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What ever became of Susan Sontag's "New Sensibility"?


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Fifty years ago Susan Sontag published the influential essay “One Culture and the New Sensibility” in her collection Against Interpretation. Taken as a whole, the latter book was a declaration of war against the “New York Intellectuals” and their high-brow snobbery. Sontag’s “New Sensibility”—exemplified by artists as diverse as John Cage, Marlon Brando, Andy Warhol, Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer—promiscuously blended “high culture” and “low culture,” and also embraced many art forms beyond literature, which the New York Intellectuals regarded as supreme.

Revisiting the essay for The Baffler, cultural historian Rochelle Gurstein wonders if Sontag got more than she bargained for. Since the essay was published, art has zealously destroyed the distinction between high and low culture that Sontag attacked. But, suggests Gurstein, it has done so at the expense of the “seriousness” and standards that Sontag also prized. Here’s an excerpt from Gurstein’s piece:

As I reread Sontag I saw that she was registering something else. She saw how alert “the most interesting” artists of her time were to the ways new technologies were transforming consciousness, and how far they had pushed themselves to make art that was consonant with this development. In turn, this project further pushed them to incorporate into their work material and methods from “the world of ‘non-art’”—“from industrial technology, from commercial processes and imagery, from purely private and subjective fantasies and dreams.” It was the logic of this artistic imperative—and not some anti-intellectual animus against distinctions or populist allegiance with “the people,” as her first outraged critics and her later postmodernist champions would have it—that led Sontag to observe:

All kinds of conventionally accepted boundaries have thereby been challenged: not just the one between the “scientific” and the “literary-artistic” cultures, or the one between “art” and “non-art”; but also many established distinctions within the world of culture itself—that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and (a favorite of literary intellectuals) “high” and “low” culture.

When Sontag noted how the distinction between “unique,” handmade objects and “mass-produced” ones, in light of the new media and processes incorporated into the most advanced art, now appeared “extremely shallow,” how “the work of art is reasserting its existence as ‘object’ (even as manufactured or mass-produced object, drawing on the popular arts) rather than as ‘individual personal expression,’” she was enumerating the ways in which artists were “changing the ground rules which most of us employ to recognize a work of art.”

This, I could well imagine, must have been what it felt like to be alive at that intense, unsettling moment and to be fully engaged with art of the most unfamiliar, experimental sort. And I could see, maybe for the first time, why people alert to these developments might have felt that such distinctions had become irrelevant, even obsolete. Nevertheless, I could not easily suppress concerns of mine that are the result of going to art galleries over the last thirty years and have made me take seriously Harold Rosenberg’s worry—and as time went on, his realization—that these many blurrings of distinctions, these “changed ground rules,” were leading to what he called the “de-definition of art.” Ever since I first read Rosenberg, this idea has haunted me, for it opened my eyes to the disturbing possibility that once the category of art becomes so diluted or broadened (depending on where one stood) that it encompasses anything placed in an art gallery, it could conceivably lead to the moment when there is nothing left to de-define—that is, it might ultimately do away with the very qualities that used to make a work of art recognizable as art. And that moment, it seems to me, is drawing closer and closer. I found myself thinking about the depressingly large number of works I have seen in which artists raid mass-produced entertainment in such a direct, unmediated way that it is almost impossible to detect what sets the artist’s photograph, collage, painting, video, or installation apart from the commercial product or image he or she is “appropriating.” Richard Prince’s photos of magazine ads featuring the Marlboro Man, which he made into “art” by enlarging them, immediately came to my mind as well as the huge prices they got at auction.

Image of Susan Sontag via the Observer.