Susan Sontag: "The Aesthetics of Solitude" in Studies of Radical Will, chapter 1. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969; Anchor Books, 1981; Picador USA, 2002.

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was a novelist, intellectual, and critic of modernism. This article analyzes the dissolution of meaning in modernist art and thought, with the concept of silence as an instrument in furthering that aesthetic. Sontag's critique is post-modern. She distinguishes the uses of silence in classical art and thought while dissecting the different premises about silence in modern art.

The essay is neatly divided into twenty sections, which facilitates making a summary, although Sontag's dense prose and comprehensive thinking makes any summary inadequate.


Sontag begins with the premise that every historical era "reinvents the project of 'spirituality,'" wherein spirituality means the totality of an era's ideas and expressions brought to the "resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation." Historically, this project culminates in the notion of completing human consciousness through some form of transcendence.

The modern equivalent of the project of spirituality is art. The artist is the conduit to meaning. The art object is the paradigm to be resolved by human consciousness. Art always represented a myth of absoluteness and, therefore, an aura of mystification. But in the modern era art is demystified. The new myth relates art not to evolving consciousness but to "the mind's need or capacity for self-estrangement." This new purpose is derived from post-psychological  ideas about consciousness and turns the classical concept on its head. Sontag writes:

As the activity of the mystic must end in a via negativa, a theology of God's absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech, so art must tend towards anti-art, the elimination of the "subject" (the "object," the "image"), the substitution of chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence.

Thus modern art has changed the paradigm of thousands of years. While art served to bridge the spiritual and creative impulse with the material conditions of daily life, modern art has reduced the impulses to the "concreteness" of both the artists and the material conditions of life. Everything from art to language becomes an irresolvable immediacy, something to be overthrown in the (fruitless) quest for the equivalent of spirituality, of realization, of transcendence. Art abolishes itself in its own way of the negative.


The modern artist must disavow any higher purpose or meaning to his work. Art must be abandoned in order to achieve something it no longer represents, because what it represents is now longer accepted by modern thought. Art can be pursued as a "deliverance, an exercise in asceticism" but the goals of such self-discipline do not accompany the work, about which is an air of silence. The art is voiceless, random, meaningless. As Sontag puts it:

Silence in this sense, as termination, proposes a mood of ultimacy antithetical to the mood informing the self-conscious artist's traditional serious use of silence: as a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal which ends in gaining the right to speak. (cf. Valery, Rilke)

The premise of the artist's silence is that communication with an audience is futile. Silence becomes the ultimate tool in severing the link to the outside world. [In his book Solitude in Society, Robert Sayre identifies this moment in French literary history with the Symbolists and Decadents of the late 19th century concept of "art for art's sake."] Silence becomes part of the artist's set of tools for transcending, or, at least, of feeling superior to others.


Sontag wryly observes that the modern artist never quite reaches the point of the mystic's silence but instead goes on speaking, except that the artist's audience cannot hear or decipher the words. Silence here is simply unintelligibility. The provocations of modern art are largely due to its ideal of silence, or deliberate unintelligibility. The artist does not want an audience, and seems not to want an art that communicates to anyone else. But the audience, the community, does not go away. Art is accepted as an absolute activity (in the classical sense) and so audiences continue to identify artists (as artists themselves do) as an elite or priestly function versus the "never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity." To analyze the idea of silence is to analyze his [the artist's] various alternatives within this essentially unalterable situation."


Sontag now begins to consider what silence is in modern art. Silence cannot exist literally if the artist is not available (suicide, madness, censorship, prison, etc.). Nor can silence be the literal property of the art work. Art is not neutral, without intentionality, without the conveying of emotional resonance, without the audience's use of perception. If Cage acknowledged that there is no such thing as silence, then likewise there is no such thing as empty space. The dialectic is intrinsic to art, as up is to down or left is to right, or silence is to sound, or object is to space. "A genuine emptiness, a pure silence, are not feasible -- either conceptually or in fact."


This characteristic of dialectic is an aspect of all aesthetic programs for minimalism or reduction of means and effects. Silence used hostilely against an audience reveals intentionality, while used rhetorically does not necessarily imply hostility. Silence takes on only two types of uses: utter self-negation as art practiced badly or as grand inconsistency. It is this latter expression that Sontag observes in modern art.


