See the previous parts of Susan L.M. Goldberg’s blogging on Ion Mihai Pacepa’s Disinformation:
Susan Sontag, who characterized the KGB’s disinformation play about Pope Pius XII as “an excellent theatrical idea,” spearheaded the transformation of the intellectual movement in the 1960s. New York Magazine described Sontag as “the last significant member” of the New York intellectual crowd (which included the likes of Lionel Trilling) and the source of its demise. What Irving Howe would come to define as “the new sensibility” would usher in the conquest of high culture in the name of pop and the metamorphosis of the intellectual class from theological Marxists into a nihilistic oligarchy.
While Sontag was by no means alone in her endeavor, as an academic she pioneered the already closing gap between high and popular cultures by essentially defaming Matthew Arnold, the Victorian father of modern literary criticism. Arnold defined culture as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.”
Susan Sontag declared this notion “historically and humanly obsolescent.” According to art critic Hilton Kramer,
“The Matthew Arnold notion of culture,” she wrote, “defines art as the criticism of life – this being understood as the propounding of moral, social and political ideas.” This was deemed abhorrent on several grounds. It took literature, with “its heavy burden of ‘content,’ both reportage and moral judgement,” as a model, and this would no longer do.
Sontag embraced late 19th century aestheticism. Beauty would no longer be the source of moral value; according to Sontag’s stylistics, beauty — or, rather, the pleasure one received from viewing or listening to a piece — would be the only way to value a piece of art. Arnold’s concept of content as character building was thrown out the window along with Arnold’s definition of art. Kramer details,
The people no longer had an interest in distinguishing between Arnold’s implicit high and low cultures. Rather, as Sontag wrote, “the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes.”