top of page

On Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

[Notes from 2008.] Reading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. It’s wonderful to think that the publication (in 1966) of a book full of critical essays like this could have been seen as an important cultural event. What a different time that was from the present! Norman Mailer said that the Sixties were the only time he had ever felt like a human being.

The title essay (“Against Interpretation”) provokes thoughts, but I don’t find it convincing. From a 'philosophical' perspective its brevity is lamentable, though from a literary perspective it isn’t. (Sontag was a writer, not a thinker.) Interpretation is indeed “the revenge of the intellect upon art”—or it can be called such—but more generally it is simply a way of digesting the artwork, gleaning from it as much as possible. Digestion is not only an intellectual process; it is a human one. Art is a way of reworking and digesting the world; interpretation is a way of reworking and digesting art. The mind needs to assimilate, and as long as it has this need, interpretation will be inevitable. Why should intellectual assimilation be a vice if artistic assimilation is a virtue? Sure, interpretations can be facile and dull, in fact they usually are; but this is not an argument against interpretation itself. If done intelligently it can enhance one’s experience of the work, bring out features that might have been overlooked otherwise and thus assist one in doing precisely what Sontag favors, which is to examine and appreciate the “sensuous surface” of art. The surface, after all, cannot be wholly separated from thematic elements below the surface, elements relating to “content” (as opposed to form, which is the surface). Sontag’s seeming belief that it can—that themes and symbols and “meanings” and the like should not be the critic’s concern—in fact upholds the dualism she deplores, the form/content dualism. (She says “Focus on form, not content!”, while professing to believe that “ultimately” there is no difference between form and content.) Anyway, a literary criticism that devoted itself to describing and critiquing form, or the “sensuous surface” (such as techniques of narration, rhyme-schemes, meter, the architecture of a particular novel) and said not a word about content would soon grow tiresome. Arguably the most interesting type of criticism is of content. Georg Lukács certainly thought so. He thought analyzing a work’s content is enlightening in far more ways than analyzing its form is—in artistic ways, sociological ways, philosophical ways, psychological and biographical ways, historical and political ways. Exclusive concern with form is a bourgeois decadence, for it turns your eye away from the work’s interaction with social conditions. It’s an anti-holistic way of thinking, a one-sided, virtually solipsistic, way of experiencing culture.

Besides, I’m skeptical of substantive rules on how people “ought” to do literary criticism. How can those rules be justified? All you can say is that critics ought to be erudite, sensitive, etc. I don’t think Lukács is right either that there is a “good” way and a “bad” way of critiquing artworks (aside from obvious general considerations); there are simply different ways, different avenues toward assimilation.

“Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.” Well, okay, if you put it like that it sounds bad. But that’s a tendentious way of putting it. Really good interpretation can be almost as subtle and profound as the artwork itself.

Insofar as Sontag’s position is compelling, it’s because of our intuition that an artwork is a finished sort of thing, a ‘superfluous’, purely ‘aesthetic’ thing. The artist puts it out there for you to look at and admire. Staying on the level of form is the most blatant way of staying on the level of the exclusively aesthetic.


One has to give her credit for admitting in the Afterword, written in 1996, that she was partly wrong in her early criticisms of the Marxist, humanistic literary critics (Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno, et al). She had scolded them for being critical of most contemporary art, for being “insensitive to most of the interesting and creative features of contemporary culture in non-socialist countries”. They criticized a lot of modern art as decadent, alienated, un-historical, allegorical, unrealistic, shallow, consumerist. They thought it was symptomatic of a culture in decline, while earlier realism was strong and vibrant, and morally uplifting. She thought they overemphasized the importance of content at the expense of form, and that if they corrected this one-sidedness they might better understand contemporary art, which has “rediscovered the power of the formal properties of art”. “Even form is viewed by the historicist critics as a kind of content.” (As well it should be, since their approach is holistic. One might almost call their approach sociological, as opposed to merely aesthetic. Everything in society is an expression of that society; everything is content.) But in the Afterword she admits that “we live in a time which is experienced as the end—more exactly, just past the end—of every ideal. (And therefore of culture: there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.)… [Back in the Sixties, even, something was happening,] something that it would not be an exaggeration to call a sea-change in the whole culture, a transvaluation of values—for which there are many names. Barbarism is one name for what was taking over. Let’s use Nietzsche’s term: we had entered, really entered, the age of nihilism.” So in the end she agreed with the Marxist critics, who evidently had a keener sense of what was happening than she did. She even adopted their moralistic language, in direct opposition to her earlier self: “there is no possibility of true culture without altruism”.


