new zealand electronic poetry centre

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a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics


1,000 Words or a Picture:Could Poetry be a Contemporary Art? 



In her 1964 essay ‘Against interpretation’, the critic Susan Sontag issued a clarion call: ‘In place of a hermeneutics,’ she wrote, ‘we need an erotics of art.’ (14) This was uttered in strong opposition to the idea that art was representational and hence required interpretation, an approach, she felt, that sundered content from form. ‘By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that,’ wrote Sontag, ‘one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.’ (8) Elsewhere in the essay she noted that ‘To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.”’ (7) ‘It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted[,]’ (9) Sontag added, quoting D. H. Lawrence to good effect: ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale.’ (9)

Sontag’s essay was written before evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology had become established in the way they now are (Richard Dawkins’s The selfish gene wasn’t published until 1976, if we take that as a marker of the mainstream emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis). But if we read Sontag’s comments through this lens we see how very modern her take is (and see its affinity with Henry Flynt’s concept of ‘brend’[1]): the ‘erotics of art’ metaphor implies that we approach a cultural production with a pre-set for taste; this pre-set is somatic, of the body, that is to say, but not in the nature of an ‘idea’; this pre-set is genetic in origin and so on. Sontag is discussing what happens at the interface with cultural productions: what the human organism does with its pre-set in-place preferences in conjunction with, say, a work of art (keeping to Sontag’s language). The experience we have is something not reducible to a discussion of content and meaning, but is something more in the nature of a sensual encounter. Interpretation applies to content only, and since content is not all that comprises the experience of encountering a work of art, and since the experience of a work of art is sensual in nature, interpretation (hermeneutics) should therefore be superseded by ‘an erotics of art’.

We are biological beings, and so any encounter with a work of art is, as far as we are concerned, a biological encounter: there is, after all, no way to experience anything free of our organismic constraints and pre-programming. Our experience is intuitive, visceral, and this is contrasted by Sontag with the intellectual (the interpretive). There is, of course, a place for both, but Sontag underlines the fact that the visceral is primary, because what happens, in fact, is visceral: the pre-set to individual taste leads us when experiencing a work of art to react at the level of the body, and the body, we might say, knows a good thing when it sees it.

It’s not that simple, of course. Following the initial encounter with a work of art, the mind kicks in, and as soon as, say, someone asks us what we think of a particular work, away we go: we offer up an opinion, an appraisal, and then proceed to defend it should it come under attack and so on. But this ‘intellectual’ level approach is secondary: it grows out of the original somatic encounter, which is as it is, regardless of any intellectual opinions we may have, opinions that may, in fact, run counter to how we feel: if we’re trying to toe a critical party line, for instance. The mind follows the body, as expression follows touch, but it is the body not the mind that knows.

Individual taste then, has a pre-set, and initially declares itself at the sensual level and not the intellectual. The pre-set over time becomes conditioned, by the method of comparison – this is compared with that and that is found to be ‘better’, for example – and by the way we say that taste becomes informed: as one understands more about the work, the artist, their contexts and so on. For instance, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The marriage of Maria Braun could be viewed as a Douglas Sirk-inspired romantic melodrama harking back to the acting styles, lighting and cinematography of the 1950s in the manner of homage. But an understanding of the post-war situation in Germany tends to make one view the film as a searing critique of a society in denial of the Third Reich years, a society in which people manipulate each other and, as it were, prostitute themselves in order to survive, and a society wherein the cost of survival has been the erosion of common values like decency and openness. This conditioning of taste, its ‘informedness’, is a follow-on, however. Unless coercion is applied we don’t tend to follow up on an encounter with a given work unless our pre-set is so geared. Thus our informed and better and indeed ‘good’ taste is dependent on biological pre-set and reaction. One’s taste is truly one’s own: it is a function of the biological being, within the context of the natural world, one actually is. And this is a somatic matter: a sensual affair. Discussion of content and talk of meaning belong to a different context – that of chatter, formal and otherwise – and their relation to the original encounter with the work, though it may be enlightening, and a pleasure in itself, is essentially parasitic. ‘A map is not the territory,’ as the philosopher Alfred Korzybski has said (750). Or, to put it another way, the concept, the map, is not the thing itself.

To summarise:
1   Our taste is a function of our biology and of our organismic placement in the natural world.
2   We are pre-set in terms of individual taste (brend).
3   The initial encounter with a cultural production is sensual rather than ‘intellectual’.
4   Taste is conditioned by the comparative method, as this cultural production is compared to that.[2]
5   The concept of a given thing is not the thing itself.


Works cited

Flynt, Henry. ‘ART or BREND?’, 1968. Retrieved 16 April 2009 from Henry Flynt Philosophy

Korzybski, Alfred. ‘A non-Aristotelian system and its necessity for rigour in mathematics and physics,’ a paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 28 December 1931. Reprinted in Science and sanity: an introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics. 5th ed. Fort Worth, Texas: Institute of General Semantics, 1994 (first published 1933).

Sontag, Susan. ‘Against interpretation’, Evergreen Review, 1964. Reprinted in Against interpretation and other essays, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1966. Picador edition, 2001.



1. Flynt: ‘The essence of a just-liking is that in it, you are not aware that the object you value is less personal to you than your very valuing.
    ‘These just-likings are your "brend." [….]
    ‘Even though brend is defined exclusively in terms of what you like, it is not necessarily solitary. The definition simply recognizes that valuing is an act of individuals; that to counterpose the likes of the community to the likes of the individuals who make it up is an ideological deception.’ Published 1968.

2. Thus likes are subject to change.



John Barnett   


Last updated 4 June, 2009