19 March 2007


I just flew back and forth across country and, on the flights, had a chance to do some reading. That is a rarity these days. On the outbound flight I read about two-thirds of the new collection of Sontag's essays and interviews about which I posted just before leaving. I skipped her essays on specific authors beauses I'd never actually read any of them (at least not recently or carefully enough to make a difference). Of the other essays and speeches and interviews there is much with which to disagree. Here are two examples:

[1] "Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation."

I agree with the first clause but not for the reasons Sontag might give. Calling someting beautiful is, in my estimation, less a description than an ascription or affirmation. It is a way of asserting an ideal and attaching it to some object or individual or experience or so on. As such, it operates subjunctively in the sense that we are saying that "this" is like "that" in a relevant (in this case aesthetic) sense and so should be treated in the same way. (So, for instance, to call something beautiful is to suggest that, like other beautiful things, we should, within limits of our powers and resources, strive to protect or conserve it.) Seen this way, idealization also invites conflict and contestation from others who might not want to accept the similarity relation I suggest, often because of the implication that if that relation is accepted, some burden exists on us to treat the object, individual, experience (etc.) in question as we do the object, individual, experience with which we've compared it. (How is that for a run-on sentence?)

I disagree strongly with the second clause in Sontag's assertion. The process of idealizing as I've just sketched it occupies the realm of possibility. In that sense it trades upon imagination and hope in what I take to be fairly clear ways. Imagination is the capacity to entertain and develop possibilities that are difficlt to discern in our actual circumstances or surroundings. Hope is something we invest in possibilities. Neither operates as a mode of consolation. Indeed, it is fair to say that imagination and hope both inspire. They both invite us to envision the mundane, often brutal and oppressive, world otherwise. I think Sontag's inference reflects a singularly fatalistic mindset that also is reflected in her dismissive views on the efficacy of politics in the face of historical events. (As Sontag quips in Regarding the Pain of Others - "To be sure, nobody who really thinks about history can take politics altogether seriously.")

[2] "Or they might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful. Photography was the art where"the interesting" first triumphed, and early on: the new photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera. The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgement."

Here Sontag is commenting on the displacement of "beauty" as a standard of judgement in the arts. Her views are provocative and they intersect in different ways with the positions articulated in recent years by, say, Arthur Danto or Elaine Scarry. But Sontag has a grudge against the "interesting" and she connects the rise of this competing criterion of assessment directly to the emergence of photography. Sontag might not concede that "interesting" is a basis for discrimination - anything, after all, might be interesting. But insofar as assessments of beauty are inherently discriminating (not eveerything, after all is) it is hard for me to see what her compklaint actually is. The category of "interesting" allows us to talk about things that are not beautiful (or parasticially, ugly). And it we concentrate on photography as a technology rather than, with Sontag, on photographs as objects we will can understand photography as a way of enhancing or amplifying our ability to see or imagine. (This is the argment in philosopher Patrick Maynard's wonderfully smart The Engine of Visualization on which I've posted here before.) And that will surely make many things we'd not otherwise perceive or notice or consider interesting. What is the problem?

Beyond that, it is important to notice the ambiguity in Sontag's very last clause. Is the connection between photography and beauty's coolness deficit a causal one? Sontag has an infuriating habit of making such highly ambiguous, and (once sorted out) usually indefensible assertions. Might it not be that the demise of beauty as a criterion of judgement (which in many ways that I cannot address here, I myself lament) and the emergence of photography as a technology occurred simultaneously but more or less indepenently of one another? Not if, like Sontag, one wants to defend "reality" from things that (like photographs) she insists are copies of it.

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Blogger Duncan said...

I think the category 'interesting' is a product of entertainment culture as much as anything else. I think it conveys a sense of mild detachment to an idea - we don't neccesarily find an idea/place compelling enough to motivate us to action, but the referant stands out as something mildly atypical, and worth our time to look at. Think of similar uses: 'take an interest in' (invest some amount of limited time into something), or 'interests' (the things we do when not moved in work/school). Things that are interesting fill the time not invested in other pursuits which are more 'real' (not as entertaining).

I wrote about the idea of beauty on my blog before - I think your description of 'beauty' as a mutual-meaning making process makes a good deal of sense, but I disagree with your take on Sontag's second clause. Even if beauty is contested and fluid, the nature of the title for the object (or artist, person, etc..) does have a hint of consolation, because of the comparison in treatment you described. Calling something 'beautiful' erases any individual, intrinsic value for a subject and makes it a classed object with categorical value, and that value relates to the perceptions of a group of people who place similar value on a subject. I think Berger gets at this in Ways of Seeing (the chapter on women and nudes), where 'beauty' is looking at other people looking at an object, and creating meaning around that - the beautiful object consoles itself to a group of people to achieve a certain status or label in the eyes of others.

20 March, 2007 11:01  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think the notion of interests (what we find interesting, what interets us, what is in our interest)is complex. In politics, many of our most central normative concepts - equality, rights, represntation, etc - operate on a scaffolding of interests, or at least they emerged historically upon such a scaffolding. So, rights protect interests, and schemes of represntation render present interests that are not actually 'here,' and so forth. SOntag seems not to think through such implications and to focus only on the dimension of "curous" or "attention" grabbing or whatever. And, I would argue, that those notions are not nearly as superficial as she might suggest.

Conversely, much of the criticism of "beauty" in photography is aimed at those, like Salgado for instance, who are said to aestheticise (and hence make light of?) the suffering and travials of those photographed.

I am not sure I understand your comments on consolation. That calling something beautiful brings it into some category seems correct. But that need not eliminate all particularity from the obejct (or whatever); and even if it does, how is that consoling? I take the latter to mean that the beautiful object (or whatever) provides some comfort in the event of loss or disappointment. Perhaps a beautiful baby or something might do that (say if the mother dies in childbirth) but it is not obvious that it always or necesarily does so. Sontag would then, minimally, be overstatting her case and, thereby, diverting attention from other uses (or abuses) of beauty.

20 March, 2007 13:46  
Blogger Paul Pincus said...

Peter Hujar's portrait of Sontag is Beauty.

19 November, 2007 08:44  

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