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Sontag’s Kulture Kamp

Three Down, and America goes.

by
Susan L.M. Goldberg

Bio

November 29, 2013 - 10:00 am
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lennonsaves

In a 1966 interview Beatle John Lennon said, “We’re more popular than Jesus.” He would later clarify, “‘My views are only from what I’ve read or observed of Christianity and what it was, and what it has been, or what it could be. It just seems to me to be shrinking. I’m not knocking it or saying it’s bad. I’m just saying it seems to be shrinking and losing contact.’”

See the previous parts of Susan L.M. Goldberg’s blogging on Ion Mihai Pacepa’s Disinformation

Red or Dead: How Stalin Re-Defined American Liberalism

The Assassination of Patriotism: Intellectuals, Disinformation and JFK

The Framing of Hitler’s Pope

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.”

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Top Rated Comments   
Thanks for referencing Hilton Kramer, who gave voice to the horror - and sorrow - that so many felt while witnessing the joyousness of the simpletons who were tearing down our culture.

I think there was more to Sontag's intellectual game than "spiritual vacuity" and "moral smugness", I think there was a deep resentment there as well. Sontag and others of her ilk were people who wanted desperately to create art (though they'd never admit it), to make or write something of lasting value, and they couldn't. The gift of art-making is only given to a few random people during a particular time and it's bestowed quite accidentally, without any predictability. The only way to open up the field to accommodate all the people who wanted to be called artists - and, of course, get their greedy hands on all that money - was to deliberately devalue the process as well as the result. Authenticity, which is the true morality of art, was cast aside and replaced with new "schools" of art, each one more empty than the last. And here we are now, standing knee-deep in the cultural rubble.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good for you for pointing out her contribution to the decline of our culture. If one takes pleasure in watching the rape, torture and murder of a woman, then according to Ms. Sontag that would be "art."

It would be best to throw Ms. Sontag's contribution to the definition of art out the window.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (7)
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I'm not a fan of Susan Sontag-nor am I a fan of her admirers...But this account omits a very powerful statement she made at a Town Hall meeting in support of Polish Solidarity ...She said that if you compare the picture of the Soviet Union shown by The Nation to the picture shown by Reader's Digest(edited by the former Communist Max Eastman) the Reader's Digest was far more accurate. A very significant reconsideration,and an important admission to what I imagine was a shocked crowd.........
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
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45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for referencing Hilton Kramer, who gave voice to the horror - and sorrow - that so many felt while witnessing the joyousness of the simpletons who were tearing down our culture.

I think there was more to Sontag's intellectual game than "spiritual vacuity" and "moral smugness", I think there was a deep resentment there as well. Sontag and others of her ilk were people who wanted desperately to create art (though they'd never admit it), to make or write something of lasting value, and they couldn't. The gift of art-making is only given to a few random people during a particular time and it's bestowed quite accidentally, without any predictability. The only way to open up the field to accommodate all the people who wanted to be called artists - and, of course, get their greedy hands on all that money - was to deliberately devalue the process as well as the result. Authenticity, which is the true morality of art, was cast aside and replaced with new "schools" of art, each one more empty than the last. And here we are now, standing knee-deep in the cultural rubble.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good for you for pointing out her contribution to the decline of our culture. If one takes pleasure in watching the rape, torture and murder of a woman, then according to Ms. Sontag that would be "art."

It would be best to throw Ms. Sontag's contribution to the definition of art out the window.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sontag wasn't the last of an intellectual group but among the first of a group that would belabor the obvious and call it observation as in "On Photography."

By Sontag's reckoning beauty could be the sound of chopping off someone's head. And Sontag did make moral discrimination seem stale if you read her comments about 9/11 in The New Yorker.

Sontag's new "intellectualism" went thusly:

Accidental racial demographic: racial supremacism.
Having a space colony as a plot device: colonialism.
Having an empire in a novel: ideological imperialism.

Sontag started at shadows and took naps during actual events.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
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