“I remember thinking it was a strange object, the first time I saw it.” Bill was looking past me and talking about his impression of a new arts center at Rice University. “I’ve been back several times since then, but I still can’t figure out what the building is supposed to be.” We were in a coffee house not far from campus discussing aesthetics, which I was trying to connect to architectural criticism. “Maybe…” His voice trailed off as his eyes returned. “Heck, I don’t know. You’re an architect, Richard. What do you think of the Moody Center?”
Moody Center for the Arts was designed by Michael Maltzan of Los Angeles. I toured it on a balmy Houston afternoon a month after the building opened last year. Now I sipped my latte and said, “Meh. All I know is that it looks architectural.”
“Ha. Criticism is usually more verbose, my friend. And more passionate.”
“Exactly,” I said, “and that’s the problem.” It was hard to articulate passion. Like many architects, I lacked the fund of knowledge, the vocabulary, to critique a building as art. We study architecture theory in school, I told Bill, but minimal art theory and rarely art criticism. The deficits show in how architects speak and write about aesthetics: poorly. I was hungry to learn the art of criticism. “You’re the guy with a Ph.D. in art,” I reminded him. “Guide me. From whom can I learn? Who’s the world’s most important art critic?”
Bill swirled his cappuccino with a spoon. “You could begin at Plato and scroll through Thomas Aquinas, Kant, Nietzsche, and Michel Foucault. In there would also be Clement Greenberg, Beaumont Newhall, and Hilton Kramer.” He lifted his cup, pinky out. “But probably the best art critic is Satan. I suggest you begin with him.”
In his 1890 poem, The Conundrum of the Workshops, the great Rudyard Kipling wrote:
When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
“What about Sontag?,” I asked. I’d recently found a paperback of her essays while reorganizing my library, a book that hadn’t been touched in 45 years.
“Satan. Sontag. In the ’60s, they were pretty much the same person.”
The writer Susan Sontag published a short essay in 1964 that rocked the art world. In Against Interpretation, she argued hermeneutics was deadly. Art criticism required an art object to be experienced (seen, heard, felt), not interpreted (analyzed, intellectualized, translated). Sontag was speaking of painting, literature, music, film, and photography, but she might well have included architecture. Interpretation (the act of translating art content into meaning, she called it) “amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.” Her indictment set off a great disturbance in the force.
Sontag recommended critics focus on form, not content, a position that went against much of art theory and many theorists. She noted early artifacts were made as tools, not expressions of beauty. In the beginning, art, to the extent that it existed on utensils, clothing, and shelter, were depictions of reality, such as animals and human figures. Over time, mimesis borrowed from cultural myths, epochal meta-narratives, and foundational texts. From simple line work on cave walls grew heroic battles on canvas, religious scenes on tapestry, and moral tales rendered in oils, bas-relief, and stone. Metaphor, allegory, and simile evolved. Alphabets developed, and literature arose. For most of history, what we today call the Arts were communication devices, mass media acting as the social glue of cultural cohesion.
But art went abstract in the modern era, Sontag noted. Its days of serving as a messenger were over. She wondered why contemporary art critics hadn’t noticed. Welcome to the 20th Century, her essay essentially said. Leave relics to the historians and narrative devices off the table. Get ye a new program. Use a modern approach to critique modern art.
Kipling wrote The Conundrum of the Workshops seventy-five years earlier than Sontag’s reasoned rant, but he, too, knocked criticism. His poem was a subtle rejoinder that there would always be some devil questioning a work’s artistic value. One of his stanzas poked fun at architecture critics.
They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: “It’s striking, but is it Art?”
I suspect more than a few of my peers would agree with Kipling’s chide and Sontag’s diss. “The building speaks for itself” is a common refrain (sung with arms folded) by contemporary architects when challenged with, “I can’t figure out what your building is about, what it’s trying to say.” It’s a curious reaction because architects live themselves in constant evaluation mode, a voice in their head forever asking, Do I like that? Should I like that? Architects are quick to make binary proclamations of good and bad, or slowly hedge their bets through nebulous prose. Architects, it seems, are the devils of Kipling’s complaint, but they can’t take the heat.
