Who Was Susan Sontag?

Susan Sontag was one of the most influential cultural critics of the twentieth century. She redefined the ways in which people look at art and literature.

Oct 16, 2023By Mary Rose Bedell, MA Art History, BA Art History & History

who was susan sontag


In New York’s cultural scene during the later years of the twentieth century, Susan Sontag was everywhere. Her short stories appeared in The New Yorker, her novels graced the National Book Award for Fiction list, and her critical works shook the cultural world to its core. Even today, Sontag’s most famous works Notes on Camp (1964), Against Interpretation (1966), and On Photography (1977) are considered key texts in art theory. From her insulated academic beginnings, Sontag emerged as one of the most powerful critical voices.


Susan Sontag and the Literary World, the 1960s

Susan Sontag with her son David Rieff, via The Telegraph


Sontag taught throughout the 1960s, but she was not content to live the cloistered life of an academic. The 1960s had too many new thriving political and cultural movements to be inspired by and Sontag craved applying the intellectual lessons she had learned to the new, exciting visions of those around her. Reflecting on her writing later, Sontag said: People usually say they want to become a writer to express themselves or because they have something to say. For me, it was a way of being.


After the publication of her first novel The Benefactor in 1963, Sontag launched into the publishing world of New York. Her break-out essay of cultural critique was Notes on Camp, published in the Partisan Review in 1964. The essay appears in the form of a list in which Sontag identifies the key characteristics of camp culture, such as its aestheticism. In Notes on Camp Sontag identifies camp qualifies in such diverse subjects as Art Nouveau, Tiffany Lamps, Swan Lake, Flash Gordon comics, and actress Mae West. This would set a trend in Sontag’s criticism, as she frequently wrote about the so-called low culture as frequently as she wrote about the high culture, even comparing one to the other.


Photo Portrait of Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1966, via Wikipedia


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Sontag’s style of criticism is what is referred to as postcritique, meaning that it breaks away from the dominant ideological criticisms that apply particular lenses to a work of art, such as attempting to decode Freudian symbolism in a painting or Marxist ideology in a novel. Instead, Sontag’s postcritique attempts to understand the artwork as a self-contained experience. Her social circle in the 1960s put her in the company of the stars of the New York art world. In 1965 she started a relationship with the painter Jasper Johns, who was at the time fresh from his tumultuous breakup with Robert Rauschenberg. Though their relationship was brief, it was a productive period for both Sontag and Johns as they explored the relationships between high and low culture in art.


By the end of the 1960s, Sontag had come out in vehement opposition to the Vietnam War, and she wasn’t alone. In 1968, the United States government proposed a 10% surtax in support of the Vietnam War and New York’s literary magazines quickly announced their refusal. There were 458 writers who signed in support of these refusals. Susan Sontag’s signature appeared alongside those of her contemporaries, including James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Philip K. Dick, Betty Friedan, Allen Ginsberg, Gloria Steinem, and Kurt Vonnegut.


Though a self-proclaimed leftist in her personal life, Sontag was reluctant to look at artworks as revolutionary political statements. In her 1965 essay On Style, she noted that an artwork cannot advocate for anything at all and must be read on its own merits. These tensions between Sontag’s political, personal, and critical selves were the subject of constant critique from her more political colleagues.


Sontag’s Decade of Celebrity, the 1970s

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, via National Endowment for the Humanities


The 1970s marked a new horizon in Sontag’s career in which she emerged as a celebrity intellectual. The women’s liberation movement provided a new platform for women to voice their criticisms of the dominant patriarchal culture, and Sontag took full advantage.


In 1971, she attended a debate between feminist activists and author Norman Mailer. During the Q&A section, she publicly denounced Mailer’s descriptions of women authors as lady writers and lady critics. In an interview for Vogue magazine following the debate, Sontag repeated her criticism to an even wider audience, emphasizing the damaging effects of sexual discrimination.


From 1973 to 1977, Sontag published a series of essays on photography in the New York Review of Books, which would be collected and published as On Photography in 1977.  This work revolutionized photographic criticism, with Sontag tackling photography’s history as a mechanism of power. According to Sontag:


In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. Finally, the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images.


To Sontag, photography transformed our relationship with the world. We talk about taking a photograph, and by taking a photograph we establish a kind of ownership over the thing we have photographed. This incredibly significant observation remains at the core of photographic studies today and is frequently referenced in post-colonial writing on visual culture.


Sontag’s Legend, the 1980s 

Susan Sontag Photographed at Home by Lynn Gilbert, 1979, via Wikimedia Commons


Sontag received a devastating diagnosis of breast cancer in the 1970s and spent much of her recovery working on Illness as Metaphor. The book critically approaches the language of blame applied to those with illnesses and disabilities. Sontag published the book in 1978, though she had no way of knowing how significant it would become to the New York art world that was reeling from a new disease called AIDS.


