Nonsense and New Sensibility

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This week over at his column Intellectual Affairs, Scott McLemee talks about, among other things, Edmund White’s recent memoir City Boy. We haven’t read City Boy, but this passage from its chapter on Susan Sontag resonated with us:

I still idolized difficult modern poets such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, and I listened with uncomprehending seriousness to the music of Schoenberg. Later I would learn to pick and choose my idiosyncratic way through the ranks of canonical writers, composer, artists, and filmmakers, but in my twenties I still had an unquestioning admiration for the Great — who were Great precisely because they were Great. Only later would I begin to see the selling of high art as just one more form of commercialism. In my twenties if even a tenth reading of Mallarmé failed to yield up its treasures, the fault was mine, not his. If my eyes swooned shut while I read The Sweet Cheat Gone, Proust’s pacing was never called into question, just my intelligence and dedication and sensitivity. And I still entertain those sacralizing preconceptions about high art. I still admire what is difficult, though I now recognize it’s a ‘period’ taste and that my generation was the last to give a damn.

White was in the midst of the 1960s cultural shift from a reverence of high modernism to an embrace of the artistic power of pop art and mass culture (Sontag’s New Sensibility). White was on the historical “fault line” between the two sensibilities, but the suspense of that position persists. We—and here I mean we two personally as well as our culture generally—still feel a tension between tradition and contemporaneity, between the beauty of established forms and the exciting potential of new ones.

We may not yet have entered the reign of Sontag’s New Sensibility, but we are no longer where Roger Kimball likes to think we are. His dismissive treatment of Sontag reflects his hidebound loyalty to traditional forms. He says of Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”:

It was a remarkable performance, all the more so as Sontag was then barely thirty years old. In truth, there had always been something precocious—not to say hasty— about her.

Interesting word choice from Mr. Kimball. To reduce Sontag’s undeniable intellectual seriousness to mere precocity is not sharp or witty—it is unfair and untrue. That Sontag was “hasty” is in any case the more telling claim here (let us all agree that “not to say hasty” is an accusation of hastiness). Kimball finds Sontag hasty because she attempted a feat much more difficult and intellectually perilous—and therefore valorous—than Kimball and his cohorts at the New Criterion: Sontag engaged seriously with her historical moment. Those who do so will always seem “hasty” to their contemporaries. Despite a profound love of traditional forms, Sontag undertook the task of attempting to anticipate the future form and content of art.

A TNI patron saint George Scialabba says of Sontag,

she was never simply or foolishly or irresponsibly wrong. She was complexly, usefully, and, above all, generously wrong … [W]hat’s valuable about her writing — her prodigal imagination, her willingness to think aloud, tentatively —is also the source of what’s sometimes irritating about it.

Exactly so. Her stylistic bravura and intellectual boldness are estimable in their own right.

Much of the disagreement between Sontag and Kimball derives from their opposing views about how to judge artistic merit. Kimball thinks that the art of the New Sensibility is objectively bad art. In Against the Grain, a collection of work from The New Criterion, Kimball and his co-editor Hilton Kramer write:

For if there is no such thing as intrinsic merit, then no judgment of quality can be anything more than a veiled political commendation or a statement of personal partisanship. Without the idea of intrinsic moral, intellectual, and artistic value, criticism and scholarship degenerates into a species of propaganda, and morality becomes little more than a cynical calculus aimed at increasing personal advantage. The New Criterion takes categorical exception to such beliefs. We proceed on the conviction that there is such a thing as intrinsic merit, that it can be discerned and rationally argued for, and that its rejection is a prescription for moral and cultural catastrophe.

To which Scialabba responds:

Well, then, what is intrinsic merit? “Intrinsic” can’t mean “universally agreed upon,” since no aesthetic criteria are. It can’t mean “independent of inherited, unconscious, or other local determination,” since no beliefs are. It can’t, in short, mean supra-historical and non-contingent, since nothing whatever is…. [I]f Kramer and Kimball believe there are objective, irrefragable, rationally demonstrable aesthetic and moral criteria, they ought by now to have offered the rest of us a fairly precise idea of what they are, or in whose writings they can be found.

They haven’t, and they can’t. But then, they needn’t. They need only muddle along, employing and occasionally articulating the criteria that have emerged from our culture’s conversation since the Greeks initiated it, and showing that what used to and still usually does underwrite our judgments about beauty and truth is inconsistent with giving Robert Mapplethorpe a one-man show, or Karen Finley an NEA grant, or Toni Morrison a Nobel Prize. More than that, no one can do.

As usual, George nails it. Kramer and Kimball’s argument rests on some unexplained notion of intrinsic merit that can be emotionally but not rationally defended. They wait in the wings for risk-takers to fail so they can point fingers and say “I told you so,” and fail to acknowledge risk-takers who succeed wildly. This dishonest approach confirms their artistic prejudices. Anyone with an understanding of the popular arts, especially the extraordinary evolution of American music (Black music especially) from the 1950s to present and Cinema would regard Kimball’s claim of latter 20th century artistic sterility as philistinism.

Since we (happily) are aware of the creations of the late twentieth century, we do not have the luxury to behave as though nothing is there. But an appreciation for the popular arts does not come at the expense of high art (which is especially fortunate for the two of us, since Rachel seeks to redeem the popular, whereas Jen regards it with some skepticism). This is not a “highbrow endorsement of lowbrow tastes” (Kimball); as Sontag says, the distinction has become moot. In the interest of intellectual honesty, we must agree with her and Scialabba that aesthetics are wholly subjective.

For what really is the New Sensibility? Perhaps it is just an expanded sensibility, a richer and more generous definition of what “counts” as art: not a lowering of standards, but an expansion of candidates to be judged by the criteria specific to their mediums and movements. Moreover it is a willingness, or more accurately, an enthusiasm to contend with new aesthetics and new ideas.

Whatever the dread they may inspire in Kimball, these aesthetics and ideas have arrived and they are evolving quickly. The only matter now is whether you will get with the program. And whoever will write great criticism in this century must get with the program, for how else can we expand and challenge ongoing conversations? The New Criterion is intelligent and worthy, but given how many books there are to read in this world, we’d rather read Matthew Arnold than Roger Kimball, and look to figures like Sontag with something new to say.

This passage from Scialabba seems an appropriate concluding note:

Actually, Sontag, herself, in her latest essay, has offered a useful clue to her identity, or at least to her cultural function. Comparing her beloved Barthes to her beloved Nietzsche, she observes of both: “The point is not to teach us something in particular. The point is to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached. And to give pleasure.” It’s Sontag’s point, too, of course.