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Susan Sontag’s criticism of Diane Arbus

From On Photography, (1977) Susan Sontag, London: Penguin, pages 32-48.

Untitled – 1, 1970-1971. Diane Arbus

Notes & passages of interest.

  • Sontag begins her essay comparing an exhibition of 112 photographs by Diane Arbus that was exhibited in 1972 in at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York city that drew large crowds with an earlier exhibition at MOMA curated by Edward Steichen called Family of Man (1955).
  • Sontag points out that Arbus’s exhibition sent a different message to that of Family of Man one completely opposite: Family of man, conveyed a massage of: Humanity as being “one”. where as Arbus’s message was, Humanity was not “one”. (32)
  • In the Arbus show, a hundred and twelve photographs all taken by one person and all similar-that is, everyone in them looks (in some sense) the same-imposed a feeling exactly contrary to the reassuring warmth of Steichen’s material. Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases-most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings-who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidently at the viewer. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one”. The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. (32-33)
  • Sontag compares Steichen’s show was an up, Arbus’s show was a down. (33)
  • Arbus’s work suggests, everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilised, crippled identities and relationships. (33)
  • Arbus focuses on the victim, the unfortunate with no compassion. What the viewer is asked to look at is the other. (34)
  • Arbus took photos to show the other world – people who looked strange.
  • The authority of Arbus’s photographs derives from the contrast between their lacerating subject matter and their calm, matter-of-fact attentiveness. (35)
  • Arbus got to know her subjects and won their trust.
  • Most of her pictures she has the subject look directly into the lens, this often makes them look more strange.
  • In the normal rhetoric of the photograph portrait, facing the camera signifies, frankness, the disclosure of the subject’s essence. (37-38)
  • Sontag suggests that their is a sense of pain, she suggests that Arbus’s work has a theme of masochism about them, quoting: According to Reich, the Masochist’s taste for pain does not spring from love of pain but from the hope of procuring, by means of pain, a strong sensation those handicapped by emotional or sensory analgesia only prefer pain to not facing anything at all. But there is another explanation of why people seek pain, diametrically opposed to Reich’s, that also seems pertinent: that they seek it not to feel more but to feel less. (40)
  • Sontag suggested at the time of her writing it in the 1970’s, that this kind of art was popular with the sophisticated urban people... (40)
  • Her photographs offer an occasion to demonstrate that life’s horror can be faced without squeamishness. (40)
  • Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals – that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that draws a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not. The gradual suppression of queasiness does not bring us closer to a rather formal truth-that of the arbitrariness of the taboos constructed by art and morals. But our ability to stomach this rising grotesqueness in images…In the long run, it works out not as a liberation of but as a subtraction from the self: a pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making one less able to react in real life…The photographs make a compassionate response feel irrelevant. (40-41)
  • Sontag goes on to say: But this look that is not (mainly) compassionate is a special, modern ethical construction: not hardhearted, certainly not cynical, but simply (or falsely) naive. (41)
  • Arbus said, “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not interested in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear….” (41-42)
  • Sontag writes: However drawn she was to the maimed and the ugly, it would never have occurred to Arbus to photograph Thalidomide babies or napalm victims-public horrors, deformities with sentimental or ethical associations…She chose subjects that she could believe were found, just lying about, without any values attached to them. They are necessarily ahistorical subjects, private rather than public pathology, secret lives rather than open ones. (42)
  • Sontag suggests: Arbus’s interstate’s in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe. (43)
  • Sontag comments: The decade of Arbus’s serious work coincides with, and is very much of, the sixties, the decade in which freaks went public, and became safe, approved subject of art. What in the 1930s was treated with anguishes in ‘Miss Lonelyhearts‘ and ‘The Day of the Locust‘-would in the 1960s be treated in a perfectly deadpan way, or with positive relish (in the films of Fellini, Arrabal, Jodorowsky, in underground comics, in rock spectacles).
  • There is however an irony here, as Sontag goes on to say: At the beginning of the sixties, the thriving Freak Show at Coney Island was outlawed, the pressure is on to raze the Time Square turf of drag queens and hustlers and cover it with skyscrapers. As the inhabitants of deviant underworlds are evicted from their restricted territories-banned as unseemly, a public nuisance, obscene or just unprofitable-they increasingly come to infiltrate consciousness as the subject matter of art, acquiring a certain diffuse legitimacy and metaphoric proximity which creates all the more distance. (43-44)
  • Arbus was a fashion photographer. However her artistic work turned its back on the aesthetic: Arbus’s work is creative-reactive against gentility, against that is approved. It was her way of saying fuck Vogue, fuck fashion, fuck what’s pretty. (44)
  • The aesthete’s subversion, which the sixties was to make peculiarly its own, advances life as a horror show as the antidote to life as a bore. (44)
  • Most of Arbus’s work lies within the Warhol aesthetic, that is, defines itself in relation to twin poles of boringness and freakiness; but it doesn’t have the Warhol style. (44)
  • Arbus said that the photographer she felt closes to was Weegee, whose brutal pictures of crime and accident victims were a staple of the tabloids in the 1940s. (46)
  • Sontag places Arbus’s photographs in the main tradition of Surrealist art.. (46)
  • Sontag essay brings us full circle back to her opening comparisons of the Arbus exhibition to the earlier Family of Man: The subjects of Arbus’s photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of showing identity between things which are different (Whitman’s democratic vista), everybody is shown to look the same. (47)

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