Susan Sontag

This poet, author, and modernist emphasizes the role of interpretation in understanding art.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.

When her essays first began appearing on the American critical scene in the early 1960s, Susan Sontag was heralded by many as the voice--and the face--of the Zeitgeist. Advocating a "new sensibility" that was "defiantly pluralistic," as she announced in her groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, Sontag became simultaneously an intellectual of consequence and a popular icon, publishing everywhere from Partisan Review to Playboy, and appearing on the covers of Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine.

susan sontagShe rejected the traditional project of art interpretation as reactionary and stifling, and called instead for a new, more sensual experience of the aesthetic world: "an act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness." Challenging what she saw as "established distinctions within the world of culture itself--that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and... 'high' and 'low' culture," Sontag stood as a champion of the avant-garde. Contemporary literature, she proclaimed, was too burdened by the weight of edification. Rather, the visual arts were "the model arts of our time."

Perceptions of Sontag

As the only woman among the 1960s world of New York Jewish intellectuals, Sontag was both venerated and villainized, depicted as either a counter-cultural hero or a posturing pop celebrity. In a 1968 essay in Commentary, Irving Howe saw her as the "publicist" for a young generation of critics that was making its presence felt "like a spreading blot of anti-intellectualism."

Focusing on the woman rather than the work, other critics dubbed her "Miss Camp" and "The Dark Lady of American Letters." Indeed, in his book Making It, Norman Podhoretz snidely attributed her popularity to her gender and to the fact that she was "clever, learned, good-looking, capable of writing family-type criticism as well as fiction with a strong taste of naughtiness." While Sontag's public image shifted from that of sixties radical to nineties neo-conservative, neither representation accounts for either the complexity of her views or the significance of her contribution to contemporary cultural debates.

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Tresa Grauer is a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her recent publications include "Identity Matters: Contemporary Jewish American Writing," in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, eds. Michael Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher, and "'The Changing Same': Narratives of Contemporary Jewish American Identity," in Mapping Jewish Identities, ed. Larry Silberstein.