Does Interpretation of Literature Destroy the Purpose of the Art?

As I sit here in my room, listening to Victorian London ambience, a question from my school reading popped into my head.

“Now, why would I want to listen to some academia nerd about literature?”

I’m sure that’s what you’re all thinking. Well, I can say this with confidence: interpretation of the arts is something we all do, regardless of whether we know it or not.

I’m currently in a Cultural Criticism class. We read an epilogue of C.S. Lewis and an excerpt from Susan Sontag about how interpretation can ruin the meaning behind art by trying to find the meaning of that piece of art.

How can it do this? Simply put, art has innate value, and while everyone interprets art differently, the meaning we put behind that art is not what gives the art value.

An artist can make a piece, have nothing in mind for it to say, and it still means something. There is value just in the fact that it was produced as an artwork.

The same goes for, you know, humans and all that philosophical thought.

Something that seemed to be a bit more troublesome for me, though, was Sontag’s thoughts on interpretation as a whole. She says that the mimetic theory “challenges art to justify itself”.

Let’s back up a bit. The mimetic theory essentially states that there must be an interpretation to art for it to have a meaning, as a piece of art always says something about the world, humans, etc.

At this point, I agree with Sontag. I do believe that there is an innate value in the creation of things, regardless of whether it has a meaning or not. However, Sontag goes even further to say that interpretation 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”.

I disagree wholeheartedly. Yes, interpretation is a translation of sorts of the actual art, but it is the only way for humans to make sense of the art. To which Sontag replies, “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.”

As a human, though, isn’t this the only way we can view art? All the way back to the Lascaux Cave Paintings, humans have interpreted art to what it “really means”. Back then, of course, it was a way to communicate without written language. I do not see how this is different from interpretation to art now, especially literature.

Humans are complex and muddled, and often the words we use and string together as sentences can have multiple meanings. Interpretation of literature allows for that one sentence to be taken and molded to how the viewer can digest it.

After all, once the art is made, it is no longer the owner’s. It belongs to everyone it can reach.

Lewis agrees in the value of art for the sake of the art itself. However, he seems to divulge from Sontag’s strict thoughts on interpretation. While the meaning of the art does not give it value, there is a value to interpreting art.

As humans, it is a way for us to love one another. As Lewis puts it, “We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves.”

Through interpretation of literature, we find empathy and kindness and the actual feeling of being in another person’s position.

I think that’s beautiful.

From looking at both Sontag and Lewis, it is clear that literature is not, in fact, ruined by interpretation, but instead it is a way for humans to understand one another and the work itself. There is value in art itself, but for humans to comprehend the piece, interpretation is necessary.

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