She was my heroine because she was passionate about life and art and spent a lifetime trying to figure them out. Susan Sontag was brilliant from the get go, often controversial and always uncompromising in her intent to understand. On Tuesday Susan died in New York from complications of acute myelogenous leukemia. She was 71.
I first read her essay Notes on ‘Camp’ in 1968. It’s like a shotgun in the belly of what is and isn’t Camp. To my mind she made it possible for authors like Tom Wolfe to write The Painted Word. Styles like Art Nouveau are Camp. Primitivism is Camp and now Modernism is too. Santa Claus painted by Haddon Sundblom is Camp. Santa himself is Camp. My paintings have always been Camp — maybe yours are, too. Camp requires a shot of innocence and often a return to an earlier style. Camp has its own brand of sincerity. “The whole point of Camp,” she said, “is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” Asking you to send me your New Year’s resolutions is Camp. This letter is Camp. I address you by your first name even though we may never meet. How Campy. That you and I are in the same boat is High Camp.
Susan looked for a sensualist approach to art. She championed aesthetic form over content. Susan did a good job of blurring the lines between high and low culture. She was the first, to my knowledge, to be really suspicious of the idea of “taste.” Susan was the first of the plain writers to make me think and take a closer look at what I was doing.
Susan saw a greater world. “Sooner or later you have to start thinking of others,” she said. She knew about the process that was needed to develop keenness. She knew the value of doing rather than talking. At the same time she had lots to say to artists. “Interpretation in art is the revenge of the intellect,” she said. Through essays, novels, plays and interviews, Susan had something to say about photography, AIDS, foreign policy, history, war, pain, torture, illness, advocacy, and the empowerment of women. She was a fearless champion of human rights. “My primary obligation is human solidarity.” Susan’s plan will be mine for the New Year.
PS: “Boredom is the reverse side of fascination. Both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to another.” (Susan Sontag, 1933-2004)
Esoterica: New York writer Margalit Fox has assembled a list of adjectives that have been used to describe Susan. They include original, trendy, rhapsodic, naïve, sophisticated, abrasive, aloof, populist, puritanical, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial, ardent, ambivalent, lofty, erudite, lucid, visceral, maddening, lyrical, abstract, acerbic, chilly, gimmicky, facile, illogical, aloof, glib, cantankerous, clever — and dozens more. Talking of Susan, the word “dull” is never mentioned.
by Linda Anderson Stewart, Twin Butte, AB, Canada
Susan Sontag was also a woman’s woman. She was unafraid, in a predominantly male world, to speak her mind. She gave me courage to do so as well. I have quoted her to others in the past and found she didn’t always sit well. Her clarity was unfailing, sometimes painful, but always thought provoking. I will miss her.
Sontag and photography
by D. K. McDonald, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Susan Sontag represented not just passion, but also a demand for unblinking intellectual honesty. I didn’t always agree with her conclusions, but I never walked away from her work without feeling compelled to look more closely and with greater honesty at what it is I do.
From the last work of hers I read, Regarding the Pain of Others comes a passage I think of often as I work: “Images have been reproached for being a way of watching suffering at a distance, as if there were some other way of watching.” It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power. That we pay too high a human (or moral) price… the standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees us for observation and for elective attention. But this is only to describe the function of the mind itself. There’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”
(RG note) A selection of Susan Sontag’s books and publications can be found here.
Spirit of New York
by Laney Vickery, CA, USA
I first read an essay by Susan Sontag back in 1961 when she wrote one as a donation for a little magazine called The Second Coming which was started by Samuel Pitts Edwards and others. My friend and I went to the celebration of the publication of the first issue. Susan was there along with so many others jammed into Sam’s little NYC apartment (a true NYC party is one in which there is barely standing room even in the bathroom). I cannot now recall the essay she wrote because, I suppose, I was too young and was only beginning to fall in love with camp but everything then was seen as camp or too fusty to be noticed at all. I do remember being so awed even so by Susan and her sophistication. She was New York to me then and full of spirit, determination, and fire and known then already. Just knowing that there was someone out there who could think and write as she did was a continuing inspiration.
Inspiration to teaching
by Dorey Schmidt
Susan Sontag inspired and informed my years of teaching American Literature, women’s art and literature, and the multiplicity of topics that arose in “lit crit.” I’m going back to re-read Illness as Metaphor, written after one of her earlier bouts with malignancy. She was, as you say, a pioneer in the blurring of lines between popular culture and haute culture, and the world of arts is the better for that. Sail on, Susan.
One happy camper
by Theresa Bayer, Austin TX, USA
When it comes to Camp, ocarinas are right in the middle. An ocarina is a flute made on the same principle as a whistle. Ocarinas and whistles easily lend themselves to being made in the shape of animals and figures, and have been made worldwide for centuries. The word “ocarina” is Italian for “little goose.” So named after carnival whistles shaped like little animals. You can’t get any more Camp than that. As a maker of sculptural ocarinas, that makes me one happy camper.
Camp down under
by Julia Walker, Brisbane, Australia
Here in Australia I’m thinking “Camp” has a different meaning than in North America and other parts of the world. “Camp” means “gay” here. We have an expression to say that if someone is homosexual, then they are “as camp as a row of tents.” Are you saying that Art Nouveau, Modernism and Santa Claus are gay?
