Susan Sontag

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

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Sontag returned to the focus of On Photography, first with an essay written to accompany a series of women's portraits by Annie Leibovitz (published as Women in 1999; the photographs then went on national tour), and then with Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), which discussed the ramifications of the near ubiquity of images of war.

Accomplishments and Critiques

Over the course of her career, Sontag remained committed to the idea of cultural criticism, explaining that it is "what being an intellectual--as opposed to being a writer--is." Her contributions were recognized through numerous awards and grants, which included two Rockefeller Foundation Grants (1964, 1974), two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships (1966, 1975), the Arts and Letters Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1976), the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1990), the Writers for Writers award (1998) and the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society (2001).

In 1999 she was named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, after having been named an Officier in the same order in 1984. She received two additional European tributes in 2003--the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She served as a member of the selection jury for the Venice Film Festival and the New York Film Festival and was a founding member of the New York Institute for the Humanities.

Sontag also served as president of the PEN American Center from 1987 to 1989. When the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie to death for his "blasphemous" book The Satanic Verses (1988), Sontag spearheaded protests on his behalf within the literary community. "Her resolute support," Rushie said after Sontag's death, "helped to turn the tide against what she called 'an act of terrorism against the life of the mind.'"

However, despite the fact that she was perhaps one of the most widely read intellectuals of her generation, Sontag was largely ignored by academics, feminists and, until a few years ago, Jews. Her cultural criticism took many forms. In the 1960s, it aligned her with the avant-garde; in later years, she was frequently criticized for aesthetic and political conservatism.

While her consistent advocacy of critical autonomy did not mark a turn to the political right, her insistence on being considered a universalist, and her refusal to be identified by gender, religion, or sexual orientation, did leave her outside of crucial debates that fuel contemporary critical discourse. "I don't like party lines," she explained in an interview published in Salmagundi. "They make for intellectual monotony and bad prose."

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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.