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W(h)ither the New Sensibility

Who would have thought that Susan Sontag’s “One Culture and the New Sensibility”—widely regarded as an opening salvo in the long culture war against “elitist” standards”—is now fifty years old?

I revisited Sontag’s celebrated essay because I was reading a new book by George Cotkin called Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility (Oxford University Press, 2015). Making my way through Cotkin’s twenty-three short chapters about the life and times of the many, many diverse figures he offers as representative of the new sensibility, I was surprised to find how elastic the concept had become. Cotkin locates its roots in the “minimalism” of John Cage in 1952, followed by Robert Rauschenberg’s early experimental work, Marlon Brando’s style of rebellion in The Wild One, and six more predecessors. He then traces how it “exploded” in the 1960s—this is where Sontag appears (he calls her “the queen of the New Sensibility,” and its “cheerleader”), in between chapters on Lenny Bruce and Andy Warhol on one side and John Coltrane and Bob Dylan on the other, along with three more exemplars. Cotkin goes on to show how the new sensibility became a “cultural commonplace” by the 1970s, beginning with the plays, poetry, and radical political activism of the black nationalist Amiri Baraka, and then, after three more vignettes, his account comes to a close with Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, followed by Chris Burden’s performance pieces of 1974.

What is in store for the reader is announced on page two: “From silence [Cage’s music] to blood [Burden’s perfomance art], the American cultural scene between 1952 and 1974 pushed boundaries, defied expectations, and trafficked in excess.” Another familiar story of ’60s liberationism, I thought, but with a twist.

“Excess,” according to Cotkin, was its single animating force, and it also turned out to be the stock-in-trade of the new sensibility, with its “common core of subjects: violence, liberation (especially sexual), and madness.” Reading the opening pages, I learned that Cotkin believes that mental constructs like sensibilities have a kind of corporeal reality and can do all sorts of things: “The New Sensibility aimed to obliterate the cultural divide [between audience and performer, between high and low] in order to hurry forward into the territory of liberation.” But what really stunned me was Cotkin’s apparent understanding of sensibility as a preexisting entity that artists can simply plug into as needed: “Artists (novelists, filmmakers, and painters), all supping at the table of the New Sensibility’s excess, savored sexual possibility and unabashed joy.”

I was sorry to find that what emerges in the course of reading the book is what Cotkin had foretold in advance: “The New Sensibility obsessively concerned itself with violence, madness, sexuality, confession, and liberation. . . . One simply worked within its characteristic style and focused on its common themes, in the process expanding the reach of the sensibility.” I couldn’t help wondering how any of Cotkin’s exemplary transgressive artists—Cage, Rauschenberg, Robert Frank, Warhol, Arbus, Burden, let alone Dylan or Brando or Pynchon or Mailer—would feel about this mechanical or, in truth, formulaic, understanding of how they worked, of what, against all odds, they succeeded or failed to pull out of themselves. And what about the ones who, in the process, went mad or committed suicide or died by drug overdose or ended up in jail? This lack of understanding (or is imagination? or feeling?) of what is entailed in pushing oneself beyond conventional borders in art and in life—what Cotkin speaks of as “an imperative to shrug off limits,” “a hankering for freedom,” “the thrill of demolishing the status quo”—seemed to me to be of a piece with the way he embraces “excess,” declares the new sensibility our “present cultural configuration,” and celebrates “its best emanations” as “both outrageous and outstanding” (this odd pairing appears twice in the book), without ever making me feel the price it exacts upon those who engage with it. The intense, imaginative powers required to achieve this are rare, but I couldn’t help thinking that Cotkin’s efforts, sincere as they are, do not get very far. About Anne Sexton’s attempt to transform her misery into a poem: “Her suffering, couched in the imagery of religious desire, poured forth. She might clothe her body stylishly, but it failed to hide her desire to choke the life out of that very object.” Or about the perverse psychic state of Diane Arbus: “Arbus was known to have sex sometimes with her subjects, as if capturing their image alone was insufficiently transgressive.”

