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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

22 APRIL, 2014

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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13 MARCH, 2014

Narrowly Selective Transparency: Susan Sontag on Photography vs. the Other Arts

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“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.”

“The picture of life contrasted with the fact of life… All that is really peculiar to humanity … proceeds from this one faculty or power,” early photography advocate Frederick Douglass observed in contemplating the power of “aesthetic force.” But what is it that lends photography its singular power to capture and convey the facts of life? In On Photography (public library) — that same indispensable 1977 volume that presaged the dynamics of visual culture on the social webSusan Sontag considers how photography differs from the other arts and what makes it a unique medium for human communication and consciousness. Her thoughts are doubly interesting to revisit decades later, when digital photography has lowered the barrier of entry so much that “everyone is a photographer,” as the aphorism goes, and as we find ourselves immersed in an ever-flowing stream of digital images flickering before our eyes faster than we’re able to contain them, let alone interpret them, in our minds. Today, as the photographic image becomes both more ephemeral (a string of information bits rendered on a screen, deletable and manipulable at the touch of a button) and more inescapably permanent (“The Internet is a copy machine,” Kevin Kelly tells us. “Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with the Internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave.”), Sontag’s meditation gets at the heart of what lent photography its increasingly affirmed status as the most powerful and far-reaching communication medium of our time.

Sontag begins by considering how photographs offer an assurance of permanence — of tangibility — far greater than the moving image, a sort of guarantee of experience that also explains why photos of vacations, progeny, and backstage passes populate Facebook feeds, as well as a sense of actuality greater than paintings and drawings:

To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, light-weight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. . . .

Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power. . . . Photographic images … now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Photograph by Brandon Stanton from 'Humans of New York.' Click image for details.

But even if photographs imply an interpretation of the world, they invariably attest to the world — that particular world — existing in the first place:

The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.

[…]

While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. . . .

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

And yet despite their affirmation of reality — or, rather, a reality — photographs also prompt invisible narratives:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.

'Migrant Mother' by Dorothea Lange, 1936. Click image for details.

On Photography remains a must-read, increasingly so as the steady coevolution of technology and culture continues to complicate our relationship with the still image. Sample more of it here. Complement it with 100 ideas that changed photography and the history of photography animated, then revisit the best photography books of 2013.

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10 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Project of Literature: Susan Sontag on Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives

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“To make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master.”

Susan Sontag remains one of the most interesting minds in modern history, with provocative and prescient beliefs and opinions on everything from visual culture to love and sex to stereotypes and polarities to why lists appeal to us. But arguably her most timeless insights touch on the heart of her own creative material — literature.

In the spring of 1992, exactly ten years after her magnificent meditation on books in Letter to Borges, Sontag visited the 92nd Street Y in New York to deliver a lecture on the project and purpose of literature. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, who recorded the live event, I am proud and heartened to offer Sontag’s talk for our shared enrichment. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On becoming a writer, writing itself (a subject Sontag pondered frequently in her diaries), and its osmotic relationship with reading — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers:

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

Sontag goes on to explore the still-debated issue of gender in literature and the notion of how stereotypes imprison us:

That all came from books, and it came from the usual books that are now called “the cannon” — used to be called “classics,” which is not a bad term either — and most of those writers are men. It’s not my choice that they be men, but as far as we know, Homer and Shakespeare and Dante and Rabelais and so on, those writers, they’re mostly men. Of course… George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and so on [are] absolutely first-class writers, but most great writers have been men — this is not to justify it, this is not to be happy about it, it’s just the way it is. For all the obvious reasons, we know why the majority of distinguished practitioners of most arts have been, up to this time, men — there’s nothing about the future, nothing about what ought to be, just what is.

Therefore, it was so natural to me to take the attitude that these were writers — in other words, Emily Dickinson isn’t a “woman poet” any more than Walt Whitman is a “male poet” — they’re just both poets. George Eliot isn’t a “woman writer,” whereas, let’s say, Dickens is just a “writer” — they were just writers. . . .

I also live in a time in which it’s very important to me — and natural to me — to support and want to align myself with most aspects of the feminist agenda. I’ve always been a feminist — it’s not something I became. At a certain time, I had the honor of being called by Elizabeth Hardwick “somebody who is born a feminist.”

[But] there can be a contradiction, if you will. It is important to women coming to consciousness of the cultural disabilities under which women labor, in which their consciousness is formed, to make those distinctions — the distinctions that I want to, as a writer, not think about. They can be very important for women in general to think about. So there’s the contradiction — let’s say I do one thing as a citizen, as a civic person, and I do something else as a writer.

[…]

But… if I truly considered people and their lives over a long span of time — people with marriages and love affairs and careers, living in a conventional society — it could not be the case … that I would not be struck by the ways in which women think of themselves in subservient roles and in which they become dependent, or even crippled, by gender stereotypes. … Everybody knows it. What we say is what we have permission to say — we always know much more than we say, and we see much more than we acknowledge that we see, but at any given time there are conventions about what we say we can say and what we think we can think. And one of the interesting things about being a writer is to try to open that out a little bit.

Adding to Italo Calvino’s timeless definitions of what makes a classic, Sontag considers what a writer is and what literature means:

A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.

To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play. . . .

In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.

Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more. . . . That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream.

In answering an audience question, Sontag adds her contribution to famous writers’ daily routines, fusing with characteristic elegance the practical and the philosophical:

Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop. . . . A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.

On the psychological value of writing by hand amidst a digital culture, a point that has amplified resonance two decades later:

I write by hand and then I type it. But I have to write the first draft by hand. Now, don’t tell me about the computer — I know the computer is wonderful. I remember one writer friend of mine … said, “I don’t want to use a computer because it’s too entertaining.” It’s not writers’ masochism that makes some few of us continue to hold out against this — it’s that it is better if it goes slower, at least I think so. It’s good to feel it in your hand and it’s good to be able to just think. . . . .

Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative. . . . To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.

In answering another audience question, Sontag considers what it takes to be — rather than become — a writer:

You have to be obsessed. . . . [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.

Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.

Sontag, who considers herself unproductive despite her dozen published books by that point and her ample diaries, returns to the question of daily routines and writerly rituals:

The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule. . . . Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch. . . . And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could I? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.

It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?

(There’s a reason, indeed, why the creative process at its most immersive is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps this that Henry Miller touched into in his meditation on the joy of urination.)

On the absurdity of using “elitism” as a divisive and derogatory term, something that we still grapple with today:

I think most of what is called “elitist” is a mask for anti-intellectualism — I mean, there is such a thing as excellence.

Sontag ends on a remarkably prescient note about education, the broken system for which she had proposed a revolutionary intervention some two decades prior, and a system that remains just as broken two decades later:

The worst thing about [the system we live in], I suppose, is our educational system. And that is, perhaps, also the most hopeless thing in the system — it’s the most important thing that we should be changing, and it’s the thing we’re least likely to change. And if we don’t change that, basically we won’t change anything else.

Stay tuned for more excellent recordings from the 92Y archives, and explore more of Sontag enduring genius here.

Illustrated portrait of Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton for a previous collaboration

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