(RG note) Could be. We are terribly open minded up here.
by Ted Clemens, Sachse, TX, USA
According to the dictionary, Camp is “outrageous” and “flamboyant.” Like a brainstorming session, nothing is sacred, nothing is shot down, nothing is accepted. Camp is a clumsy attempt to find serious meaning. In the end, however, like all bad ideas it should be wadded up and thrown in the trash. Taken seriously, it becomes cynicism. In spite of how one author would like to define the word, I wouldn’t put half your list, including your paintings, in the Camp category.
by Jean W. Morey, Ocala, FL, USA
How nice to be Camp with so many fine contemporaries. I did need to say something about the possibility that Haddon Sundblom’s Playboy cover was his daughter. Patty Sundblom was a brunette and they were much too proper in their family values to have her pose in the nude for her father. I would guess that young lady came straight from his imagination. As for the comment about “trite stuff” perhaps the use of art as a way to make a living is more genuine than starving for principles. Oh that there was more interest in using our talents as well these days.
Source of new friends
by Marie Louise Tesch, Black Hills, SD, USA
Yesterday I forwarded the Wisdom of Wayne Dyer list from Helga Wilhelm in Hawaii to a friend in Colorado. Although she is not an artist, she immediately signed up for the letter and is enjoying it already. I want to thank you for the new friends I have made because of your clickbacks. The letters seem to magically fulfill the need I am experiencing at various times. Having my website linked to yours brings the world to my home. What a difference you have made in my life.
(RG note) The Painter’s Keys community runs on a full tank of friendship.
by Micky Pierrard, Brussels, Belgium
I infinitely thank you for your judicious councils. It is so cordial to receive your news! I divide a workshop with two allemandes in Brussels. We have for the midnight supper of Christmas taken the advice of one of your letters and we sought in our workshop all the possible instruments that we never use and we painted with much matter and a way completely without control as you had proposed in your letter Extreme painting. That gave us much pleasure! The result was not badly whole!
Letters by mistake
by Elizabeth Nganga, Kenya
To be quite honest I registered for your twice-weekly letters by mistake! It was one of those bored days and I was just fiddling around on the web, hitting keys and thinking; talk to me, talk to me, somebody, pleeease. I should say that I got hooked on the first letter. As a writer, I’m a sucker for anything well-written, and in your letter and responses I get not only that, but insight, entertainment and above all motivation. It is such a delight to read what others are doing and thinking, hoping and dreaming.
Art without paint
by Ronald Joyce McDowell, Belfast, UK
I have always thought that one is an artist not simply because one paints, but because one sees artistically, thinks artistically, and actually experiences life artistically. This is a great gift that can be shared with those we love in our daily lives as well as in the beautiful things we create. But we often loose sight of this blessing in the frenzy of getting down on canvas what we see, think or feel. In the year just past I was truly grateful for this wisdom, as I almost lost my career as a painter through M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I am still not out of the woods, but this year I’m planning on being more aware of, and enjoying seeing my surroundings artistically without getting caught up in the painting of it. If I paint, I paint; if I don’t, I will enjoy the looking.
Artists and tsunami
by Roger Cummiskey, Dublin, Eire
The scope of the Asian Tsunami disaster speaks for itself through our TVs, newspapers and radios. Through my web site I decided to ask for donations towards relief using my PayPal account. As my site does not get sufficient visitors to make any impression of the required effect, I addressed my offer to the 900 names and addresses in my address book. All contributors will be kept updated. I will transfer the cash to my friend Fergus Ahern, Accountant, Boyle, Co Roscommon, Eire, who will be charged with passing the funds on to a suitable and relevant charity. There will not be any expenses paid to me.
(RG note) Roger is also arranging an art auction to take place in Ireland at the end of January. For information email your questions to: TSUNAMI-ART-AUCTION-IRELAND. We commend his spirit and the spirit of others who are planning similar local events. Donations may also be sent to national branches of the Red Cross.
Day timer use
by Alan Taylor, Condon, MT, USA
Thanks, Robert, for gently reminding me of the reason I purchase a Day-Timer every year! Somehow I had fallen into the bad habit of not using it regularly for art planning. Have restarted using it… today!
(RG note) A day timer specifically designed for artists called “The Artist’s Organizer” is produced by Sue Viders. I’ve got the 2005 model in front of me right now and I’m giving it a spin. You can find out about it on Sue’s web site.
Why am I afraid?
by Denise Lanterman
Why do I feel so insecure and afraid? Why do I avoid painting? My family and friends and even my boss think I should quit working and paint. They have more faith in me than I do. I don’t have a studio but am encouraged by my husband to build one. That is a happy and anxiety provoking thought. Intellectually I know that painting is to please me but obviously the stakes are higher. I’m struggling with fear of failure and a sure sense of what I’m doing. Every painting feels like good luck or an accident. I hope to paint more in the New Year and free myself to experiment with no other reward than the joy of putting paint on paper. I never thought that painting would create such mental chaos.
(RG note) Thank you to the more than a thousand artists who have so far registered their resolutions and plans with us. They will be returned to you in one year. For those with fears and unresolved plans, perhaps expressing them may help in understanding as well.
original painting by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Carole Mayne who wrote, “In the wake of the tragic events this week, I am doubly reminded that thoughts are powerful things, and the importance of imbuing every action and artwork with our good, divine soul qualities.”
And also Terry Renner, Winslow, AZ, USA who wrote, “When I was going to art school, Susan Sontag came and talked. I had read one of her books, and liked very much her attitude.”
And also April Riley who wrote, “I have never read anything by her as I felt her writing was too intellectual for me, but I think I might give it a try.”
And also Elle in Florida who wrote, “Human solidarity? Well, dammit, shouldn’t all of us embrace that as our primary obligation?”
And also Bren who wrote, “Her statement, ‘Boredom is the reverse side of fascination’ is so humanly profound — to accept how ‘fascinating’ human behavior is and that we are all more alike than unlike is not only the key to unlock boredom but the key to peace in this beautiful but fragile world.”