When it came to Cotkin’s treatment of Susan Sontag, who coined the term “the new sensibility” and whose essay on the subject he might have considered in depth, I was simply at a loss. Cotkin’s characterization of Against Interpretation (1966) as “a sort of Baedeker guidebook of avant-garde literature, theater, and cinema (mostly European), with excursions into happenings and even science fiction films” did not accord with my memory of it. His description of Sontag’s approach to the new sensibility seemed more accurate, if still off in tone: “She rebelled against the need to find deep meaning (historical, psychoanalytic, or otherwise) in works of culture, preferring to experience the work of art on its own terms, to skate along its surface.” His passing mention of Sontag’s attitude toward the distinction between high and low culture I did not find very helpful: “She observed that the Maginot Line between works of high and low culture had been transgressed—without ill effects.” And the way he translates this attitude into a virtual libel on Sontag, the person, astonished me: “Sontag was no cultural stick-in-the-mud. She loved to kick off her shoes and dance to the pop music of the great girl group the Supremes.” Cotkin, I thought, had no idea who she was.

These misgivings sent me straight to Sontag’s essay on the new sensibility. Cotkin opens his chapter on Sontag with her famous paean to “defiant pluralism”—“From the vantage point of this new sensibility, the beauty of a machine or the solution to a mathematical problem, of a painting by Jasper Johns, of a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and of the personalities and music of the Beatles is equally accessible”—in the service of establishing her arrival as “a phenomenon” on the American cultural scene. Rereading the essay, I was surprised to find this passage does not appear until its end. I had remembered the bit about the Beatles—it had never sat right with me—just as I had a vague memory of Sontag’s pronouncements that the “popular arts” can be “appreciated as a complex and pleasurable event” and that indeed they are “experienced without condescension” by “many younger artists and intellectuals.” In fact, I realized, all I had remembered about the essay was the permission, as it was once called, that Sontag gave her readers to take aesthetic pleasure in things belonging to very different orders of experience. And this part of the essay, I knew, had been subsequently used by champions of postmodernism as a foundation for their attack against “elitism”—that is, judgment, distinction, and standards of all kinds.

But as I found reading the essay anew, Sontag’s celebration of a “less snobbish, less moralistic” openness to the popular arts makes up only a small part of the essay. Sontag’s report on the new sensibility was actually a more far-ranging attempt to put to rest the widely accepted idea that, with the coming of the industrial revolution, an unbridgeable, ever-increasing gap had opened up between the worldviews represented by “two cultures.” On the one side, there was the general humanism of “literary-artistic” culture, which aims at moral-aesthetic responses such as “internalization” and “cultivation”; on the other, the narrow specialization of “scientific” culture, which aims at “accumulation and externalization in complex instruments for problem-solving and specific techniques for mastery.” I was not surprised to find Sontag dismissing an influential airing of this “diagnosis,” by scientist-novelist C. P. Snow in his 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures,” as “crude and philistine.”

But I had forgotten Sontag’s even greater impatience with “literary” intellectuals in America and England (especially the New York Intellectuals), who were her real target. Their offense? They were oblivious to “the vital and enthralling (so called ‘avant-garde’) developments” in arts other than literature or were “blinded by their personal investment” in outdated ideas and thus clung to a moribund “notion of culture” derived from Matthew Arnold.

That Sontag described and dispensed with this understanding in a parenthetical remark—“the central cultural act is the making of literature, which is itself understood as the criticism of culture,” she wrote—or in the cutting phrases “art as a species of moral journalism,” “a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments” was in keeping with her animus against literary intellectuals’ cult of relentless interpretation. This obsessive hunt for meaning, whether moral, psychological, social, or political, “behind” or “below” the work itself was robbing the arts of their mystery, their very life, a belief she expanded upon in other manifesto-essays in the volume, most famously “Against Interpretation” and “On Style.”

If there was one thing Sontag wanted her readers to know, it was that one looked in vain for “vital and enthralling (so called ‘avant-garde’) developments” in literature; the action instead was in “music, films, dance, architecture, painting, sculpture,” all of which have “much less content and a much cooler mode of moral judgment” than literature. What is more—and this was germane to the “two cultures” problem—they all “draw profusely, naturally, and without embarrassment, upon science and technology.” This move allowed Sontag to dismiss the alleged crisis of the two cultures as an “illusion,” resting on an “uneducated, uncontemporary grasp of our present cultural situation” by literary intellectuals. What was really going on was “the creation of a new (potentially unitary) kind of sensibility” by artists who were receptive to new technologies and, quoting Marshall McLuhan, ‘‘have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact with the environment of their age.” That is why she could confidently declare, “What we are getting is not the demise of art, but a transformation of the function of art.”

