susan sontag, the aesthetics of silence

“Language seems a privileged metaphor for expressing the mediated character of art-making and the art-work. On the one hand, speech is both an immaterial medium (compared with, say, images) and a human activity with an apparently essential stake in the project of transcendence, of moving beyond the singular and contingent (all words being abstractions, only roughly based on or making reference to concrete particulars). But, on the other hand, language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made.

This dual character of language — its, abstractness, and its “fallenness” in history — can serve as a microcosm of the unhappy character of the arts today. Art is so far along the labyrinthine pathways of the project of transcendence that it’s hard to conceive of it turning back, short of the most drastic and punitive “cultural revolution.” Yet at the same time, art is foundering in the debilitating tide of what once seemed the crowning achievement of European thought: secular historical consciousness. In little more than two centuries, the consciousness of history has transformed itself from a liberation, an opening of doors, blessed enlightenment, into an almost insupportable burden of self-consciousness. It’s impossible for the artist to write a word (or render an image or make a gesture) that doesn’t remind him of something. Up to a point, the community and historicity of the artist’s means are implicit in the very fact of intersubjectivity: each person is a being-in-a-world. But this normal state of affairs is felt today (particularly in the arts using language) as an extraordinary, wearying problem.

As Nietzsche said: “Our pre-eminence: we live in the age of comparison, we can verify as has never been verified before.” Therefore, “we enjoy differently, we suffer differently: our instinctive activity is to compare an unheard number of things.”

Language is experienced not merely as something shared but something corrupted, weighed down by historical accumulation. Thus, for each conscious artist, the creation of a work means dealing with two potentially antagonistic domains of meaning and their relationships. One is his own meaning (or lack of it); the other is the set of second-order meanings which both extend his own language and also encumber, compromise, and adulterate it. The artist ends by choosing between two inherently limiting alternatives. He is forced to take a position that’s either servile or insolent: either he flatters or appeases his audience, giving them what they already know, or he commits an aggression against his audience, giving them what they don’t want.

Modern art thus transmits in full the alienation produced by historical consciousness. Whatever the artist does is in (usually conscious) alignment with something else already done, producing a compulsion to be continually rechecking his situation. His own stance with those of his predecessors and contemporaries. Compensating for this ignominious enslavement to history, the artist exalts himself with the dream of a wholly ahistorical, and therefore unalienated, art.”

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