Photography and Society: Lessons from Susan Sontag

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 6:45 PM
Room: Booth 57
Distributed Paper
Andrea GLAUSER , University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Lucerne, Switzerland

In recent years, scholars have often criticized the exclusion of art works in current sociological explorations of the arts. In contrast to classical works, foremost of which are those of Georg Simmel, which placed interest on the relationship between a particular art work and society, more recent approaches have primarily focused on art as a social universe, called “art world,” or considered it as a specific social “field” or “system.” Although these perspectives typically involve theoretical concepts applicable to art works, based on exemplary discussions, the main interest is in systematic theoretical questions or institutional aspects of artistic production rather than particular art works and their social significance.

This paper discusses Susan Sontag’s approach to art works and her view on the possibility of gaining knowledge on the social world by analyzing art works. Sontag’s approach is particularly interesting as on the one hand, she was highly skeptical of attempts to diagnose contemporary culture and to discuss the social history of ideas “through” art works. On the other hand, particularly in her preoccupation with photography, she offers sociologically illuminating insights on the way photography is historically related to social experiences and modes of observation in society. The main argument of this contribution is that Sontag’s perspective is sociologically interesting, particularly because it relates the analysis of particular art works to reflections on the history of the respective medium. Furthermore, it is remarkable that her lack of interest in constructing a general theory on the social aspects of the arts involves a remarkable openness to take particular art works as a starting point for inquiries and to raise a wide variety of questions on social experiences related to art.