MARCH 11, 2016
IN 1965 SUSAN SONTAG penned “One Culture and the New Sensibility” and — like other more famous pieces from her collection Against Interpretation and Other Essays — the essay positively hums with intellectual rigor. Sontag tells us that art first arose in human society as a magical-religious operation. It eventually became a way of commenting on secular reality, but “art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility.” She goes onto to assert a number of wonderful ideas, including the absolute gem that the old sensibility, which she associates with Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, understood the purpose of art was to criticize life, while “the new sensibility understands art as the extension of life.”
In Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility George Cotkin has given himself the unenviable task of surveying 22 years of American cultural history (1952 to 1974) and demonstrating how over 20 artists, including icons like John Cage, Thomas Pynchon, Marlon Brando, Jerry Lee Lewis, Andy Warhol, Anne Sexton, Gore Vidal, Judith Malina, Patricia Highsmith, and Diane Arbus were all standard-bearers of the New Sensibility as outlined by Sontag, and to a lesser extent, Tom Wolfe.
Sontag, Cotkin writes, “discovered the New Sensibility in avant-garde theater, absurdist and experimental novels, and in the over-the-topness of camp style,” while Wolfe described the New Sensibility as a new cultural world. “He was gleeful,” he adds, “that the once traditional border between high and low culture had been trespassed.”
As the title suggests, Cotkin’s inquiry focuses on the over-the-top. “The New Sensibility’s celebration of excess as a style, a way of seeing and presenting the world, was riveted on a common core of subjects: violence, liberation (especially sexual), and madness,” he writes. He further adds that “excess defined the stylistic imperative of the New Sensibility. ‘Apocalyptic expression’ and ‘overkill’ became its expressive coin of the realm.” But in essence, Cotkin’s presentation of the New Sensibility is a reductionist version of Sontag’s explorations. And whether he is writing about a minimalist score by John Cage, or Pynchon’s literary behemoth Gravity’s Rainbow, he hammers his theme home.
Cotkin tackles the cultural terrain in chronological order (starting with John Cage in 1952 and concluding with the work of performance artist Chris Burden in 1974). He structures the book as a succession of artist vignettes covering each year in question. And, as if to pre-empt the reader’s objections to the random nature of his selections, he writes: “if a hint of the arbitrary covers the choices of figures discussed, that seems in keeping with the aesthetic of New Sensibility.” In each chapter, the reader gets some biographical background, a brief historical context, and then examples of how the artist’s work displays the characteristic excess of the New Sensibility. The author’s curatorial approach and the year-by-year chronology are the strengths of the book, demonstrating on a micro level how the excesses of the avant-garde were adopted and reinterpreted by popular artists (those mentioned earlier and others, including Erica Jong and Gore Vidal), as well as by the men and women who remained more “marginal” (not only Arbus, but also Lenny Bruce, Robert Frank, and Amiri Baraka).
Along with his trinity of excess (sex, violence and madness), Cotkin explores a number of subcategories, including increasing frankness about homosexual identity, the confessional impulse, and, the widespread tendency towards performance art. For instance, he describes a drunken Allen Ginsberg disrobing in his effort to silence a heckler at a Gregory Corso reading. “While this might appear as a silly, drunken eruption,” he writes, “it indicated the direction in which the emerging New Sensibility was headed.” Two years later Norman Mailer, feeling burnt out and out-written by his peers, put out Advertisements for Myself, a pugnacious collection of essays, short fiction, and interviews, in which he rates his fellow writers and finds most of them lacking. Cotkin observes:
This New Sensibility, as realized by Mailer was performative — Mailer was a character in, as well as a commentator upon, his life and work. Mailer’s personality stalked every page of the volume.
Cotkin also wants the reader to appreciate that the once-transgressive elements of the New Sensibility have effectively been mainstreamed in the decades since 1974. “In large part,” he writes, the artists of New Sensibility “came to constitute a culture — our culture — which still enthuses and beleaguers us to this day.” In the last chapter, he cites a number of examples of how excess has continued to animate the culture, including punk rock at the end of the 1970s, Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), the sadomasochistic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1990s, and the glut of reality television today.
But in the age of the Internet, and of Wikipedia in particular, I can’t help wonder about the practicality of a book full of anecdotes about 20th Century artists, many of whom are quite well known. If you want to learn about Lenny Bruce’s legal troubles, Bob Dylan “going electric” or the salacious buzz around Erica Jong’s novel Fear of Flying (1973), Google is just a click away. For many well-read individuals (and even those who prefer TV) the various cultural tumults of the 1960s are pretty familiar ground (Sex! Drugs! Protests! Nixon! etc.). What’s really needed today — and what feels lacking here — is an analysis that goes deeper than a mere History Channel-transmission of the facts.