But where Kipling satirized, Sontag guided. “I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how.” Instead of trying to unearth meaning, Sontag lobbied for a new language, a “vocabulary of forms.” She called transparence the experience of art and its highest value. You could transmit the universal essence of a work with words. You just needed the right lingua franca.
Ironically, Sontag—the artist who was against interpretation—didn’t specify the linguistics of her proposal. She left it to others to interpret. More ironic, Kipling had anticipated this:
And he left his lore to the use of his sons—and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled: “Is it Art?” in the ear of the branded Cain.
Objectivity is a view supported by fact and unfettered by prejudice or instinct. In science, objective prose is de rigueur to keep personal opinion (subjectivity) at bay. In law, too, impartial language underpins the doctrine of fairness. Both fields guard against written or oral bias—Objection, Your Honor! Counsel is leading the witness. Law and science, thus, favor scrupulously objective prose, and this is good. The downside is that slogging through a law journal or scientific paper can be tedious.
Nonpartisan prose is also the preference of building codes, construction cost studies, efficiency and performance reports. Many building parameters can be empirically quantified or measured. Describing the ethereal qualities of space, form, and light, however, is a different matter. Justice is Blind may be inscribed on courthouse entablatures, but aesthetics defy objectivity. The Art of architecture begins with the immeasurable and ends unmeasured, according to Louis Kahn. In discussing art, subjectivity reigns—or should.
The stone was dropped at the quarry-side and the idle derrick swung,
While each man talked of the aims of Art, and each in an alien tongue.
Kipling complained of countless unenlightened and unenlightening opinions. His “builded tower” was in Babel. Architecture’s strangest tongue is archispeak, the jargon of academics and scholarly texts. At the other extreme is the quotidian banter favored by lifestyle and fashion magazines when they cover buildings. In between are nondescript treatments found in home improvement publications, the dispassionate tone of general architecture books, newspaper journalistic tenor, and the formal compositions of historians. Then there are trade papers presenting buildings in engineering and technology terms, and the docile writing of American architectural journals and monographs. (British writers are more cheeky, which make them eminently more fun to read). On this side of the pond, architectural commentary exudes the stuffy air of trying not to lead a witness. I disagree with the position. In Art’s court of public opinion, not saying much isn’t saying much.
In contrast to banal architectural prose are those wearing subjectivity on their sleeves. The spectrum includes social media and professional critics. Passions run from acerbic to portentous to glowing when editorializing what an architect meant, or a building means.
They fought and they talked in the north and the south, they talked and they
fought in the west,
Till the waters rose on the jabbering land, and the poor Red Clay had rest—
Had rest till the dank blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to
And the Devil bubbled below the keel: “It’s human, but is it Art?”
Sontag was opposed to extracting meaning through interpretation, negative on looking for metaphors or reading between the lines, and against seeing in a work that which may not, or no longer be, relevant. She disapproved of artist statements and of critics psychoanalyzing artists’ lives. Instead, Sontag said critics should concentrate on a work’s appearance, or what she called, it’s “form.” The 1960s was a time when architects were exploring the aesthetic of forms following function. Movements come and movements go, and sometimes they return. Fifty years later, new modern-ish buildings abound, but without the social conscience that grounded modernism. In place of a better world order is the empty formalism Sontag may have written about, shapes and surfaces that disinvite symbolism.
In Sontag’s fancy, critical interpretation, hateful or admiring, was valueless. So, if looking for deep meaning wasn’t what critics should do anymore, what was the purpose of art commentary in Sontag’s view? I think she would have said awareness, that the highest and best use of criticism was to persuade broad audiences to visit extraordinary works.
