“To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world… By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”
In her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag critiques the very practice of critique. As she states, modern scholarship devoted to ripping a “meaning” out of a work of art perverts the actual lived experience of encountering art. To consume a work of art is to have a deeply personal and subjective reaction and to mediate that experience with excessive interpretation is to weaken art’s magical ability to provoke.
“The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys.”
To speak from the realm of the subjective, students have experienced firsthand the interpretation-obsession and its ability to destroy. From middle school English class onwards, students are forced to analyze-to-death works which they might have found deeply meaningful. You can’t talk about how you felt and what you thought about while experiencing Hamlet’s agony; instead you have to drive yourself crazy analyzing how Shakespeare’s comma placement proves Horatio is actually a perfect representation of Freud’s theory of irony. Tragically, it is a common occurrence that I reread a book I was assigned for class and discover, much to my shock, that I actually enjoy it when not forced to obsessively take notes.
Since reading Sontag’s essay then, I have been doing my best to turn off any programming from my education and simply experience art when I encounter it. Whether it be TikToker Addison Rae’s film debut in He’s All That or the most celebrated work in the Western Canon (well I just repeated myself), I have been striving to turn my brain off and let myself react to art. So, on a recent trip to the Met, I saw a piece of Ancient Egyptian art that deeply compelled me and decided to engage in the Sontagian challenge of writing down my thoughts and feelings about the piece as they came to me, unmediated by any intellectual theories. Below are my notes on the piece, written while standing in front of the piece for longer than is socially acceptable and lightly edited after-the-fact for clarity.
At first I’m drawn to the funky-looking guitar—or maybe that object the third woman is holding is not even vaguely related to the guitar family. Frankly, I’m no expert in Ancient Egyptian musical instruments. At any rate, I’m immediately hooked.
The flatness of the figures on the “canvas” is striking; it took Western art a long time to get over its obsession with realism but here’s Ancient Egypt already realizing that things don’t have to look fully like things to be compelling. The color is also applied flatly and with incredible vibrancy—which is cool but also vaguely reminds me of Instagram infographic design. Basically, despite there being a several thousand year old and full-scale temple the Met stole from Egypt to my right, I am struck by how this work could easily slot into any contemporary gallery.
But most of all, I’m stunned by just how average the work is. The piece is displayed in a room with dozens of other works of Ancient Egyptian painting that look exactly like it; as far as I can tell, nothing makes it exceptional except for the fact that I personally was most drawn to it. When thinking of past eras, the way history is framed as the story of great people with their great ideas leading to great events often makes us forget the average. Only the exceptional can stand the long test of time; we learn about Nietzsche and world wars and van Gogh masterpieces, not mundane paintings of every-day people doing every-day things. However, next to the elaborately decorated sarcophagus of some long dead aristocrat, this painting, its anonymous creator, and its subject matter, which appears to just be normal people enjoying music, appear average.
The painting could easily slot into the contemporary art industry because it would fit right into the churn of content which merely exists and is not celebrated which is released every single day. If you cast your mind back to the 40s in film, you think of the classics of Hitchcock, Welles, and Chaplin. But in our contemporary moment, we have to wade through Netflix’s catalog of forgettable content because time has not done the heavy lifting of filtering out the just okay. Fundamentally, this is what looking at this painting is like; standing amongst its peers that all look roughly the same, it’s much more Addison Rae’s “He’s All That” within the over-saturated rom-com industry and not so much Guernica. Somehow, this makes me feel more connected to the people of Ancient Egypt; they also had to consume plenty of content and distinctly average content at that. And, for that reason, my distinctly average gaze is drawn to the work.