PRINT March 2005

Arthur C. Danto

Susan Sontag was, like Oscar Wilde, an aesthetician hero. They both lived by the code of Puccini’s Tosca: “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love). In one of her earlier pieces for the then-new New York Review of Books, she classified writers as husbands or lovers—steady as opposed to dangerous, providers of emotional stability in contrast to engines of unpredictable ecstasy. The piece, as I remember it, was about Camus. By her criteria she was herself a lover rather than a wife, addressing dangerous topics like pornography in edgy ways rather than building a systematic critique of aesthetic judgment (Kant or Dewey would be husbands). Her view was that we need an erotics of art, but it was not her style actually to construct such a work, in the genre of a lost text of Aristotle’s (the Erotics, as a companion volume to the Poetics). Rather, she practiced criticism in the spirit of eroticism. So her most famous essay was playfully titled “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), as if it were a report—though few if any readers of the Partisan Review would have known what she was reporting on. At the same time it was a provocation, treating outrageously bad taste as a valid aesthetic value, challenging readers to loosen up. Merely to bring camp forward as an alternative to an aesthetics of good taste was a challenge, since good taste was the canonical idea on which the entire concept of aesthetics had been erected in the eighteenth century. “Taste was directed only to the external surface on which feelings play,” Hegel wrote. “So-called ‘good taste’ takes fright at all the deeper effects [of art] and is silent when the thing at issue comes in question and externalities and incidentals vanish.” But camp, though against good taste, was too ludic an aesthetic quite to be treated as among the “deeper effects” of art. It is the pursuit of stylistic extremity, like a pink tuxedo or a cape of canary feathers. It expresses a kind of heroic frivolity that defined the gay milieu in which she discovered it. “Don’t you ever read just for pleasure?” she asked me once.

We need an erotics of art, she insisted, rather than a hermeneutics: a way of responding to passion with passion rather than stifling it under the apparatus of deep interpretation, in the manner of heavy explainers. “Who any longer dares confess pleasure in the presence of art?” the art historian James Ackerman once wrote in a letter to me, thinking of the way works of art were now occasions for the dispassionate subjection to what his professional colleagues called Theory. I think Sontag’s argument would have been that that cannot be why art exists. It exists to satisfy the one set of needs that is uniquely human, not to be subsumed under an agenda of structuralist scrutiny. Who else would have thought, when daily life in Sarajevo seemed beyond human endurance, that what the country needed was art? Who but she would have exposed herself to the snipers in order to enlist the embattled culture in a production of Waiting for Godot? Aesthetics has traditionally been a fairly dreary specialty in academic philosophy. The difference between it and the relationship to art that Sontag exemplified and enjoined was like the difference between sex education and the Kama Sutra. That is what made her an aesthetician hero. Her whole enterprise lay in publicly exemplifying the life of art as she felt it should be lived.

When the New York Times phoned to solicit a few words for her obituary, I was stunned by the news of her death. I could scarcely talk, let alone say something suitable. Susan and I were friends but not what one would call great friends. We had somewhat overlapping histories and were usually happy to be in one another’s company when we were on some panel together or guests at the same dinner. We were often on opposite sides of an issue. I felt that the antithesis she perceived between erotics and hermeneutics was too absolute. Explanation, after all, can liberate meanings and make response possible. But when, in the days after her death, people told me about their difficulties with her ideas, I didn’t want to hear about it. As often happens with a death, we realize what our true feelings are. I knew from the intensity of my grief that she was irreplaceable as only someone we love is irreplaceable. I know from the letters I received after the Times printed my comment that others felt the same kind of loss. She created a place for herself, and her uniqueness was such that the place died with her.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.