Sontag published her short story The Way We Live Now in The New Yorker in 1986. In the story, a man lies dying in a hospital bed, presumably of AIDS. Through the dialogue of those around him at his bedside, the reader can paint a portrait of the man and his community. Sontag would remain preoccupied with the illness throughout the 1980s. Her critical follow-up to Illness as Metaphor, entitled AIDS and Its Metaphors, was published in 1989. In it, she reflected on how society constructed the narrative and stigma of AIDS noting that cancer was a shameful disease once, but AIDS became the disease which’s name had to be whispered.


Around the same time, Sontag met and became romantically involved with the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz. The two would remain lovers until Sontag’s death in 2004. Sontag’s bisexuality had been largely rumored during her life, though details about her other relationships with women were mostly unknown. The relationship with Leibovitz was only confirmed by Leibovitz after Sontag’s death.


Sontag’s Final Decades, the 1990s and early 2000s

Susan Sontag by Chester Higgins Jr., 2000 via the New York Times


Sontag published her second novel The Volcano Lover in 1992, but soon her attentions were caught up in another tragedy. In the spring of 1992, a military conflict emerged in Bosnia. Tensions following the collapse of the Soviet Union the previous year boiled over, and on April 5, The Yugoslav People’s Army blockaded the city of Sarajevo. This conflict, which would extend for over three years, left Bosnian citizens cut off from the outside world except for a few foreign reporters who came to cover the conflict. When Sontag arrived, she brought plans to set up a production of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. As Gordana Knezevic, who lived in Sarajevo during the siege, recalled:


Invitations were circulated strictly by word of mouth. A friend of mine told me about the premiere. It was at 2 p.m. on August 17, 1993. Once the lights were switched off, I felt like I was at some theater on Broadway or London’s West End. No one in the audience made a sound. During those two hours, Sarajevo felt like part of the civilized world; it was not abandoned. At the end of the performance, the Sarajevan actors received a standing ovation.


The performance was not just a relief from the monotony of wartime life, but also a poignant reminder of art’s therapeutic qualities. After the performance, Sontag was greeted on stage by the mayor of Sarajevo, Muhamed Kresevljakovic, who announced Sontag as an honorary citizen of Sarajevo. In the late 1990s, Sontag was also able to look back on her publishing career thus far. What she found, as many of her readers today find, is that many of her early observations were prescient of a rising ride of criticism that would define much of our tastes today.


Susan Sontag by Diane Arbus, 1965, via The New York Times


In 1996 afterword to the thirtieth anniversary of Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Sontag wrote:


I was—I am— for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture. No hierarchy, then? Certainly there’s a hierarchy. If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then—of course—I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?


Sontag would maintain her abiding interest in mixing pop culture, literary culture, and artistic avant-garde throughout the final years of her life, including her final novel, In America, which was published in 2000. Though a work of historical fiction, fictionalizing the rise of actress Helena Modjeska, the novel takes a fresh look at American stardom and celebrity culture.


Sontag’s final years continued to find her embroiled in controversy. The New Yorker published Tuesday and After” on September 24th, 2001, sharing the reactions of many New York writers to the events of 9/11. In it, Sontag implored:


Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong,” we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.


Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, via Amazon


The backslash was swift and cutting. Leftism and leftist critiques of American grandstanding were not welcome so soon after the events of September 11th, but Sontag stuck to her beliefs. Sontag’s reluctance to engage in the patriotic warmongering that emerged in late 2001 is perhaps not surprising, considering the war she witnessed firsthand in the 1990s.


War would remain on her mind until her final work called Regarding the Pain of Others (2004). This was an extended essay about the power of photography during wartime. The book makes an interesting contrast to the arguments that Sontag made in On Photography. In On Photography, Sontag emphasized the power of images. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag emphasizes the inability of images to convey war’s horrors to those who have not experienced it first-hand. Though the work was critically praised, Sontag did not live long enough to see its true impact. Sontag died in 2004 due to complications from leukemia.


Susan Sontag’s Legacy: 2000s and Beyond

Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons


Susan Sontag’s legacy has been firmly established. Her most pivotal works of criticism, like On Photography, Illness as Metaphor, On Style, and Notes on Camp defined postcritique. Like other famed intellectuals, Sontag’s works have been criticized. Some have identified her with a kind of hipster posturing. Others have found fault with her commercial success and leftist politics, with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2018 book Skin in the Game critiquing Sontag’s ideological hypocrisy of living in a New York mansion while spouting leftist talking points.


Her son, David, works on publishing Sontag’s journals. The first volume is called Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-1963, while the second volume is titled As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. Another volume covering the final decades of Sontag’s life is still in the works. Interest in Sontag soared during the lead-up and aftermath of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2019 Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition, which used Sontag’s Notes on Camp as the framework for the exhibition. Sontag’s made her an intellectual titan of the twentieth century and she will likely be assigned in classrooms, cited by scholars, and referenced by critics for decades to come.

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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.