The Passion for Neutrality

But when Sontag tried—indeed, strained—to express this new “function,” her prose became uncharacteristically ungainly, suggesting, I thought, just how unfamiliar this terrain was, how difficult it was to find the right words, or perhaps that the dry, empirical language she was using was not her native tongue: “Art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility”; “The basic unit for contemporary art is not the idea, but the analysis of and extension of sensations”; “The most interesting works of contemporary art . . . are adventures in sensation, new ‘sensory mixes’”; “Having one’s sensorium challenged or stretched hurts.” And she offered McLuhan’s definition of artists as “experts in sensory awareness.” I was surprised by how technologically determined Sontag’s account sounded.

It was as if the most advanced artists—I was thinking here of the visual arts, which I knew best—were working in a historical void, as if they had no relation to the art that came before them and were not in self-conscious revolt against society, as the myth of the avant-garde required. As a historian myself, I had not considered this; I had instead accepted the idea that the work that appeared in the 1960s and that has radically altered the practice of art ever since—pop, minimal, conceptual, performance, video—was an answer to the question of how to go on after the strenuous achievements of the so-called abstract expressionists, which left precious little for ambitious painters of the next generation to do.

As I reread Sontag I saw that she was registering something else. She saw how alert “the most interesting” artists of her time were to the ways new technologies were transforming consciousness, and how far they had pushed themselves to make art that was consonant with this development. In turn, this project further pushed them to incorporate into their work material and methods from “the world of ‘non-art’”—“from industrial technology, from commercial processes and imagery, from purely private and subjective fantasies and dreams.” It was the logic of this artistic imperative—and not some anti-intellectual animus against distinctions or populist allegiance with “the people,” as her first outraged critics and her later postmodernist champions would have it—that led Sontag to observe:

All kinds of conventionally accepted boundaries have thereby been challenged: not just the one between the “scientific” and the “literary-artistic” cultures, or the one between “art” and “non-art”; but also many established distinctions within the world of culture itself—that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and (a favorite of literary intellectuals) “high” and “low” culture.

When Sontag noted how the distinction between “unique,” handmade objects and “mass-produced” ones, in light of the new media and processes incorporated into the most advanced art, now appeared “extremely shallow,” how “the work of art is reasserting its existence as ‘object’ (even as manufactured or mass-produced object, drawing on the popular arts) rather than as ‘individual personal expression,’” she was enumerating the ways in which artists were “changing the ground rules which most of us employ to recognize a work of art.”

This, I could well imagine, must have been what it felt like to be alive at that intense, unsettling moment and to be fully engaged with art of the most unfamiliar, experimental sort. And I could see, maybe for the first time, why people alert to these developments might have felt that such distinctions had become irrelevant, even obsolete. Nevertheless, I could not easily suppress concerns of mine that are the result of going to art galleries over the last thirty years and have made me take seriously Harold Rosenberg’s worry—and as time went on, his realization—that these many blurrings of distinctions, these “changed ground rules,” were leading to what he called the “de-definition of art.” Ever since I first read Rosenberg, this idea has haunted me, for it opened my eyes to the disturbing possibility that once the category of art becomes so diluted or broadened (depending on where one stood) that it encompasses anything placed in an art gallery, it could conceivably lead to the moment when there is nothing left to de-define—that is, it might ultimately do away with the very qualities that used to make a work of art recognizable as art. And that moment, it seems to me, is drawing closer and closer. I found myself thinking about the depressingly large number of works I have seen in which artists raid mass-produced entertainment in such a direct, unmediated way that it is almost impossible to detect what sets the artist’s photograph, collage, painting, video, or installation apart from the commercial product or image he or she is “appropriating.” Richard Prince’s photos of magazine ads featuring the Marlboro Man, which he made into “art” by enlarging them, immediately came to my mind as well as the huge prices they got at auction.

And again I was returned to Rosenberg, this time to his hatred of mass, commercial society and to his belief that artists who incorporated its processes and media into their work were unwittingly signing a death warrant for their own creativity, freedom, and individuality, and for the very existence of art as an autonomous domain as well. But then again, I knew how inert, how emptied out, painting—abstract painting, that is—had become in the period to which both Rosenberg and Sontag were responding.