"The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence," Sontag writes, "A coquettish, even cheerful nihilism. One recognizes the imperative of silence, but goes on speaking anyway. Discovering that one has nothing to say, one seeks a way to say that." The result is an impoverished art, but one with the expectation of retraining the aesthetics (and attention) of its audience.


The modern idea of reducing the means and effects of art conflicts with the intention and technique of attention, of the traditional function of the artist to name, to provoke discovery. Impoverished art promises to clarify and reduce distortion, but then everything demands attention. This leveling makes everything a totality, an "energetic secular blasphemy."


Language has been the first object of modernist attack. The debilitation of language (and art) has also obliterated a consciousness of history reduced to individual self-consciousness, a radical "intersubjectivity." Notes Sontag: "Modern art thus transmits in full the alienation produced by historical consciousness." The modern artist, however, is not aware of this situation reflexively, and continues to create art, dreaming that it is "wholly ahistorical and therefore unalienated art."


"Traditional art invites a look. Art that's silent engenders a stare. In silent art, there is (at least in principle) no release from attention, because there has never, in principle, been any soliciting of it. "


The goal of the modern artist is to make art that is inviolable, an ideal plentitude that requires no response, no engagement, a "plentitude." The result is opaqueness and impenetrability because the artist has intended a deliberate silence, an inviolability as behavior. Historically, this artistic technique was presented positively, as in classical literature revealing eternity and depth, a preparation for the beyond of the human horizon, of thought beyond thought. But that is not the modern idea.


"Behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perceptual and cultural clean slate." As such, silence is part of the artist's project for liberation, what Sontag called in the first section of the essay a spiritual project. But the purpose of art is thus frustrated, made to conjure, not to create or express. Silence must be a device for "transvaluation of art" or it becomes a self-censorship. Silence must prophesize and point to transcendence. Does the modern artist, knowing the history of art, commit bad faith?


A quote from Wittgenstein.


Speech (or language) is useful, and its dialectical opposite, silence, is useful, too. Some uses of silence:

  1. "certifying the absence or renunciation of thought" as in spiritual or religious exercises;
  2. "certifying the completion of thought" as in the terminus of intellectual work;
  3. "providing time for the continuing or exploring of thought" signifying that things are still open;
  4. "furnishing  or aiding speech to attain its maximum integrity or seriousness" where silence is used as rhetorical emphasis.

Sontag argues that the debasing of language includes the debasing of speech, images, and objects (including people and environments). There is now an ambivalence about language that strikes at the core of civilization, at specific sociological determinants. It reaches into the highest levels of social complexity and spiritual expression. One could go further than Sontag on this point and say that the crisis reaches the highest levels of consciousness, which is in most people formed almost exclusively by society.


The radical critiques of consciousness are two: the mystical tradition and that of "unorthodox psychotherapy and high modernist art."  Both traditions target language and view consciousness as a burden, namely the burden of psychological memory. Sontag notes Krishnamurti's argument that psychological memory (not factual memory) must be given up. We must stop filling up the new with the old, stop linking the new with the old, or there will be no breakthrough. Each thought and each emotion must be pursued to the end. And at the end there will be silence.


To approach this far horizon of silence, Rilke conceives of an "unmediated, trans-linguistic apprehension."  But human beings are so fallen that the redemption of language is nearly impossible. They must start simply with the naming of things. The perfection of this minimal task redeems language but also shows the path to knowledge and reality. Only then can the person pass on to more ambitious uses of language.

Yet the "overcoming of the alienation of consciousness is conceivable," Rilke believed. The spiritual project is not based on or motivated by alienation. The simplicity of naming things is at a humane scale not as ambitious as the mystics but it nevertheless refreshes the senses and frees us of violence.

The project of Rilke (and Francis Ponge) humanizes things, versus the mere cataloging and inventorying projects of modern art, which alienate us from the objects around us. Sontag names examples of the inhumane naming process include representative works of Roussel, Warhol, and Robbe-Grillet.

Rilke assumes a hierarchy of meaning. He grants significance to specific aspects or functions. In contrast, modern art pays attention to everything, making every detail necessary and important, but leaving nothing more important than anything else. Hence the catalog, inventory, the role of chance, multiplicity, and the inevitable trivialization of everything. The atomization of objects into discrete and portable is "almost a parody of the capitalist world-view," if it were not rather a parallel, leaving as sole criterion a material value determined by the market. Distance between spectator (no longer audience) and art object results in distance between spectator and emotions. This distancing is the hallmark of modern art, something that Rilke could not have anticipated.


