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Play in the City 2013

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Anne Dalke's picture


Welcome to the on-line conversation for Play in the City, an Emily Balch Seminar offered in Fall 2013 @ Bryn Mawr College,  in which we are addressing the question of how we construct, experience, and learn in the act of play. How is play both structured by the environment in which it occurs, and how might it re-structure that space, unsettling and re-drawing the frame in which it is performed?

This is an interestingly different kind of place for writing, and may take some getting used to. The first thing to keep in mind is that it's not a site for "formal writing" or "finished thoughts." It's a place for thoughts-in-progress, for what you're thinking (whether you know it or not) on your way to what you think next. Imagine that you're just talking to some people you've met. This is a "conversation" place, a place to find out what you're thinking yourself, and what other people are thinking. The idea here is that your "thoughts in progress" can help others with their thinking, and theirs can help you with yours.

Who are you writing for? Primarily for yourself, and for others in our course. But also for the world. This is a "public" forum, so people anywhere on the web might look in. You're writing for yourself, for others in the class, AND for others you might or might not know. So, your thoughts in progress can contribute to the thoughts in progress of LOTS of people. The web is giving increasing reality to the idea that there can actually evolve a world community, and you're part of helping to bring that about. We're glad to have you along, and hope you come to both enjoy and value our shared explorations.  Feel free to comment on any post below, or to POST YOUR THOUGHTS HERE

tflurry's picture

The Problem of Practicality

I rather enjoyed Sontag’s essay; her argument was an interesting one, a point of view that I had thought in passing but never considered in depth. That said, I found her somewhat frustrating, simply because while her argument is all well and good, she offers no practical advice for how to put it into action. Particularly among traditionally educated people and in the North American school system, students are taught little else but how to interpret everything they see. It is incredibly rare for me to look at anything and not start automatically dissecting it for ‘deeper meaning’, and on those rare occasions I experience a piece without analyzing it, its purity remains unsullied for the length of time for me to realize what I’ve experienced before I go back to the begin and analyze it then. What seemed to me to be one of the interesting parts of her argument, and the part that she least touched on, is how to incorporate her ideas into practical use. How does one use this ‘vocabulary of form’ she discusses, without making comparisons of some sort? How can one discuss anything without comparisons? And how, among a group of people taught to interpret, taught to make connections that are not inherent to the piece, how can one make comparisons without connections, and through those interpretation?

Mindy Lu's picture

Against Interpretation

Thoughout Susan's claim,I generaly agree with her. The exact interpretation of art may not only lead to misunderstanding of the ture meaning of the Art, but also, more ridiculous, add more ideas on the artworks, which may be never came up with the artists when they did them. In my opinion, every work of art represents a unique mood of its artist who made it, which means that,except the artist himself/ herself, nobody can exactly feel or interprete its meaning. 

However, I still think that Susan's claim is a little bit exceeding. The interpretation is not completely useless or harmful. Some logical speculation can help us to learn the artwork better. I think the goal of the artists to create artworks is not only express their thinkings, but also to deliver informations to the viewer. As viewers, we should try to guess or image something from the artwork and try to understand it.

Muni's picture

Response to Sontag

I played a believing game with Sontag's essay as I read it. I've had similar thoughts occasionally--why can't we just appreciate something for its beauty or complexity without digging too much into it? Often, these thoughts were directed at "digging too deep" into literature for a class. After having done some more analysis of art in this class, as well as compiled such a big analysis toolbox, I've decided that interpretation can be really useful and can help me learn a lot about the art, artist, or even something else. Even if it's completely innacurate, the interpretation itself is a next way to interact with a piece. I agree with Sontag to an extent, though. Interpretation used as a tool too often leaves less space for pure appreciation of art.

lksmith's picture

Responding to "Against Interpretation"

In her essay, Sontag talks about interpretation and how the act of interpreting something alters the original thing to the point that it becomes something else entirely. When reading this I find myself playing the believing game a lot, I really want to take in all of what she says and go with her arguments. I also found myself making personal connections to what she is saying, tying it back to everything from my trip to the Barnes Foundation to my high school english classes. These connections along with the use of the believing game make Sontag's claims so much more real, it seems obvious how interpreating a piece of artwork of literature can completely reshape it to fit whatever mold the interpreter chooses for it. 

Clairity's picture

Sontag and Interpretation

In her essay, Sontag is strongly against the contemporary way of interpreting the art, which is to focus on its content and its meaning. I feel like this way is a modern trend -- to find meanings behind the art. It poses a lot of pressure on people who are appreciating the art, because they're expected to find some kind of "significance". My experience when I was writing my Barnes essay is a good example. Although we were asked to write a descriptive rather than a analytical paper, I still felt the need to include a "discovery" or conclusion on the piece of art in the end of my essay. Sometimes we try so hard to achieve the things we feel that we have to achieve, but in the meantime, we are missing the point. We should look at art for what it is, instead of attempting to impose a meaning that makes sense but we don't truly relate to.

