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Sontag Worksheet 1 — High and Low: New Aesthetic Categories
Sontag’s touchstones are often in Modernism (Surrealism, Dada, etc.) but also in her somewhat more classically-oriented training as a student. Sontag’s most famous essay is undoubtably “Notes on Camp.” There are several key- words in here — “taste” and “style,” notably, but also “seriousness,” “sensibility,” “sincerity,” “aris- tocracy” and so forth — that appear again and again in her later writings. The question of the role of erotic in art and lift will be a central concern in “The Pornographic Imagination.” The first worksheet will largely concern these terms as well as how the two films I’ll ask you to view in- form Sontag’s writing.
“Notes on Camp” (AI)
“One Culture and the New Sensibility” (AI) “Imagination of Disaster” (AI)
“Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures” (AI)
“The Aesthetics of Silence” (SORW)
“The Pornographic Imagination” (SORW)
Jack Smith: Flaming Creatures (1963)
Kenneth Anger: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1957) Optional: War of the Worlds (1953)
Remember that you don’t have to answer all of these “subquestions.” I’m just providing you with some different angles on each question, and also hinting at some things I’d like to talk about in class.
Be sure to quote from the text!
Question 1 (about 350-500 words):
Drawing from the range of essays that have been assigned, provide three solid examples where Sontag signals a new understanding of what we would call “high” and “low” culture. Things to think about are how she describes this phenomena historically (in relation to Surrealism, for ex- ample, or classical notions of aesthetics) but also laterally (in relation to manufacturing, for ex- ample, or to new social and societal needs). You can also think about the role Sontag herself seems to play in her own essays — is she a “native informant,” some who was “there,” or is she positioning herself as objective, even a bit academic? Can you isolate key terms that she uses (iso- lating “camp” for the moment) in a distinctive manner.
Question 2: (about 350-500 words):
Focusing on the essay about Jack Smith and the essay “Notes on Camp,” provide something like a deep description of what you think is happening either in Flaming Creatures or Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Or perhaps a better way of approaching this question is how we can use the films to illustrate some of Sontag’s (very many statements) about “camp” — do the films support some of the theses in the “Camp” essay? What do the films have to say about the so-called sepa- ration of “art” from “life,” or the “authentic” from the “aesthetic” that Sontag is preoccupied with? Other things to think about are how the representation of queerness in these films on the one hand either doesn’t survive to our own present-day, or maybe does survive but in a different series of phenomena (RuPaul’s Drag Race comes to mind). Does Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” have any- thing to tell us today?
Question 3: (about 200 words):
Sontag reaches a pretty dramatic conclusion at the end of her essay “The Pornographic Imagina- tion.” She writes:
What is less often remarked about the typical products of the pornographic imagination is their pathos. Most pornography – the books discussed here cannot be excepted – points to something more general than even sexual damage. I mean the traumatic failure of mod- ern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high- temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness.. The need of human beings to transcend “the personal” is no less profound than to be a person, an individual. But this society serves that need poorly.
Drawing from the rest of the essay (and citing one or two specific things she says about pornog- raphy, which in her case is largely works of literature), do you think this is a viable conclusion? Can you draw a counter-argument?