“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. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.” – Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”
In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag argues against assigning meaning to art. To interpret any work as about something other than itself, whether a political critique or an exploration of personal experience or a philosophical argument, is to foreground that thing at the expense of the work itself. It’s to say that what really matters is the politics, the personal history, the philosophy. The art becomes secondary.
In the half-century since “Against Interpretation” was first published, the tendency to focus on art’s meaning rather than art’s form has only become more dominant. Go to any museum and read what curators have written on the walls – interpretation is the primary mode through which our culture experiences art.
AI art could change this. One of the primary temptations to interpret is the fact that, up until now, every artwork has had an author. It can be difficult to confront the silence of a finished thing. Art can’t do anything other than what it has already done. But the human behind the art can be quoted, their life can be mined for events. Even after they die, new stories are told about them, old documents surface and reveal secrets. Instead of discussing a work of mute and unchanging art, it’s easier to discuss the reasons why and how this artist made the art. Interpretation inevitably follows.
But AI art has no author. Even at its most polemical, it confounds interpretation. If an AI were to write an op-ed about immigration, the AI would have no opinion on or knowledge about the topic. Its creation would be purely formal. The act of interpreting the op-ed’s stance would only happen in one mind – the reader’s.
“The agony in store for the faithful Virgins was merely a transubstantiation, a challenge gladly accepted with the promise of imminent rapture… the peace which already reigns within them has spread out into the landscape, as if radiating out from their very souls.” – Georges Rodenbach, “Bruges-la-Morte”
Sontag argues that critics should foreground art by focusing on its formal qualities. This approach seems like it would work well for AI’s creation-through-equation. It’s also a useful tool to approach one of art’s great subjects – death.
Hugues Viane, the main character of “Bruges-la-Morte,” is a widower who does nothing other than wander the streets of Bruges and remember the dead woman he loves. But memory can’t satiate him. Death has destroyed the body of his love, so he replaces her with things – her clothes, a braid of her hair. And eventually, a young dancer who looks almost exactly like her.
In the novel, death is a void that can’t be witnessed. No matter how hard Hugues tries to see his wife’s death, he always looks past it, his gaze settling on things other-than-death. Death has no form, which makes it impossible to interpret.
“I seemed to catch a purpose, that of all the night prowlers in Paris: we were in search of a corpse. If all at once we had encountered a lifeless form lying prostrate on the pavement, bathed perhaps in his own blood, or propped against a wall, we should have immediately come to a halt and that night would have been ended.” – Philippe Soupault, “Last Nights of Paris”
Death is also impossible to interpret in “Last Nights of Paris,” but not because it has no form – instead, because it has an infinite number of always changing forms.
In the book’s first chapter, the narrator witnesses a murder. For the rest of the novel, he tries to make sense of the killing, pulling on dozens of threads, each one making as much and as little sense as the others. Death becomes a generator of meanings.
A surrealist novel, “Last Nights of Paris” is both dream-like and inspired by dreams. Formally, both the novel and dreams are mysteries without resolutions, a series of related-but-not events chasing after each other.
Sleep has two forms. One is a void we neither experience nor remember, the death of “Bruges-la-Morte.” The other is an endless creative generation, the death of “Last Nights of Paris.”
Death is often associated with sleep, but outside of religion, only with the kind described in “Bruges-la-Morte” – endless uninterpretable blackness. The reasoning is simple: without consciousness, there can be no form. AI shows that reasoning is flawed. Although AI is without consciousness, it’s concentric with “Last Nights of Paris” and sleep’s other half – AI is a dreaming machine, a mindless spawning of infinite forms.
AI art’s great gift may be bringing death’s truth out of dreams, allowing humanity to experience our afterlife in conscious daylight.