Sontag strikes me as a brilliant dilettante.

Speaking of which: I might be tempted to try my hand at art criticism if the activity didn’t seem so masturbatory. Except when it’s done extremely well, criticism seems pretentious and self-involved.

No doubt its ‘self-referential’ nature grows out of the self-referentiality of art itself, and is to that extent appropriate. Sontag is probably right that art, as art, exists in its own autonomous mental space, that insofar as we criticize it from a moral or sociological viewpoint we are not really criticizing it as art.[1] “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.” (Oscar Wilde.) The aesthetic experience refers only to itself. Cf. Kant. Still, something repels me about criticism as undertaken by most critics. Including Sontag. It seems somehow decadent, cloistered, disengaged, Ivory Tower-esque, not to mention boastful and self-promoting. (‘Look how many books I’ve read! Look how many parallels I can draw between all these works!’)

But maybe that’s all bullshit. Maybe what it comes down to is that criticism just doesn’t interest me (most of the time). L’art pour l’art, and the sort of criticism engendered by that attitude, doesn’t interest me much. I seek general truths in everything; but most artistic criticism is entirely specific, as if it’s an end in itself.

Besides, surely the ‘healthier’ attitude is the Marxist, humanistic one, which sees art as an expression of social life and ideally a means of ennoblement. This is Nietzsche’s position too. Its criterion for artistic worth isn’t really a ‘moral’ one, as Sontag says accusingly, but a ‘spiritual’ one. Moral rightness and wrongness have nothing to do with it; what matters is the degree to which art enhances the feeling of living, the feeling of power. Does the work promote (or embody) a holistic engagement with life or a one-sided retreat from it? Is it unifying or is it fragmenting? Cross-cultural or parochial?

The humanistic attitude is more naïve, and thus more healthy, than Sontag’s sophisticated ‘formalist’ attitude. Her approach may allow for more subtle aesthetic analysis (which one might uncharitably call aesthetic casuistry) than does the humanistic one, but a tendency towards over-analysis is a symptom of a bored, worn-out civilization. Formalism is high intellectualism, and intellectualism, as she herself admits, betokens sickness, if not necessarily on the individual’s level than certainly on the cultural level. (One of the manifestations of our culture’s unhappiness and boredom is its over-analysis of things.)

Undoubtedly a work of art should be evaluated by other standards too, ‘formal’ standards and so on. But it’s a mistake to disregard the ‘moral’ or ‘spiritual’ standards. These are, after all, important in determining the work’s longevity. (Bach will always be listened to, by millions; Schoenberg likely will not. Eugene O’Neill will probably have more staying-power than Samuel Beckett. The former are uplifting and universal, the latter alienating and period-specific.) And everyone knows that longevity is one of the criteria for artistic greatness. Therefore, so are the humanistic criteria that Sontag deprecates.


As I read the essay “On Style” I can’t help thinking “Too much intellectualism!” I’m suspicious of all this rationalizing, this overly subtle reasoning in defense of formalism. The naïve, instinctive view is usually the best.

[1] Maybe that’s wrong, though. Both Sontag’s and Lukács’s positions have appeal for me. –Well, Lukács’s has more appeal, but I understand Sontag’s too.


Recent Posts

See All

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page