Beyond Cultivation

And so when I returned to the concluding lines of the essay, I read Sontag’s tribute to defiant pluralism with conflicting feelings: “From the vantage point of this new sensibility, the beauty of a machine or the solution to a mathematical problem, of a painting by Jasper Johns, of a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and of the personalities and music of the Beatles is equally accessible.” Here Sontag had moved into the realm of taste, and her judgment was in keeping with her assertion a page earlier that the new sensibility “does not demand that pleasure in art necessarily be associated with edification.” And this came with the changed function of art, which Sontag, her prose again becoming increasingly leaden, restated as “a form of discipline of the feelings and a programming of sensations.” Context, I thought—certainly not for the first time—is everything. These lines, which have most often been quoted out of context, in Cotkin’s and countless other celebrations of the new sensibility, now took on a different shape for me, not more agreeable but more understandable and intellectually responsible. If what mattered most in art was stretching one’s “sensorium” to dislodge habits of mind, especially tight literary reflexes, then it followed that the old distinctions between “the serious” and “the frivolous,” between “high” and “low” culture, would also matter little when it came to appreciation. And that is how, in Sontag’s account, mass culture—or at least a few of its particular products—formerly held in contempt by intellectuals and artists, became open to aesthetic delectation. No doubt Sontag took a wicked pleasure in announcing, “The feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes” and “the brio and elegance of Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond or the singing style of Dionne Warwick can be appreciated as a complex and pleasurable event.”

Sontag knew that literary intellectuals were already treating this broadening or slackening of taste as a sign of “a new philistinism,” “a species of anti-intellectualism,” or “some kind of abdication from culture”—misguided notions she coolly rejected. Instead, she informed her readers, it reflected “a new, more open way of looking at the world and at things in the world, our world.” And she was adamant that this new openness did not “mean the renunciation of all standards.” Which she then followed with the judgments: “There is plenty of stupid popular music as well as inferior and pretentious ‘avant-garde’ paintings, films, and music.”

This momentarily took me aback: it sounded as if Sontag were continuing to keep separate the realms of the popular (the low) and the avant-garde (the high), but then her self-consciously provocative line about placing Rauschenberg and the Supremes in the same sensory trajectory returned to me. It was so easy, as the decades since have made sickeningly clear, to slip from one into the other. Still, I kept going back and forth as I tried to to understand where Sontag stood on the crucial question of standards. The new sensibility that she was describing (and was, in fact, exemplifying) in the best essays in the volume—the existential ones that proceed by dispassionate, rigorous, dialectical reckoning, like “The Anthropologist as Hero” (on Claude Lévi-Strauss) or the “hedonistic” ones that proceed by ever-finer, often amusing, Olympian, aesthetic discriminations, like “Notes on Camp” (on “how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture”)—was the province of the highly aestheticized, sophisticated few. Sometimes their taste might coincide with the popular taste of their time (the Supremes or Dionne Warwick), but this was rare and sheerly by accident.

Sontag, I could now clearly see, belonged to that tribe of unhappy people burdened by over-refinement that I have encountered in the pages of many books I have read; she felt hemmed in by educated habits of response; she was fearful that she had lost her capacity for spontaneity. That is why she was so willing to expose herself to works of art that acted as “shock therapy for both confounding and unclosing our senses.” It was not liberation from taboos and middle-class conventions that Sontag was seeking, as Cotkin would have it in all his excited talk about excess and transgression. Rather, she was seeking liberation from a suffocating sophistication that came with knowing in advance how to “interpret” difficult art.

I could also now see that it was more the spectator who concerned her than the artist. I knew that artists in the eighteenth century had worried about the over-refinement of art. Joshua Reynolds called it “affectation,” and had warned young painters that “the great enemy to truth and nature” was “ever clinging to the pencil, and ready to drop in and poison every thing it touches.” His close friend Samuel Johnson captured this fear in his definition of “elegance” in his famous Dictionary of the English Language (1755): the first entry read “beauty of art,” but the second, more ominously, “beauty without grandeur.”

