Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

47: Susan Sontag part II:
On Style and the Aesthetics of Silence

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Today we will consider Susan Sontag's essays “On Style,” “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” and “The Aesthetics of Silence”.
         In literary criticism critics speak in terms of the aspects of style and content. Dividing works of art into these two aspects actually serves a political purpose. It furthers, encourages and re-enforces some ideas and strengthens the positions of some ruling interests (Q1)(Q2).
         By creating the style/content duality we miss a main point of art: to be enjoyed aesthetically not necessarily morally. We in the west have been “confused about the relation between art and morality, the aesthetic and the ethical.” (Q3) Sontag does not believe that, where art is concerned, we have two independent responses: the ethical and the aesthetic which then fight for our attention and support. Art is an experience; not a statement: “Art is not only about something; it is something.” What we have been dividing into and ethical and aesthetic response is actually one response: our response (Q4). Some times this division of our one response causes us to feel guilty for or even prevents us from enjoying some works of art (Q5).
         Morality for Sontag is: “...a code of acts, and judgments and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, [toward others] as if we were inspired by love.” Since we cannot love everyone and we only actually love a small number of people, morality is the make-believe inspiration we would feel and the acted pantomime we will ourselves to perform as if we love everyone (Q6).
         In Sontag's essay “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” she notes four types of art: “[1] Some art aims directly at arousing the feelings; [2] some art appeals to the feelings through the route of the intelligence. [3] There is art that involves, that creates empathy. [4] There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.” The unpopular and misunderstood films of Robert Bresson are the best examples of the fourth type of art (Q7). Bresson's films are characterized by bad acting: he deliberately never used professional actors; he instructed his actors not to act but to report. Bresson's films are boring and repetitive: “The pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by the elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality.” The whole point is to remove or prevent any emotional connection to characters by the audience and to provoke reflection that makes the emotional power far more intense in the end (Q8).
         In Sontag's essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” she claims that art has become a spiritual quest, a spiritual project, seeking the absolute in an analogous way to the religious quest or project to find the absolute (Q9). In her study of religious mysticism she notes that the religious mystics often found religion, language and the body a hindering in their relationship with God and hence the historical prevalence of religious hermits and monks; vows of silence and solitude; fasting and other self-mortification techniques. These act can be understood in one word: asceticism. Asceticism is the future of art.
         When art becomes a spiritual quest or project its end may be the same as the religious quest: the absolute. On the road to the absolute one must pass through the negation of the plenum. The opposite of what is: nothing, absence and silence(Q10). Just as normal religious people do not need to experience their own dark night of the soul but can still appreciate it in the mystic, the appreciation of art can be informed by an aesthetics of silence without having to experience it or give up art.
         A couple of ways to identify silent art: 1) If we consider “looking” as voluntary and controllable versus “staring” which has a sense of steady compulsion then “Traditional art invites a look, Art that is silent engenders a stare.” 2) Two further styles of silent art are: loud and soft. “The loud style is a function of the unstable antithesis of 'plenum' and 'void.'” Soft style “...presents itself as an extension of a main feature of traditional classicism ….[but] the tone has changed – from didactic seriousness to ironic open-mindedness.” (Q11)
         Q1 Consider some critiques: 1) Mannerism is too perfect; no one really looks like that; 2) Impressionism is too blurry and the colors are not accurate for the subjects; 3) Dutch Realism is too much like a photograph; art is not about the flaws in a subject. “The antipathy to style is always an antipathy to a given style....[any particular style] is one of the solutions that have arisen, intermittently since the Renaissance, to the crises that have threatened old ideas of truth, of moral rectitude, and also of naturalness.” Sontag seems to be saying that the style of art you don't like or appreciate is because 1) you have implicitly accepted the style versus content duality and 2) because it challenges some of your basic prejudices concerning truth, moral rectitude and naturalness. How does this idea strike you?
         Q2 Are there any forms of art that are repulsive to you? What is the essence or distinguishing quality of that art? If you can identify such an essence or quality you have accepted the style content duality. This essence or these qualities strike at the heart and challenge your ideas of truth, moral rectitude and naturalness. Conversely the art that you like reveals some of your basic presuppositions. What is the essence and how do you feel about 1) Art Deco; 2) Baroque; 3) Constructivism; 4) Fauvism; 5) Folk; 6) Mannerism; 7) Orientalism; 8) Primitive 9) Realism; 10) Rococo; 11)Romanticism; 12) Socialist realism?
         Q3 Consider that every story needs an antagonist, a bad guy; however most people would not consider hating or rejecting a story as bad just because the antagonist is evil and/or does evil things. The story may be quite enjoyable in spite of the objectionable nature of some parts of the content. Do we often (or ever) find a style more threatening or objectionable then the content?
         Q4 When you read or see a disturbing sentence or image in a good work of literature or art do you feel the need to choose between feeling moral indignation and enjoyment? Do the actions of the Nazis condemn Leni Riefenstahl's movies “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” as mere propaganda in your mind? If you do then it indicates an inability to reintegrate style and content. Is such a condition good or bad: to not be able to enjoy something because of either its content or its style? Can you see a connection between this duality and book burning orgies?
         Q5 Do you ever feel guilty enjoying some art or do you ever refuse to enjoy some art because it is considered morally reprehensible?
         Q6 What do you think of the idea that morality is action willed as if we actually loved everyone? Sontag further claims that by making morality an act of the will, morality cannot be in conflict with aesthetic experience (which is defined as nourishment of consciousness): is she correct that there cannot be any conflict in such a case? The result she claims is that we can enjoy all art forms without guilt. Do you accept this notion? Could abolitionists ever enjoy pro-slavery movies such as “Birth of a Nation”; could feminists ever enjoy pole dancing; could conservatives ever enjoy female bodybuilders posing? Could average internet users ever freely admit to enjoying pornography? Do you?
         Q7 What do you suppose “art that detaches, that provokes reflection” means?
         Q8 This kind of art says in effect that “all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence – an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.” We cannot understand the motivations of others. Do you think we can understand the motivations of others? Or is it better to say that we can only reflect on the actions of others? Reflective art centers itself on the second option. What are some advantages of a disinterested reflection on actions rather than an interested (or biased) reflection on motives?
         Q9 Do you see any truth to the idea that art is a spiritual quest? She further claims that just as spirituality changes and undergoes mystification it also goes through crises of demystification. What do you understand by the mystification and demystification of art?
         Q10 What do you understand by “the Absolute”? The religious mystic St. John of the Cross in his book “Dark Night of the Soul” described a spiritual barrenness (a feeling of the absence of God) that tests some of the most holy people as a necessary path on the way to the Absolute God. Mother Theresa of Calcuta confessed to feeling it for most of her life. Do you believe that a mature spirituality must confront the negation of the plenum on its way to the absolute?
         Q11 What do you understand by “art that is silent engenders a stare” and loud and soft silence style?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren