Susan Sontag

1965, Partisan Review, also published in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (1966), 304 pages.

In Susan Sontag's essay, "Styles," published by Partisan Review in 1965 and reprinted in Against Interpretation, a collection of her essays about art, she states:

A work of art, so far that it is a work of art, cannot — whatever the artist's personal intentions — advocate anything at all. The greatest artists attain a sublime neutrality. Think of Homer and Shakespeare, from whom generations of scholars and critics have vainly labored to extract particular “views” about human nature, morality, and society.

Let's take Shakespeare as Sontag suggests. Henry IV, Parts I and II is about political power: Who has it? How does one get it? What are its terms? By the final curtain, King Hal has lied and murdered his way to the throne. Shakespeare's tone in Part II is uniformly tough minded, as if to say to the playgoers, this is the real deal, in contrast to the juvenile behavior of Prince Hal, Falstaff, and assorted company in Part I.

At Hal's coronation procession Falstaff confidently elbows his way to the front of the crowd of well-wishers pumped up about his own imminent rise to power on the new king's coat-tails. Of course Hal completely dismisses Falstaff — not even a nod his way for all the good times. It is then that I want to hear Falstaff fume and sputter one last time, but this time in personal, albeit hypocritical, anguish and indignation about murderous power. Falstaff is the only dramatis personae in the play capable of voicing opposition to the rising police state. Instead Shakespeare slinks him away, maybe to live on the streets.

Given a different political consciousness, Shakespeare could have written such a speech for Falstaff, which I bet would have been memorable. Or, better, created a believable antagonist to oppressive authority. Certainly in 1400, when Henry reigned, and in 1600, when the play was written, there were such personalities with clear dissenting voices. (Villon attests to that.) In Henry IV, we never meet them. Rather we are asked to approve, without debate, the inevitable necessity, even wisdom of maintaining law and order by all means necessary. One can imagine how this message would grate on many today in, say, China. My point is that by choosing what to put in and what to leave out, consciously and unconsciously, artists are always making choices about human nature, morality, and society, and that, likewise, audience members evaluate a work of art's content as well as critique its beauty.

Perhaps Sontag is defending the artist's right to protect her work against all reductionist interventions by critics and scholars — and by self-appointed guardians of public opinion. (Remembering the 1990s, one thinks of the religious right.) Such interventions trivialize art and, in turn, diminish us, the individual audience member. In such reductionist milieus, before one can blink twice, censorship arises.

As to Sontag's homage to art that survives the centuries, it may be no more important than the art that helps us survive the next week or year. Of course some creation puts in longer service — the Bible, for example. But I can't recall clear instances of Sontag's sublime neutrality advocating nothing in either Testament.

Recently, when I read Frances Stonor Saunders' The Cultural Cold War, the CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: New Press, 1999), something clicked. Saunders' concludes unequivocally that the Central Intelligence Agency helped finance Partisan Review and that among the magazine's contributors this was common knowledge. What was the Agency buying? Perhaps it was an arts world restricted to valorizing beauty, an arts and letters where multiple ideas about truth would be discouraged from surfacing.

Review © 2000 by Dudley Cocke
The Bush Foundation and Roadside Theater