5 Key Takeaways from Susan Sontag’s Famous Essay On Style

Susan Sontag’s On Style is a core text of the post-critique movement that argues that analyzing a work of art’s style is an essential component of understanding the work.

Oct 15, 2023By Mary Rose Bedell, MA Art History, BA Art History & History
susan sontag essay on style


Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay On Style outlined her philosophy of the function of style within art and literature. In the mid-twentieth century, criticism was dominated by external frameworks, like Freudian analysis or Marxist critique. These movements tended to think of style as separate from the artwork’s meaning. Sontag’s essay rejected that method of critique and became a core work in a movement called post-critique, which evaluates artworks based on their internal merits.


Who was Susan Sontag?

eddie hausner susan sontag at home photograph
Susan Sontag at Home by Eddie Hausner, 1989, via the New York Times


Susan Sontag was born Susan Rosenblatt on January 16, 1933. Her isolated, bookish childhood sparked an insatiable curiosity that drove her first to the University of California, Berkeley, and then the University of Chicago, where she studied philosophy, literature, and politics. In 1950, while still a student, Sontag met and swiftly married (after a mere ten days) a sociology professor called Philip Rieff. Already from her undergraduate days, Sontag looked outside of the academy towards the thriving literary world. She launched into criticism in the final year of her undergraduate degree when the Chicago Review published her review of H. J. Kaplan’s novel The Plenipotentiaries.


Though she would go on to earn her MA in English literature and philosophy at Harvard University, raising her son David, who was born in 1952, made dedicating herself entirely to her intellectual pursuits difficult. Her marriage was also on the rocks, and though Sontag spent much of her time contributing research for her husband’s upcoming book Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, she was also looking for a way out.


susan sontag portait
Susan Sontag, via The New York Times


In 1957, the opportunity finally arrived: Sontag received the American Association of University Women’s Fellowship to study abroad at St. Anne’s College at Oxford University. Putting her husband in charge of their young son, Sontag set out alone. The time away gave Sontag the space to pursue her own intellectual interests and, after her divorce was finalized, her personal freedom as well. From England she traveled to Paris, studying at the Sorbonne for two years. When she finally returned to New York in 1959, she found a city buzzing with creative energy, and among the abstract expressionists and beatnik poets in Greenwich Village, she began to write. Below are five key takeaways from her 1965 essay On Style that outline a new philosophy.

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1. Every Artwork Has a Style

john white alexander portrait of walt whitman
Walt Whitman by John White Alexander, 1899, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


According to Sontag, critics and artists both misunderstand the relationship between style and content, often treating them as separate entities. Sontag traced the idea of artists believing that style was external to their artworks back to the Renaissance. However, this continues to the present day.


Sontag articulated this with the works of American author Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman claimed to be removing style from his writing. In the 1855 edition of his most famous work Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote that great poets do not allow elegance or effect to get between them at the truth. This metaphor, which compares style to curtains hanging between the reader and the truth, is a common mistake of both artists and critics. For a work of art to be authentic, we believe, it must be without any kind of artifice, and style is seen as artificial.


Sontag described the idea that a work of art can be without style as one of the most tenacious fantasies of modern culture. Style is the formal choices that an artist makes when rendering their work, and since all artists make choices, all artists have style.


Whitman did not succeed in having an art form without a style, his poetry would later be considered a forerunner of the Confessional Movement, for example. This is not because Whitman failed at his mission, but because his mission was impossible to fulfill from the start since there is no artwork that doesn’t have a style.


2. Stylization Happens When the Artwork’s Style is Artificial

parmigianino madonna of the long neck painting
Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino, c. 1534-40, via Wikimedia Commons


You might be asking yourself, are some works of art more reliant on style than others? Yes. Sontag described the phenomena of stylization which happens when an artist intentionally focuses on producing a new style. She identified two moments in which this occurred historically: Mannerism and Art Nouveau.


Mannerism was an art movement of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries whose name comes from the Italian maniera, meaning style. For something to be done in a Mannerist style, or literally stylish style, meant that it cultivated an intentionally elegant, artificial aesthetic. Through elongated bodies and vibrant colors, artists like Giorgio Vasari and Paolo Veronese intentionally departed from the grounded naturalism of the high Renaissance.


