Posted on May 26, 2021Read on Mirror.xyz

Art, Interpretation, and What's Next

I've been studying philosophy in a university setting for five years now and a lot of times I feel like it hasn't really gotten me anywhere. While there are certainly some easy-to-forget benefits or maybe even impacts I'll never identify, the idea of being generous to an argument (sometimes called the principle of charity) has always stuck with me. The idea is that when you make a philosophical argument, what you're doing is basically completely useless if you don't fully comprehend what your opponent is actually claiming and interpret it as charitably and rationally as possible.

This focus on charity probably could have found its way into my life in another way, but its application to philosophy was the first time I ever thought of charity as useful in a non-zero-sum way. Like, obviously me being charitable can be useful to others, but in this case if I'm not charitable to others' ideas in a philosophical context, it'll make it seem like I have to construct a straw man in order to try to make a point and will pretty much render the conversation useless. It became habitual for me to think about ideas I encountered in this way, whether they were philosophical ideas in a text from 100 years ago or sentiments expressed by my friends in everyday conversation. I absolutely will not pretend I'm always able to be charitable to viewpoints I encounter—I find it particularly hard to view certain claims about politics or economics in a generous light—but I'm I'm getting better.

It took me a while to figure out that generous interpretation was fun when applied to art. I've always had a weird appreciation for performances or works of art that find their value not in what the artist intended but rather from an apparent divorce of intention and perception—an appreciation I've since come to realize is camp or at least camp-adjacent. When it came to ironic art or "cringe" performances, my intuition to interpret things charitably led me to attribute a narrative to the art I encountered that established it as intentionally ironic or absurd. This tendency usually amounted to interpreting a lot of things as if they were episodes of the docu-reality comedy series Nathan for You or a bit in a Borat film. The approach often involves reinterpreting art in increasingly absurd ways until I land on an interpretation that allows me to appreciate it.

I don't even think this form of artistic interpretation is right—I just think it's fun and kind of funny. When I started to lean into the idea of interpreting art generously without concern for identifying the "correct" or intended narrative, I wrote a piece about TikTok user AngelMamii where I tried to find meaning in her TikToks, fleshed out an interpretation of a viral joke TikTok by muhlizzaaaa, and tried to interpret GFOTY's remix of stupid horse by 100 gecs as vaguely Marxist. In each case, the creators responded to what I had written and were appreciative of my writing and ideas, but never confirmed that what I was saying was even remotely close to being true.

In some sense, writing those pieces was a way to take the art seriously—I had to assume that it meant something and that whatever it meant was worth writing about. In another way, my approach was completely facetious in that it was unconcerned with the artist's intention. The process of creating a narrative that seemed blatantly wrong or too serious but was nonetheless interesting was exciting. It just felt like I was applying the same themes and tropes commonly used to discuss high art and literature to a different (and more interesting) realm of art.

A generous approach to art is also a response to criticisms I have of the way people write about art—especially music. Like many people, I find the notion of evaluating art a bit unnatural. To assign a score to a work or label it bad in some purportedly objective sense seems to contradict the very purpose of art itself. No evaluation of art is going to make sense to everyone or resonate with everyone, so to take a critical perspective doesn't really seem worthwhile. There are enough barriers to creating art and getting people to pay attention to it—I don't see why we should be interested in adding fear of criticism from "art critics" to that list. People that evaluate art often function as curators: they garner an audience that aligns with and trusts their tastes, and their reviews inform their audience about what they might enjoy. Even so, it seems a reviewer or critic simply ignoring art that they don't enjoy serves almost the same curative purpose as giving a bad review.

Writing with the goal of establishing whether art is good or bad also seems empty insofar as it's explanatory. My eyes always glaze over a bit when I read music journalism that attempts to describe what music sounds like using a string of pretentious adjectives. If I wanted to know what a song sounded like, I would just listen to it. There's a reason the artist made a song instead of writing something down—they're communicating something that can't be said properly with words alone. If discussions of art begin not with the goal of description and evaluation but rather with the assumption of interpretive generosity, there's always an opportunity to add new meaning—to take what you think the artist might be saying and talk about how that relates to something else you're interested in or what it means to you. This process abandons the attempt to ascribe some sort of objective value to art and rightly acknowledges that evaluating art is extremely subjective. Basically, it's the right way to talk about art.

It took a bit of shitposting and flailing on Mirror to figure out how I wanted to use the platform, but I've finally arrived at a topical focus that maybe should have been obvious to me: I want to generously interpret art. I wan't to write about cringe, irony, conceptual art, Drain Gang, Emily Montes, and maybe SHL0MS or something for the crypto-heads. My goal is to release something on the 1st and the 15th of each month. Stay tuned.

quasimatt is an anti-intellectual. His next post will be about Bladee. Connect with him on Twitter.