Sontag’s Reversal on the Moral-Political Power of Art

Professor Michael Kelly, Department of Philosophy, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Professor Michael Kelly
Editor-in-Chief, Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford UP)
Department of Philosophy
University of North Carolina, Charlotte

“How can works of art can have any positive moral-political effect on viewers today, given the challenges to aesthetic autonomy (or aesthetics itself) over the last few decades?  Susan Sontag argues in On Photography (1977) that a photograph of a person suffering can only aestheticize the suffering for the viewer’s pleasure.  Yet she defends the contrary position in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), insisting that a work of art can have a sustainable moral-political effect precisely because of its aesthetics.  What accounts for this change in her view, which I take to be symptomatic of a cultural shift in our understanding of aesthetics, ethics, and politics?”