Brain Pickings

Susan Sontag on Beauty vs. Interestingness

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Defying consumerism and the banality of the beautiful, or why our capacity for astonishment endures.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her fantastic meditation on the psychology of beauty. Indeed, beauty is a complex beast surrounded by our equally complex attitudes, and who better to tease those complexities apart than the greatest public intellectual of the twentieth century? Months before her death, Susan Sontag — who had a lifetime of strong opinions on art and who coined the notion of “aesthetic consumerism” — wrote a spectacular essay titled “An Argument Against Beauty,” found in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), the superb volume that gave us Sontag on courage and resistance and literature and freedom.

The essay was in part inspired by Pope John Paul II’s response to the news of countless cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: He summoned the American cardinals to the Vatican and attempted to rationalize the situation by stating that “a great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize.” In this concerning assertion as a springboard for a broader reflection on our confused attitudes toward beauty, Sontag set out to transcend the common social definition of beauty as “a gladness of the senses” and instead “to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility.”

Sontag writes:

However much art may seem to be a matter of surface and reception by the senses, it has generally been accorded an honorary citizenship in the domain of “inner” (as opposed to “outer”) beauty. Beauty, it seems, is immutable, at least when incarnated—fixed—in the form of art, because it is in art that beauty as an idea, an eternal idea, is best embodied. Beauty (should you choose to use the word that way) is deep, not superficial; hidden, sometimes, rather than obvious; consoling, not troubling; indestructible, as in art, rather than ephemeral, as in nature. Beauty, the stipulatively uplifting kind, perdures.

Arguing that beauty has ceased to be a sufficient standard for art, that “beautiful has come to mean ‘merely’ beautiful: there is no more vapid or philistine compliment,” Sontag notes:

The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

And yet there is more to beauty than a lackluster cultural abstraction:

Beauty defines itself as the antithesis of the ugly. Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly. (For an explanation, look first not at the rise of so-called “political correctness,” but at the evolving ideology of consumerism, then at the complicity between these two.)

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

Sontag traces the paradoxical and convoluted cultural trajectory of our relationship with beauty:

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and its appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with a social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude.

What had been a virtue of the concept became its liability. Beauty, which once seemed vulnerable because it was too general, loose, porous, was revealed as — on the contrary — excluding too much. Discrimination, once a positive faculty (meaning refined judgment, high standards, fastidiousness), turned negative: it meant prejudice, bigotry, blindness to the virtues of what was not identical with oneself.

The strongest, most successful move against beauty was in the arts: beauty — and the caring about beauty — was restrictive; as the current idiom has it, elitist. Our appreciations, it was felt, could be so much more inclusive if we said that something, instead of being beautiful, was “interesting.”

To call something “interesting,” however, isn’t always an admission of admiration. (For a crudely illustrative example, my eighth-grade English teacher memorably used to say that “interesting is what you call an ugly baby.”) Turning to photography — perhaps the sharpest focus of Sontag’s cultural contemplation and prescient observation — she considers the complex interplay between interestingness and beauty:

[People] might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful. Photography was the art where “the interesting” first triumphed, and early on: the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera. The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment. Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

(Curiously, Francis Bacon famously asserted that “the best part of beauty [is that] which a picture cannot express.”)

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

What we tend to call interesting, Sontag argues, is that which “has not previously been thought beautiful (or good).” And yet the qualitative value of “interesting” is exponentially diminished with the word’s use and overuse — something entirely unsurprising and frequently seen with terms we come to apply too indiscriminately, until they lose their original meaning. (Contemporary case in point: “curation.”) She writes, echoing her meditation on the creative purpose of boredom from nearly four decades earlier and her concept of “aesthetic consumerism” coined shortly thereafter:

The interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept, bent on enlarging its domain: the more things become interesting, the more the marketplace grows. The boring — understood as an absence, an emptiness — implies its antidote: the promiscuous, empty affirmations of the interesting. It is a peculiarly inconclusive way of experiencing reality.

In order to enrich this deprived take on our experiences, one would have to acknowledge a full notion of boredom: depression, rage (suppressed despair). Then one could work toward a full notion of the interesting. But that quality of experience — of feeling — one would probably no longer even want to call interesting.

With her strong distaste for unnecessary polarities, Sontag observes:

The perennial tendency to make of beauty itself a binary concept, to split it up into “inner” and “outer,” “higher” and “lower” beauty, is the usual way that judgments of the beautiful are colonized by moral judgments.

She counters this with a more real, more living definition of beauty:

Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console…

From a letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942:

“The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.”

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.

Echoing young Virginia Woolf’s insight about nature, imitation, and the arts, Sontag elegantly brings her point full circle:

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent… Beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”

All the essays and speeches collected in At the Same Time are treasure troves of timeless wisdom on culture, art, politics, society, and the self. Complement them with Sontag on writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

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