What is the relationship between Art and Content? Banksy wrote that
Artwork that is only about wanting to be famous will never make you famous. Any fame is a by-product of making something that means something. (1)
At the same time, too much “content” produces Didascalism, not Art. During an interview, Willem De Kooning (1904-1997) defined “content” in a subtle way:
Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny — very tiny, content. (2)
This is the core of the minimalistic approach to Art (and — why not? — to nonfiction). I met De Kooning’s quotation this morning, when my friend Diego Cuoghi — an Italian expert in the history of Art — turned my attention to the clever analysis of Susan Sontag (1933-2004) “Against Interpretation” (1964), a issue raised in my recent short film “A Neglected Shadow”.
De Kooning’s concept was chosen by Susan Sontag to open her article, dedicated to the paranoid search of a “content” in the classic art — based on the modern assumption that a work of art by definition says something.
None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. [...] In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. 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.
Her conclusions are worth a reflection:
Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art — and in criticism — today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. [...] Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life. Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not.
The information overload fueled by Internet is a context which Sontag seems to have foreseen:
Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. 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 to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
Her conclusions are challenging:
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
A concept wonderfully summarized in her last sentence.
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. (3)
(1) Banksy, Wall and Piece, Century 2006.
(2) Willem de Kooning: The North Atlantic Light, 1960-1983, Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm, 1983. Interviews with Harold Rosenberg and David Sylvester.
(3) Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”, 1964 (read it here).