Sontag proposes that we should emphasize on the sensuous form of the art, which reminds me of my trip to the Magic Garden. I didn't interpret anything when I was surrounded by the amazing mosaics, but rather let everything in. All I did was seeing, hearing, and feeling. I was a free person at the moment.

Frindle's picture

Interpreting Art and High School Lit Classes

The further along I got in the essay, the more I started to see this not only as a disscussion about interpreting paintings and the like, but also as being about books. Sontag believes that we should not interpret art, that it takes away from the real value of it. Ancient versions of this that built on top of the art are acceptable, but digging behind it is not. This reminded me of my high school lit classes. I feel as though the majority of the essays I wrote ended up being about some sort of symbolism or metaphor or interpretation of the book (and most of the time, I didn't believe). We spent very little time building on it: relating it to our life, history, politics, science, often we got caught up in tiny details that were supposed to be the "true meaning behind the novel." But sometimes we don't need to hear that. Sometimes we need to understand that the surface story is just as important.

pialikesowls's picture


In all honesty, I feel as if Susan Sontag is being a little bit dramatic. While it would be nice and and more pure for us to not interpret art, I don't agree that it indicates dissatisfaction, and I also don't think that it's possible for us to NOT interpret art. When I'm looking at a piece of art, at first I just take in the colors, shape, and medium. After that, I try to think about what the artist was thinking of when he/she painted it, therefore attempting to interpreting it. Also, as an art history major, I have to interpret art. Interpreting art doesn't violate or desecrate it in any way; I feel as if interpreting art is another way of appreciating and understanding art. Seeing art, hearing art, and feeling art is interpreting the art.

Taylor Milne's picture

Against Interpretation

Throughout Susan Sontag’s essay I found myself losing the path that she was trying to build her points, and I found that often they would contradict themselves. I would say that from the tools we have learned in the class I had to use focused reading to try and interpret what she was trying to say, along with this I think that she has many of the same ideologies as Barnes, in that she thinks things should be enjoyed rather than over-analyzed. With this she is trying to have us play the believing game, because she makes many assertions within the text that make us ask ourselves if we agree or disagree with her ideas.

AnotherAbby's picture

For Against Interpretation

With Susan Sontag’s essay, I feel like one of the only “tools” that I can use, and certainly the only tool she would have me use, is the believing game. I am listening to every word she says without pushing back, poking holes, and pointing out the flaws in her argument, and I am going to do my best to see what she has to say by believing her.

pbernal's picture

Against Interpretation Response

I have mixed feelings about Sontag's essay to the point where I don't know what to believe. Yes, I understand that when we spend more time trying to interpret and find meaning, we actually lose the purpose and reality of whatever it is we're interpreting, whether it be art or music. That at times we make up so much nonsense and say bullshit to something so simple that could have been expressed in a couple of words or less. And much of it is like Sontag mentions, "plucking a set of elements" bit by bit.

But interpretation can be a very helpful thing as well. Sontag says this out of spite but I find it quite inspiring; "Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art and the world." Where's the fun in just listening and watching without challenging the creator? If I wouldn't challenge the ideas or creations sorrounding me, then I would go nowhere. I wouldn't learn outside of my perceptions and that quite frankly is boring.

Thinking too much burns out the bulb, I get it, but without thoughts circulating throught, there wouldn't be light to light the bulb in the first place. 

clarsen's picture

Shofuso Japanese House and Gardens

The experience Sontag strongly promotes in her essay of one without judgment or over explanation is one I had in our “Magic Gardens” visit.  I had few expectations and knew little about the garden prior to the visit and did not feel the need to interpret but rather simply naturally experience and enjoy it.  For a self-assigned trip, I would seek out a similar place like Shofuso Japanese House and Gardens.  From the pictures I’ve seen online, the gardens look like a perfect place to relax and reflect without the need to analyze.  

playcity23's picture

My Response to Sontag

Sontag's essay was annoyingly hard to follow. If I was a prof. grading on style (not content) it would be lucky to get above a 2.0. That being said, one of her assertions stuck with me. She says "The effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities." (I had to look up what effusion meant) So, wait what? Is she saying that we aren't supposed to be interpreting art or literarture? I would argue that's what makes literature and art art. That it can be seen from so many different angles. It doesn't poison us, it enlargens our minds. Sure it might taint the original work, but it doesn't lose its value because of it. 

I'm also seeing that I didn't post earlier about what my trip into the city was like (sorry Anne). I originally intended to take the one o-clock train into Philly but I lost track of time talking to my folks. So I ended up going an hour later and revelling in the political institution that is Macy's. I had a moment with the big 'Murican eagle in the center of the store. Then I had another moment with the big light show Christmas tree thingy. I think I'll always be blown away by how consumer-oriented the US is. It still blows my mind that you can shop for anything besides gas and coffee on a Sunday. 

Student 24's picture


What bothers me is that Sontag's essay is written as if we – or, rather, I since I am the one reading this essay... Okay. Start again. What bothers me about this essay is that it is written as if I, along with the other readers, were all audience and no artist. As if audience and artist were two separate groups of people and neither took part in the activity of the other. As if creation-and-production and observation-and-interpretation existed independently in separate bodies of people.