Cotkin’s tendency is to write disorienting prose coupled with an overreliance on historical clichés (in this case, the conformity of the 1950s). As here, in the context of the year 1962:
The shift to a New Sensibility was fueled, too, by possibility and perplexity. Consumer culture and seemingly unstoppable economic growth (despite lingering inequalities of wealth distribution) blessed Americans with a sense of prosperity and promise. At the same time, the specter of nuclear annihilation cast a vast and terrifying shadow that suggested, in some ways, that sitting comfortably in cultural conformity made no sense at all.
What to make of that first sentence? How did potential (possibility), plus confusion (perplexity), lead to the creation of works of art that were excessive in nature? I also struggle to understand how the threat of a Russian bomb “suggested” to all to those dour 1950s Americans that they needed to get off the couch and start expressing themselves.
Even if a reader is coming to this period in US cultural history cold (unlikely), or with little awareness of the artists profiled (very unlikely), he’d find much of this examination obvious, unenlightening, and diluted. (Yes, it’s true: Anne Sexton was a confessional artist, and Marlon Brando’s acting oozed sexuality.) Writing about Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank’s iconic collection Cotkin says:
The Americans, unlike most photographic collections, paid close attention to African Americans and the painful realities of segregation and racism. Yet he sometimes fell prey to a sort of misplaced envy for African Americans, shared by hipsters such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer (see chapter 9) that arose out of their alienation from middle-class American culture, their search for something spontaneous (which they discovered in jazz music).
This is just too glib an analysis of a complex time. Writers as serious and idiosyncratic as Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg would probably have felt like outliers in societies as different as Renaissance Italy or Meiji Era Japan, so to fall back on “alienation from middle-class America culture,” is the kind of over-simplification that is all-too-common in the book.
One exception to this parade of predictable historical touchpoints (“Red Scare,” “Cuban Missile Crisis,” “Vietnam,” “Age of Anxiety,” etc.) is when Cotkin introduces us to physicist Thomas S. Kuhn and his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Cotkin writes that “[Kuhn’s] thesis was relatively simple. Under conditions of normal science, the community of scientists work under a shared paradigm, a way of seeing and interpreting the world.” But sometimes, Cotkin continues, because of anomalies or technological developments, you have:
a crisis in the ruling paradigm. As if by magic, a counter paradigm emerges (sometimes it may have previously been shunted to the periphery of science as an absurd hypotheses) that better explained problems and which in turn becomes the new ruling paradigm. When this occurs, you have a scientific revolution […] The ‘unthinkable’ for Kuhn was that science might not function as a pure pursuit of truth.
Cotkin then quotes the Philosopher Richard Rorty who claimed Kuhn’s thesis was a “new map of culture.” This is meaty stuff, and Cotkin positions us well to think about how much of the era’s great art struck people as unexpected, even revolutionary. Take, for instance, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, which first appeared in 1962: it’s hard to imagine a better example of an absolute paradigm-changer for both the fine art world and the culture at large.
There is no denying excess is the defining feature of the artists Cotkin profiles; and equally undeniable is that artists today still draw heavily from this cultural largesse. Yet I can’t help feeling that Cotkin has chosen the lowest-hanging fruit from Sontag’s majestic, well-rooted tree. What about her assertion that art today is a new instrument for modifying consciousness? How about her idea — as explained in “One Culture and the New Sensibility” — that “heavy” content mediums, like books and plays, are basically out when it comes to the New Sensibility, while those with “much less content, and a much cooler mode of moral judgment — like music, films, dance, architecture, painting, sculpture […] are the locus of the new sensibility.”
Also in this essay, Sontag gives us a sweeping view of art history, orienting the reader in the challenging cultural terrain of that moment (1965), and providing future generations with an intellectual framework for understanding art in a post-modern world. Indeed, in defining the New Sensibility, she left us actual tools for navigating a culture that is now digital, social, post-transgressive, and relentless in its output. In deciding to chronicle only the “overblown” characteristics of the art of the previous era, Cotkin reduces his investigation to a kind of scorekeeping as opposed to pursuing a deeper sort of inquiry into what happened to the culture during the second half of the so-called “American Century,” and how it has led us to become who we are.