontag laid out were questioned in the art field, specifically, large issues were raised in the art world from the most educated of sources: what was art? What was life? What was the difference between the two? Because the mergence occurred, the differentiation was undelineated in terms of the perception of art, not for the artists.
These kinds of questions are still being raised in regards to even more basic issues such as how dictionaries are being written: that is, what is an acceptable lexicon for the purpose of reference, for word usage, word knowledge. The questions’ origins come from the old school, the traditionalists who believe that even though change occurs, the changes have to exist within the same limits before the change was instituted. The verb "to google" cannot exist, according to the old school of word legitimacy. This to me signals a basic denial of the existence of computer as an omnipresent tool for research; it is a signal that some are going to sit in the stone age forever unwilling to grow, to open, to allow for discovery, to establish new meaning, new avenues of understanding.
This assessment is the crux of AGAINST INTERPRETATION. A subset of Sontag’s beliefs as a writer, as a person, is that one always has to be reinventing oneself. Her initial propositions allow for the actual reinvention of everything, if we assume everything begins with people and how these people influence culture.
We all know what we know. But when we meet new expressions in art and in music, we have to pretend that we know nothing. So that we can take in what is new, what is revealed that did not exist before our exposure to the art or music we try to appreciate.
The snobby attitude of cultural shamans has no place in the designation of what is right & what is wrong. In fact, that polarity should extinguish itself. The morality of the world is continually shifting. Therefore, it can be said that the world is replete with everything. Everything needs a chance to live for some period of time. How art is written and spoken about is done intelligently by very few in the present or in the past and those few do not make rules and define the limits of their subject. Ancillary tunnel-visioned critics cannot speak the law of what is publicly considerable and what is not. Those who write about the arts can tell the story of what is there, what they see and hear, within their own filters; they are unresponsive to the arts if they preach what is expected & what meets their approval.
Good art reveals a mystery in how it is created. This mystery raises questions and has no solution. This mystery carries within it the exactitude of itself. Yet, within it is also the uncertainty of perceptions, of the creator and of the percipient.
In 1913, Wassily Kandinsky (whose work by the way was inflammatorily described lately as "overrated" in a well-known art magazine) wrote in what has become the most poignant and valuably honest recitation of his beliefs about his art, REMINISCENCES: "Technically, every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos- by means of castastrophes, which ultimately create out of the cacophony of the various instruments that symphony we call music of the spheres *. The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world... I felt with increasing strength and clarity that it is not the "formal" element in art that matters, but an inner impulse (=content) that peremptorily determines form. One advance in this respect---which took me a shamefully long time was solving the question of art exclusively on the basis of internal necessity, which was capable at every moment of overturning every rule and limit."
Content is the spirit. It is the instinct that carries the artist & musician to do what is done. The intensity of the creation can be seen and heard by the audience; in the intensity lies the mystery. In the intensity is the result of the drive that moves the creator to do something that is always different; it may be just one small element that is different from past creations, but it is that different element that keeps the spirit within what is created, rich and ebullient. The one element educates the artist, lifts the artist out of repetitiousness and boredom. The one element is the spark, the fire, the big bang. Every artist has his own limits, but he is, hopefully, sincerely determined to widen them.
In 1989, Kirk Varedoe, now deceased but at that time until his death a few years ago, in my opinion, was the most elegant genius that art history has ever experienced, wrote in the introduction of his book, A FINE DISREGARD: "A prime intention of this book is to honor those exploits [of aforementioned artists from Manet to Pollack]: modern art, I hope to show in detailed examples, did not originate in the wholesale overthrow of all conventions and the protean creation of wholly new forms, nor in the impact of alien influences from outside the Western world. Nor were its innovations shaped by the grinding-wheel of local social forces. It has been the product of individual decisions to reconsider the complex possibilities within the traditions available to them, and to act on basic options that were, and remain, broadly available and unconcealed. This kind of art is conceivable only within a system that is in crucial senses fixed, inefficient and unpredictable--a cultural system whose work is done by the play within it...in a game where the rules themselves are what is constantly up for grabs. More than the forms themselves, it is the frame of mind, individually and societally, that is crucially new...That is why those early innovations...remain so fascinating as exemplary acts. If we lose sight of them in the fog of theories, or overrationalize them in the web of art-historical detailing, if we let them get hardened into legends of predestination or reduced to mechanical responses to circumstance, we explain away modern art’s birthright...."
On January 16, 2005, I end this article where the content is not the form; the form is the only form in which the content can be conveyed and the content,tomorrow, can and will be different.
* the music that the Pythagoreans believed was harmonious given certain intervals as predicted by number relationships between notes (I end also pledging my memory of Ms. Sontag, whose energy should incite constant personal re-invention even if we are only to listen to the pulse of the geo-political and natural world in which we are presently living.)