Grace Zhou's picture


    When I read Susan’s work, I started to think about the way we interpret the arts in Barnes- let all come to you. Not swamped into the content of the art, we welcome the ideas naturally aroused by the art. Without interpretation, it’s the first true impression directly come to us from the arts. I agree with Susan that to interpret is to “turn the world into this world.” “The world” is the true thing itself, “this world” is created by people’s interpretation. For me, the interpretation is a limit. People are chained in a small world that they try to see an art through what those experts and criticism interpreted. Many times, I am afraid to have any idea on an art because my thoughts seem to be innocent and shallow compared to those interpretation and analysis from experts. The deep interpretation makes one seem to be brilliant and insightful. It’s true that to some extent, the interpretation helps me to see what I can’t see and maybe can be inspiring. However, it deprives my own senses- I even can’t follow my own interests and beliefs.

    When we planned the trip to the city, we follow our curiosity and instinct in researching. By clicking the link our own senses lead us, we have the way to dig out what we really want to visit and explore. Also, there’s no need to limit oneself in interpretation when writing, we learned to write what we have come up with and follow our ideas naturally and freely. Unfortunately, the interpretation and the seemingly "latent content" behined have even outweighed the true art itself.

Samantha Plate's picture

Sontag and writing organically

It seems that Sontag's point was that we should experience things for what they are. She doesn't want us the try and pull content from them, but rather to hear, see, and feel. This relates to the tool of writing organically following what you are curious about. By ignoring how the content might be "meant" to be interpreted we can instead look at what seems important to us and from there we can write about that, as it appears to us.

My assignment for Play in the City II would be to go view a work of art, or a performance, or listen to a live piece of music or a book reading and write a stream of consciousness. There would be no analytical goal, you should just write what you are thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing as it happens. From there you can follow what you are curious about and examine it more closely in your essay. This follows the idea that we talked about in class that we should use Sontag's practice to experience, but our tools to analyze and write.

Anne Dalke's picture

Dear Mark,

here is the toolbox we assembled in class today while you were by the fire @ home.
As you can see, we couldn't make everything fit.
What have we omitted?

Seeking, as always, the certification of the expert,
Percy-ily yours,
Anne and the City Players

Anne Dalke's picture

Responding to Sontag (and planning to go on playing in the city...!)

By midnight Wednesday, post a response to Sontag's essay,
by using one of tools from the "toolbox" we made visible on the board.

Also, imagine: you have been registered for an independent study, "Play in the City II."
Your first assignment is Sontag's essay. What excursion-or-activity will you assign yourself,
to put this theory into action? Please bring this plan to class with you.

Claire Romaine's picture

Mosaic Inception

Dialogue with Dead Men

The pages swim before my eyes
a jumble of letters
speaking for a man
long gone.

I demand for him to talk
to tell me what he thought
but his speech is slurred
and his mind is elsewhere.
He sits across the table
and already fleeing
back to his half-life
among the underlined words
and desecrated corpses


This post is a kind of mosaic within a mosaic within another mosaic (Hence the title).  Firstly it’s a mosaic because I wrote this poem a long time ago and I am now combining it with recent writing.  Secondly because I’m mixing poetry and prose and thirdly because a couple of the lines are things I remember my political theory teacher, which I then combined with my own writing.

Anyways, back to how this applies to Sontag’s essay.  This poem is a reflection and to a certain extent a complaint (like Sontag’s essay) about how we analyze and interpret authors without any idea as to what they truly intended to convey to us.  Yet, since we can no longer speak to them, we must try to interrogate them through the writing they left behind.  Sontag would say that there is no reason to try to derive meaning from their work, while I focused on how our interpretations are by no means guaranteed to be loyal to the original author.  Sontag talked about change in interpretation over time, as well, when she said that the meanings we derive from a piece of art change to conform to our times and our own individual ideals.

Everglade's picture


Yes Amy, I am taking a photo of you! 么么哒

Cathy Zhou's picture

A Letter to Barnes

A Letter to Barnes

Dear Mr. Barnes,

I’m a Bryn Mawr student and our class visited your museum last month. I appreciate the difference your Barnes’ Foundation has made from other normal museums, but I have some doubts about the purpose of the museum you set up.

When I went in the museum, I felt the distinctive style you made. You filled the place with all the paintings crowded on the walls, and they do not even have any name tags nearby. I liked the style of building, which was later revealed as the reform of your own house. It’s an inviting place, with all the wood furniture and small rooms. I went to New York’s Museum of Modern Art twice and saw many of the world-known pieces there, but the place seems more like a tourist place than yours. Barnes Foundation did renew my impression for museums, and it’s also an art piece itself. I admire its inversion of former interpretation of art, but when I hear your idea, or critiques of former museums, that they are not presenting art in proper forms. And the purpose of setting up Barnes Foundation was to prevent your own collection to join one of those museums you disliked.