Culture

Sontag's Kulture Kamp

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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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Kramer observes that Sontag’s notions stirred the intellectual pot that had been coming to a slow boil in the early 196os. It was her desire, however, to “…strip the arts of what she herself described as ‘moral sentiments’ and usher in ‘a new attitude toward pleasure.'” The culmination of her Pleasure Revolution was her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” published in Partisan Review, the anti-Stalinist Marxist journal that also published interviews with The Deputy playwright Rolf Hochhuth. Defining Camp as a mode of aestheticism, Sontag “made the very idea of moral discrimination seem stale and distinctly un-chic.”

Decades later, upon reflection, Sontag would remark, “I am strongly drawn to Camp and almost as strongly offended by it.” By then, the damage had been done. Intellectual culture of the 1960s, thanks in part to Sontag’s self-defined “solvent for morality,” defamed the search for morality in art and denied the human need for a moral life. This type of moral nihilism would usher in the return to a kind of primordial pleasure-seeking self among the masses. Religion would be replaced by rock and roll; Mary bowed at the feet of Madonna; we’d imagine there’s no heaven, because the Kardashians are here on earth. Like the Romans, the intellectual class collapsed in on itself and the new Dark Ages had arrived.

Critiquing the compendium The Susan Sontag Reader in 1982, Hilton Kramer observed that Sontag’s “desire to have it both ways” rendered her work “morally incoherent” and susceptible to a “certain philistinism” — a critique Sontag once used to describe Matthew Arnold’s pursuit of moral fiber in art. The question is, has American culture been injected with so much of the “spiritual vacuity” and “moral smugness” of Sontag’s Camp aestheticism that we have become immune to the criticism we so desperately need to hear?