SuperflexSupercopy Factory, Trapholt Museum, Kolding, danemark, 2017.
Photo : permission de Trapholt Museum, Kolding

Against Innovation: Appropriation and Disruption in the Age of Immaterial Bondage

Oli Sorenson
Susan Sontag’s seminal essay Against Interpretation was published in the same decade as Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author, adding to the 1960s trend to turn away from the author’s intention as the sole arbitrator of a work’s meaning and toward the inclusion of viewers’ perceptions in this process.1 1 - Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin Classics, 2009); Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009). Yet, in her analysis, Sontag refuses to trivialize the correlation between what is said and meant, especially when words, images, or sounds undergo re-evaluations due to the passing of time and changing customs. She makes a compelling case against ancient scriptures that appear reactionary, phobic, or stifling to readers today. In her view, we should resist the urge to reinterpret such forms of cultural heritage. When interpretation comes to fill the gaps between literal and figurative meaning, a separation of form and content ensues, problematizing art’s role as analogous representation of the world.

Comparable effects have been observed of late with artists attempting to display the pain of Others, such as Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), a painting that depicts Emmett Till, a black youth lynched in 1955. This form of cultural appropriation justifiably angers black audiences, but not because they have misinterpreted Schutz’s intention to denounce past injustices. Rather, Schutz seems to miscalculate the praxis, which combines the knowledge needed for making a work of art, the activation of the ideas that emanate from it, and a self-reflexive engagement with the reactions they trigger. This praxis crystallizes the meaning of Schutz’s art beyond her personal intentions. The painting distils substantial information from its creator’s biopolitical position, whose white privilege rests uncomfortably within the work’s subject matter, implicitly illuminating the enduring asymmetries of power between races in the United States.

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This article also appears in the issue 97 - Appropriation

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