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The Tally Ho

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Susan Sontag Dies at 71

In case you have not heard, Susan Sontag died today from complications of acute myelogenous leukemia. Margalit Fox writes
Her most recent book, published last year, was "Regarding the Pain of Others," a long essay on the imagery of war and disaster. One of her last published essays, "Regarding the Torture of Others," written in response to the torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison, appeared in The New York Times Magazine of May 23, 2004.

Ms. Sontag's writing marked a radical break with traditional postwar criticism. She advocated a sensualist approach to the study of art, championed aesthetic form over content and - most subversive - gleefully blurred the boundaries between high and low culture. Learned, thoughtful, deeply cerebral, often provocative, her work repeatedly explored the transcendent experience of making, and looking at, contemporary art, with its jagged edges and attendant themes of alienation and despair. She was concerned throughout her career with sensation, in both meanings of the word.

"What Susan did was, she dealt as a literary and philosophical intellectual with the deep problems of human life in our times," Arthur Danto, the Johnsonian professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and an art critic for The Nation, said in a telephone interview today. "She was never a dispassionate or disinterested writer. She always used her own experience as a way of giving meaning to issues that had meaning for everybody."

Unlike most serious intellectuals, Ms. Sontag was also a popular celebrity, partly because of her striking, telegenic appearance, partly because of her outspoken, at times inflammatory, public statements. She was undoubtedly the only writer of her generation to win major literary prizes (among them a National Book Critics' Circle Award, a National Book Award and a MacArthur "genius" grant) and to appear in films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol; be the subject of rapturous profiles in Rolling Stone and People magazine; and pose for an Absolut Vodka ad. Over the decades, her image - strong features, wide mouth, intense gaze and dark mane crowned in later years by a sweeping streak of white - became an instantly recognizable artifact of 20th-century popular culture...

...Other critics were less enthralled. Some branded Ms. Sontag an unoriginal thinker, a popularizer with a gift for aphorism who could boil down difficult writers for mass consumption. (Irving Howe called her "a publicist able to make brilliant quilts from grandmother's patches.") Some regarded her tendency to revisit her earlier, often controversial, positions as ambivalent. Some saw her scholarly approach to popular art forms as pretentious. (Ms. Sontag once remarked that she could appreciate Patti Smith because she had read Nietzsche.)


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