The Fate of the New Sensibility

When it came to art lovers, however, over-refinement was a newer concern. It reached a heightened level of self-consciousness for the generation who grew up during the last quarter of the nineteenth century reading and learning by heart poetic passages about the Mona Lisa in Walter Pater’s The Renaissance. An increasing number of them came to feel that Pater’s writing, with its extravagant, idiosyncratic layerings of mythological, historical, spiritual, and symbolical associations, was stifling. Bernard Berenson gave voice to their frustration when he wrote that Pater’s “over-meanings” got in the way of what he wanted from art—and that was “ecstasy,” what he described as “immediate, instantaneous, and unearned act of grace,” a “mystic union between the work of art and ourselves.” This desire for immediacy would reach its highest pitch with modern art at the turn of the twentieth century. It was the artists themselves who were most repelled by the lifeless tradition they had inherited. The words of the German expressionist Emil Nolde came back to me: “We do not care for Raphael, and the sculptures of the so-called classic periods leave us cool. The ideals of our predecessors are no longer ours.” Nolde’s studied in­difference came in defense of “the art of primitive peoples”: “There is enough art around that is over-bred, pale, and deca­dent. This may be why young artists have taken their cues from the aborigines.”

I first came across this quotation when I was reading E. H. Gombrich’s The Preference for the Primitive, a subject about which Gombrich, the great Renaissance art historian, perhaps the last genuine humanist to live into the twenty-first century, devoted forty years of his life (off and on) to writing; the book was published posthumously in 2002. What stayed with me is the seeming paradox that the preference for the primitive can arise only from the perspective of the most cultivated; there is a world of difference between it and simply being primitive. It was one thing, I thought, when artists in the ’60s started using technologies, processes, and images from the non-art world or from mass culture in their work. At least some of them and some of their champions, critics, and viewers knew enough about the history of art, even if it was only modern art, to know what they were doing. But it is quite another thing when a teacher in the MFA program in studio art at Columbia University says, as casually as if she were speaking about the weather, that “there is no difference between a sculpture by Brancusi and Jeff Koons since they both use stainless steel”—this is what I heard at a seminar at Columbia the other day.

The more I thought about it, it was not so hard to understand why the kind of strenuous expanding and disciplining of the feelings and senses that Sontag insisted the new sensibility required, what she spoke of as “excruciating seriousness,” was quickly left behind. No doubt only the few, whether it be artists or viewers, could sustain such a disorienting exercise; and of course, it was just as likely that fewer and fewer people felt they needed to be released from their highly refined taste, highly refined taste becoming a thing of the past—indeed, a sign of elitism, an epithet in its own right. As early as 1975, the highly asetheticized mode of analysis that Sontag had been advocating was under widespread attack—for its alleged “elitism.” Ingmar Bergman, whose early films she had praised, was now being reviled as “technically reactionary” by one faction and as a misogynist by another. In an interview with Robert Boyers for Salmagundi magazine, Sontag’s response was as coolly nonchalant as ever: “To those critics who rate films according to whether they make moral reparations, it must seem snobbish to cavil about the low quality of most recent movies made by women which do convey positive images.”

And by the time Sontag wrote the afterword to a new thirtieth-anniversary edition of Against Interpretation published in 1996, the cultural situation had changed so drastically that she felt she had to explain that when she was writing about experimental French films or Happenings, she had taken “the supremacy of the greatest literature for granted. (And assumed my readers did, too.)” She felt compelled to reaffirm her commitment to “a pluralistic, polymorphous culture,” but she was even more adamant—far more than in the original new-sensibility essay—that such a commitment did not mean that there was no “hierarchy.” “If I’d had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then—of course—I’d have chosen Dostoyevsky. But did I have to choose?”

Reading this defense of the new sensibility was dispiriting. Sontag was trying to recapture the cultural situation of the ’60s to explain why she had advocated the things she had advocated. And she found herself in the sorry position of having to say aloud, “The world in which these essays were written no longer exists.” Sontag, who in the ’60s had been attacked by the New York Intellectuals, now found herself in the position that they had occupied when she wrote the essays that so discomfited them. She was on the defensive as never before:

To call for an “erotics of art” did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to, then, as “popular” culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its burden of seriousness, of depth. I thought I’d seen through certain kinds of facile moralism . . . and was denouncing them in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand (I was surely not the right person to understand this) is that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete, with the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries. Now the very idea of the serious (and the honorable) seems quaint, “unrealistic,” to most people; and when allowed, as an arbitrary decision of temperament, probably unhealthy, too.

All that was left to Sontag was to state an irony about which no one who is passionate about ideas can possibly be ignorant, but must always hope will not be the fate of their ideas—or, in this case, judgments of taste: “The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have triumphed. The values that underlay those judgments did not.”