But how? Sontag provided no guidance on her proposed vocabulary. My interpretation of her essay (which she would have been against) suggests an answer. Look at form, she repeatedly said, not at content. Sontag was a short story author and novelist. She knew the writer’s rule, show, don’t tell.
Sontag’s opening line in Against Interpretation was: “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual.” She began with an emotional hook invoking the occult. An implied mystery is in the offing. Tell me more goes through the reader’s mind.
Sontag then established what writers call an inciting event,: the dawn of man, the time when art mimicked reality. Her narrative unfolded in chapter-like parts told from the first-person point of view. She took us through Homer’s Greece and to Egypt for the story of Exodus, winding up at Marx and Freud. Her essay divided evenly into three acts, beginning, middle, and end. Throughout her narrative was enough rising action to keep readers on track to a climax: “Interpretation runs rampant here in those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde.” The next to last chapter seemed to wrap up nicely as the plot led to a conclusion. But Sontag’s denouement was a false ending. The final chapter was a surprise, a single-sentence punchline. Part 10 read: “In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” The line conjures all sorts of possible meaning. Depending on interpretation, it’s a twist that leaves readers smiling, or angry, perhaps even shattered.
Sontag didn’t write an essay as much as penned a rebellious novelette. Art was the protagonist, critics the antagonist. The way she wrote was as meaningful as what she said. More than fifty years after its publication, Against Interpretation still resonates. It’s part of art criticism’s canon. No didactic essay arguing against interpreting art could have been as persuasive.
Bill and I split the check and stood to leave. On the way out, he said, “Wait. You still haven’t told me what the Moody Center is about, what the building is trying to say.”
I didn’t have the answer, so I Googled one on my iPhone. Here’s how Ben Koush described the Rice University Moody Center for the Arts. In an insightful Texas Architect magazine review, he said, “Its ground floor is largely glass, while the second floor hovering over it is mostly solid, clad with metallic gray brick and punctured by relatively few—but large—openings, irregularly shaped and spaced. The contrast between the two floors evokes the shapes of existing campus buildings—rectangular bars of varying dimensions—and the sensation of passing through Rice’s dense gray-green canopy of live oaks.”
It’s a good description of the experience. I believe Sontag would have been pleased. Then I searched Michael Maltzan’s website and found Koush’s portrayal not far from the architect’s characterization of the building as an “icon,” which means “a sign whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies.” Moody Center portrays a quadrangle of interior spaces, studios arranged around a courtyard similar to the numerous building quads on the Rice campus. Sontag would have ignored Maltzan’s explanation, but not Kipling. He’d have written:
We know that the tail must wag the dog, as the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: “It’s clever, but is it Art?“
It may be Art, but Koush isn’t sure Moody Center is Architecture. “The building, at first glance, is striking and seductive—almost as if its main aim were critical recognition. Upon closer examination, however, it seems more like an exercise in form-making than an attempt to create meaningful spaces….Beneath the appealing veneer of an undeniably attractive but aloof building, a series of disjointed spaces remain, spaces that fail to relate to the rest of the campus.”
I had my answer for Bill. Moody Center was a Sontagian object, a superficial building no more profound than what you see is what you get. Alas, I said, it was a sign of the times. My heart raced. “Architects no longer imbue architecture with meaning, Bill, but not because of Sontag.” I started to get loud. “Contemporary architects don’t want their buildings interpreted because they have nothing to say.” Given a world gone wild in social and environmental problems, that’s an abdication of responsibility, I told him. Then I proclaimed, “Skin deep architecture is lazy architecture,” and felt my blood pressure rise, then my arm. Then my fist balled up.
I thought I heard Bill mumble, “Right on.”
As we walked to our cars, he said, “I’m going to have to give Sontag and Kipling a new read.” Turning to me, “But you need to cut down on caffeine, Richard.”
“Meh, don’t bother with books or buildings. There’s nothing worth reviewing anymore.”
“Good job, Richard! That’s your critique.”
Featured photograph of the Moody Center for the Arts, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture, taken by the author.