Review: One Culture and the New Sensibility

by Jessica Short

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It seems strange to craft a response to a work of criticism—especially due to the fact that the essay under review was written by a writer and critic I quite admire, Susan Sontag. In her collection titled Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Sontag endeavors to discuss the academic polarization between the arts and sciences. A familiar schism I have contended with, Sontag’s 1965 perspective on the matter is implanted into a contemporary angle and its relevance, even in 2016, is unquestionably found over 50 years later. Perhaps a battle that many involved in the humanities have faced—the undue need for justification of their studies on the mere premise of its connotative lack of reputability in academia—is undertaken by Sontag as she covets to elucidate the true necessity of the arts. Even in this increasingly mechanized, technologically-driven society, the beauty and art discovered and created around the world remains both eternal and requisite.

Bringing to light the fracture between the humanities and sciences seems like an interesting endeavor during the 1960s. I, too, have often wrestled with this rupture in academia within contemporary times and found familiarity in Susan Sontag’s cultural critique—even 50 years removed. When I entered college, I believed I wanted to enter the field of medicine. This was purely owing to my conception, achieved through societal impositions, that the sciences are more publically respected than the arts. I was confronted with this issue yet again two years ago when I informed my parents of my change of major from Pre-Dentistry to Film Studies. From their less than enthusiastic responses, I could tell that they did not feel my new major was indicative of much future success or even employment. This mirrored the commonplace sentiment that art, “in an automated scientific society” is “unfunctional, useless” (Sontag 295).

Such sentiment relates to Sontag’s mentioning, within her 1965 social critique, of the lack of usefulness of art in the eyes of an industrialized society. If a work or creation is not effective or efficient, it is deemed unnecessary. This idea leads to the spread of fear amongst artists who, while fervently supporting their values as artists and creators, believe that sciences and industrialization will eventually take over and result in the purge of the arts entirely. But, as Sontag mentions, this would only hold true if the arts were static while the industrialization of society was the sole developer of that culture. Based on this false assumption, art could conceivably deteriorate to the point of obsolescence in the face of the ever-evolving technology—something I’ve considered myself due to the lack of appreciation of art in the Western world. The truth is- contemporary art “demands special effort” of the extraordinarily educated introspective observers; it “is not open to the generally educated” (Sontag 295). Rather, while sciences aim at “externalization and accumulation of instruments for problem-solving” the “literary-artistic culture aims at internalization, ingestion—in other words cultivation” of the world and humanity’s way of life (Sontag 294).

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Additionally, art provides archival evidence of cultural and social critiques, as well as allusions to previous significant historical events, inclusive or exclusive of the artistic subject or genre. This form of academia requires an expansive knowledge regarding the recent past in both the creation and interpretation of art forms. The works of art are additionally archival in that they are representative and critical of contemporary society and culture. Behind every great work of literature or any award-winning film, there is an even more significant story—the history of the culture from which these texts arose. The creation of these tales stand as archival evidence of what subjects, genres, and methods of storytelling were significant within the time and place of their conception.

Overall, it was made evident by Sontag that the polarization and confrontation of sciences and arts are ridiculous encounters in that the two simply cannot be compared. The reason behind this conclusion is that the two schools of learning require completely different modes of thinking, observation, and analysis that yield two incomparable subjects. Those who endeavor to master one of these two cultures “will be concerned with different documents, different techniques, different problems; they will speak a different language” (Sontag 293). This idea had not occurred to me. While I believed the academics of the humanities are entirely more scholarly than the seeming regurgitation of the sciences, society never seemed to share my thought. The lack of respect for the Western world of art and its creations is essentially the root cause of this dilemma. This artistic culture is understood as “a general culture” which is addressed to man “insofar as he is man” (Sontag 293). Art should not be compared to sciences in terms of its usefulness; it should be appreciated for cultivating and sustaining human culture.

Reference: Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. New York: Dell Pub., 1966.

Jessica Short is a fourth year student pursuing an Advertising and Film Studies double-major with an interdisciplinary writing certificate at the University of Georgia.

Citation style: Chicago

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