Against Interpretation and Other Essays

by Susan Sontag
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Sontag begins her essay by writing, “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual.” Explain what she means by this. What is the relationship between art and magic? Between art and spirituality? Have we lost that relationship—and if so, why?

By her statement at the beginning of “Against Interpretation,” Sontag means that art was not originally regarded as a separate object for analysis, with a message from the artist as an individual, but as part of a wider religious or mystical experience.

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Susan Sontag begins her essay "Against Interpretation" with the remark:

The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual.

Sontag's own initial illustration of this point is to mention the cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, and La Pasiega. These are early concrete examples, but the comment applies equally well to music, poetry, drama, and other arts. All these arts arose first as expressive religious exercises, part of ceremonies which a modern person might see as magical, spiritual, or both.

The relationship between art and magic or art and spirituality, therefore, used to be direct and powerfully clear. The art enhanced the ritual and expressed what could not be put into words (hence the title of Sontag's essay). This relationship has not been entirely lost today. If you go to a Catholic or high Episcopalian church today, for example, you may well hear music by Bach or Haydn, which could equally well be performed at a choral concert. The church may be adorned with fine art, and even the ritual objects and vestments will be worthy of a museum. However, Sontag argues:

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.

It is still possible to experience the arts as part of a religious ceremony, but in the modern world, art is normally treated as the product of individual talent, conveying a message from the artist. Once this innovation has occurred, it is impossible to see art solely as a seamlessly integrated element of magical or religious ritual.

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