Similarly, the Art Nouveau movement consisted of artists, architects, and designers who cultivated a certain aesthetic. Regardless of an object’s practical function, it would be decorated with swirls, flowers, and other natural forms. Artists such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Victor Horta created designs that were stylized because of the intense study that they put into cultivating this aesthetic. Sontag wrote that when other critics encountered the exaggerated styles of these movements, they mistakenly inferred that movements with less obvious stylization had no style at all. However, this was a mistake since all artworks have style, some are just more artificially cultivated than others.


3. Styles Only Become Apparent When a New Style Emerges

elemer de korody cubist study head 1913
Cubist Study of a Head by Elemér de Kóródy, c. 1913, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


According to Sontag, artists are rarely conscious of a style as it is being created. Similarly, critics looking at works of contemporary art and literature will rarely understand a work’s style and they are prone to mistakenly refer to it as being without style. How, then, do we begin to recognize a style?


Sontag argued that an existing style is only understood in hindsight after it has been replaced by a new dominant style. Artists begin to work by understanding the style of their forerunners as something to escape from. The choices made by their predecessors seem incorrect, even artificial, and the new generation pursues a style that seems more authentic and without style to them. In doing so, they make new formal and aesthetic choices, developing a new style. Sontag specifically identified Cubism as an example of this natural emergence of style.


Critics articulate the old style in their writing about how the new artists are pushing boundaries, thereby articulating what the older style’s boundaries actually were. This pattern repeated endlessly during the twentieth century, as artists constantly challenged the artistic decisions of their forebearers, giving rise to the endless parade of art movements that defined modernism.


4. Artworks Are Not Statements, They Are Experiences

sergey prokudin gorsky photograph leo tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana by Sergey-Prokudin-Gorsky, 1908, via Wikimedia Commons


Sontag believed that one of the biggest mistakes that a viewer could make when approaching a new work of art is to attempt to disregard its style in favor of understanding the statement it is trying to make. Many museumgoers around the world asked themselves but what does it mean? That question is not entirely irrelevant, but it’s off the mark.


For Sontag, art is an experience, not just the content or message of the work. She wrote: Art is not only about something; it is something. Sontag provided the example of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina may be a commentary on relationships, but if we attempt to boil it down to a core message like the statement romantic relationships are complex, we have not truly experienced the novel. To experience the novel is not just to experience its message, but also its form and its style.


Sontag likened artworks to seduction: as viewers, we must be willing participants. If we are constantly trying to disregard style and pursue an inner kernel of meaning, we will misunderstand the work. On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to experience the artwork formally and aesthetically, we will have a greater grasp of its significance.


5. Susan Sontag Thought Style Was the Primary Thing to Consider 

susan sontag death of priam
Terracotta amphora by the Nikoxenos Painter, c. 500 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


How, then, are we supposed to approach a work of art or literature as an audience? Sontag had a handful of suggestions, as well as a few warnings. Sontag described a core problem of viewers who confuse works of art with ethical statements. As she articulated, art is not a moral phenomenon, it is an aesthetic phenomenon. If we think about a painting, for example, we should not judge it based on whether we think the scene depicted on the vase is a good thing or a bad thing.


Sontag used an example of a Greek vase, which we can expand upon. The vase depicts the Greek warrior Neoptolemos attacking Priam, king of Troy, seeking refuge at the altar of Zeus. The vase is not more or less beautiful if we condemn Neoptolemos’ actions if we think that murder is wrong. To do so would be to judge the work of art as a moral phenomenon. Instead, we should evaluate its aesthetic qualities, or, in other words, its style.


While some critics mistakenly believe that a work of art is content wrapped in a gauzy blanket of style, Sontag articulated that content was just the pretext for inviting us into an aesthetic stylistic experience. Style is the primary thing that an artist thinks about when creating the work of art, and the primary thing that we as an audience understand when discussing an artist’s work. Sontag reminded the readers that this may be applied elsewhere: to everyday objects, to speech, and even to behavior. Her vision of style has the potential to transform our understanding of the entire world around us if we accustom ourselves to analyzing how things speak, rather than just what they say.

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By Mary Rose BedellMA Art History, BA Art History & HistoryMary is an art historian with a current research focus on modern American Art. She works as an art researcher and adjunct faculty instructor teaching Art History courses. She holds an MA in Art History from Syracuse University and a BA in Art History and History from Mount Holyoke College. Mary is an avid reader and frequently shares book reviews and recommendations online.

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