Susan Sontag's essay "On Style" (Against Interpretation) contains many passages to warm an aging aesthete's heart. First, a selection:
Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the inside. As Cocteau writes: "Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body." Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an oppostion between a style that one assumes and one's "true" being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face. . . .
Most critics would agree that a work of art does not "contain" a certain amount of content (or function--as in the case or architecture) embellished by "style." But few address themselves to the positive consequences of what they seem to have agreed to. What is "content"? Or, more precisely, what is left of the notion of content when we have transcended the antithesis of style (or form) and content? Part of the answer lies in the fact that for a work of art to have "content" is, in itself, a rather special stylistic convention. The great task which remains to critical theory is to examine in detail the formal function of subject-matter. . . .
To treat works of art [as statements] is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use--for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world. . . .
Inevitably, critics who regard works of art as statements will be wary of "style," even as they pay lip service to "imagination." All that imagination really means for them, anyway, is the supersensitive rendering of "reality." It is this "reality" snared by the work of art that they continue to focus on, rather than on the extent to which a work of art engages the mind in certain transformations. . . .
In the end, however, attitudes toward style cannot be reformed merely by appealing to the "appropriate" (as opposed to utilitarian) way of looking at works of art. The ambivalence toward style is not rooted in simple error--it would then be quite easy to uproot--but in a passion, the passion of an entire culture. This passion is to protect and defend values traditionally conceived of as lying "outside" art, namely truth and morality. but which remain in perpetual danger of being compromised by art. Behind the ambivalence toward style is, ultimately, the historic Western confusion about the relation between art and morality, the aesthetic and the ethical.
For the problem of art versus morality is a pseudo problem. The distinction itself is a trap; its continued plausibility rests on not putting the ethical into question, but only the aesthetic. To argue on these grounds at all, seeking to defend the autonomy of art. . .is already to grant something that should not be granted--namely, that there exist two independent sorts of response, the aesthetic and the ethical, which vie for our loyalty when we experience a work of art. As if during the experience one really had to choose between responsible and humane conduct, on the one hand, and the pleasurable stimulation of consciousness, on the other!
Much of Sontag's essay is concerned to break down the opposition between "style" and "content," but unlike others who sometimes complain about the persistence of this opposition but do so mostly in order to banish "style" from critical discussion altogether--it's just the writer's way of communicating his/her content--Sontag maintains it is content that should recede, becoming simply the word for a "special stylistic convention." Style is the real substance of art, content its outer decoration, the enticement to the reader's attention that allows the "experience" of art that style enables.
Sontag was unfortunately denied her wish that critical theory might move "to examine in detail the formal function of subject-matter." Academic criticism has gone in precisely the opposite direction, dismissing form altogether in order to focus on the "subject-matter" that satisfies the critic's pre-established theoretical disposition, while there's very little "critical theory" at all in general-interest publications of the sort that once published writers like Susan Sontag. Essentially, the debate over the fraught relationship between "style" and "content" is about where Sontag left it.
Unfortunately, she left it presumably resolved to her own satisfaction, but not in a way that satisfies any current attempt to advance the argument that "style is on the inside." Since the notion that subject-matter is mostly a formal function seems if anything more outlandish even than it must have in 1965, a case needs to be made for it that extends beyond Sontag's somewhat idiosyncratic account and that avoids what I consider her more serious missteps.
The most serious problem with "On Style," in my opinion, is that Sontag can't finally unburden her argument of the criticisms of aestheticism made by the moralists she otherwise castigates. It seems to me her observation that it is quite easy to keep separate "responsible and humane conduct" from "the pleasurable stimulation of consciousness" without the latter contaminating the former would entirely suffice as a rebuttal of these criticisms, but she spends a great deal of her essay--the heart of it, really--defending the notion that art should not be judged by the standard of "humane conduct, " since art and the experience of art are phenomena of "consciousness," not actions requiring moral scrutiny. In fact, immediately after making the observation she begins to back off, assuring skeptics that "Of course, we never have a purely aesthetic response to works of art--neither to a play or a novel, with its depicting of human beings choosing and acting, nor, though it is less obvious, to a painting by Jackson Pollack or a Greek vase."
Since we never have a "pure" response to anything, I can't see that this proviso is necessary. If it isn't obvious to readers that a depiction of "human beings choosing and acting" is not the same thing as human beings choosing and acting and that it would be irrational "for us to to make a moral response to something in a work of art in the same sense that we do to an act in real life," then any further attempt to heighten those readers' aesthetic awareness isn't going to accomplish much in the first place. Although Sontag argues that "we can, in good conscience cherish works of art which, considered in terms of 'content,' are morally objectionable" (her brief defense of Leni Riefenstahl's documentaries is the best-known illustration of this possibility), finally she can't let "morality" go as an issue relevant to the creation and experience of art. "Art is connected with morality," she asserts. "The moral pleasure in art, as well as the moral service that art performs, consists in the intelligent gratification of consciousness."
Much is elided in that formulation "intelligent gratification." Is "unintelligent" gratification immoral, or just lack of artistry? Is lack of artistry itself a moral issue, or simply a critical/evaluative judgment? Does only the greatest art perform the "moral service" Sontag associates with the "intelligent gratification of consciousness"? I don't object to the formulation itself--John Dewey would probably have found it usefully synonymous with his own notion of "art as experience"--but to insist that it must have a moral dimension seems to undo almost completely Sontag's case--which she admits she has made "uneasily"--for the autonomy of art:
But if we understand morality in the singular, as a generic decision on the part of consciousness, then it appears that our response to art is "moral" insofar as it is, precisely, the enlivening of our sensibility and consciousness. For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and unreflectingly obeying. Art performs this "moral" task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinteredness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.
Again, there isn't much here with which I would fundamentally disgree, but Sontag comes close to suggesting that art needs this moral justification, that "contemplativeness" and "attentiveness" are not in themselves sufficiently desirable qualities. They are "moral" insofar as they are good things to exercise, but I can't see that an explicit justification of them--and thus of aesthetic experience itself--on moral grounds is otherwise relevant. Either art needs no moral justification to strengthen its appeal or it is an impetus to moral action after all. Sontag wants to believe the first, but really seems to believe the second.
To be continued