Susan Sontag has a point. In her well-known essay, "Against Interpretation" (1966), Sontag argues that the classical mimetic theory of art has created an unnecessary distinction between form and content, which modern (and now postmodern) theories have merely intensified. Interpretation presumes that art must have content that can be extracted for use outside the work. Sontag writes, "Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation." In the hands of interpretation, art becomes, at best, merely the visual illustration of an idea.
The implications of this essay for writing about art from a self-consciously religious, philosophical, or any other perspective that presumes a meta-narrative, are significant. Art and meta-narratives fight against one another. The meta-narrative is all encompassing. It is a worldview, a framework within which everything has a place and everything makes sense. The role of art criticism, in this context, is to demonstrate how a work of art fits securely into this schema. For these interpretions, whether Marxist, Freudian, Formalist, or neo-Calvinist, art is significant only insofar as it affirms and strengthens the meta-narrative owned by the interpreter.
Yet art is a moving target. It refuses to yield to the meta-narrative, to be framed in an interpretation. It exists only in its concrete specificity and presupposes no larger narrative, although its presence comes from the sense that the work could be nevertheless a part of a great order.
What do meta-narratives presume and why do works of art resist them? They presume the End. But they presume not only that there is such an End to an over-arching Story that unites all stories, but how particular works of art fit into it.
The consequences are dire. Art comes to possess its integrity only insofar as it can be used in an interpreter's meta-narrative, grist for the interpreter's ideological mill. Art is deprived of its own integrity as a world-making work. It becomes either a passive reflection of a meta-narrative or it needs it to give it life.
The danger of religious interpretations, which presuppose God, especially those shaped by the Christian tradition, is to lead with the End or to arrive at the End much too quickly. St. Paul and St. John appear to do precisely this when they write that it is in Christ that all things have their being, that through Christ all things are made, and that Christ is working to make all things new. "All things," as I have written in this blog, means not just art in general, but includes specific works of art. But the temptation is to interpret all works of art as merely examples of Christ's work in the work, as only evidence of or enhanced by a Christian worldview.
But Sts. Paul and John are not advocating interpretation, they are advocating faith. For those who work from a Christian perspective, the meta-narrative is not ours. It is God's. We are means by which God's meta-narrative is being written, but we are not the ones writing it. Moreover, God's meta-narrative is not an act of interpretation. It is an act of re-creation, which will reconcile all things, not only works of art but interpretations as well. Criticism that rushes too quickly to fit works of art into a Christian meta-narrative do violence not only to art but to the Christian meta-narrative itself, in which we too, like works of art, find our being as it unfolds. The Christian tradition teaches that God does not impinge upon our freedom but incorporates it. Yet it is all too easy for Christian interpreters to do violence to human freedom and the freedom of art by presuming the relationship of means to ends, to presume to be the ones in control of the meta-narrative. Andres Serrano's Piss Christ was the subject of just such a meta-narrative interpretation in Paris this past week when it was attacked by a "pious" viewer, protecting God's religion.
Moreover, God is a moving target. He cannot be contained in any narrative. The Spirit blows where it may. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Chronicles of Narnia, "Aslan is not a tame lion." While we might affirm the Christian meta-narrative as an act of faith, how it is being written is God's work not ours. We must maintain that gap between the that and the how in order to preserve the freedom of art and, equally important, the freedom of our interpretations to be more than merely "translations" but deep engagements with the work of art that preserve its unified wholeness that, nevertheless, needs no justification from interpretation, Christian or otherwise.
It is in preserving this precarious gap between belief that there is a meta-narrative and how it is unfolding that critics can allow the whispers of a work of art to be heard, whispers that might indeed point toward a deep order and structure in the world that might transcend even the most meta of narratives.