The paradox of modern art is its silencing function applied at the same time as its babbling. "Verbosity and repetitiveness is a particularly noticeable tendency in the temporal arts of prose, fiction, music, film, and dance," states Sontag. Modern art does not want to heed traditional methods of communication, being dismissive of discourse and language. But at the same time modern art gives language great status in presenting itself as inarticulate, random, irrepressible -- striving as it were to "out-talk language, or to talk oneself into silence."

The paradox of modern art is the new aesthetic of silence accompanied by "a barely controlled abhorrence of the void." This is how modern artists are able to continually produce nearly-identical objects: the silence of its images and words reduce it meaning. If artists were to produce potent works claiming more psychic space, their total output would have to be reduced.


Much modern fiction is based not on a mastery of prose narrative but on the inspiration of oral or spoken language. While speaking differs from written language, modern fiction adopts the singular characteristic of verbosity in oral language over the discipline of written narrative.


As the language of art becomes more autonomous and self-sufficient, it also becomes more self-reflective and obliterates meaning. Meaning is here defined by Sontag as reference to entities outside of the art work as criteria. Language in modern art obliterates meaning for use.  The transformation of meaning into use is the chief characteristic of the aesthetic of silence.

But such narrative inevitably makes reference to meaning while simultaneously repelling meaning or obscuring it. The bareness of such mental environments induces anxiety. Surrealism presents everyday objects in this startling way, or combines aspects of everyday objects into new and startling combinations. "Before a fully conscious work of art," writes Sontag, "one feels something like the mixture of anxiety, detachment, pruriency, and relief." Total objects with missing parts, says Beckett, are more impressive and startling than partial objects. Such works are "open" not only stylistically but in terms of meaning. But this is the essential problem for the audience that invariably looks for closure or meaning in an artistic statement, not "openness."


Put simply, the audience sees art as expression. Modern art, with its aesthetic of silence, suggests the idea of the "ineffable" but does not deliver it. Traditional aesthetics saw "the beautiful" as expressive of the "unspeakableness, indescribability, ineffability." Modern art distinguishes communication from the presentation of Beauty. But historically, the ineffable did not reside in art but rather in religious and spiritual discourse. Modern art has appropriated the aesthetic of silence and the connotation of ineffability that accompanies silence. Likewise, the "absolute" nature of art is appropriated with silence. Sontag puts it thus:

The value placed on silence doesn't arise by virtue of the nature of art, but is derived from the contemporary ascription of certain "absolute" qualities to the art object and to the activity of the artist. ...

Art, in the modern conception, is always connected with systematic transgressions of a formal sort. The systematic violation of older formal conventions practiced by modern artists gives their work a certain aura of the unspeakable -- for instance, as the audience uneasily senses the negative presence of what else could be, but isn't being, said; and as any "statement" made in an aggressively new or difficult form tends to seem equivocal or merely vacant. But these features of ineffability must not be acknowledged at the expense of one's awareness of the positivity of the work of art. Contemporary art, no matter how much it's defined itself by a taste for negation, can still be analyzed as a set of assertions, of a formal kind.

It is important to assert the availability of a critique of art, whether classical or modern. Sontag continues:

Each work of art gives us a form or paradigm or model of knowing something, an epistemology. But viewed as a spiritual project, a vehicle of aspirations toward an absolute, what any work of art supplies is a specific model for meta-social or meta-ethical tact, a standard of decorum. Each art-work indicates the unity of certain preferences about what can and cannot be said (or represented). At the same time that it may make a tacit proposal for upsetting previously consecrated rulings on what can be said (or represented), it issues it own set of limits.


Whither silence in the modern or post-modern era?

Silence can "loud," collapsing into "the void of negative silence." Sontag excoriates this style, the apocalyptic character of its spiritual nausea, its mad, frenetic, translinguistic "incineration of consciousness and the definitive pollution of language and exhaustion of the possibilities of art-discourse." Here we find the Futurists and some Dada (and their successors).

Alternatively, silence can be "soft," a cautious extension of traditional classicism's "concern with modes of propriety, with standards of seemliness." The "soft" mode simply has a more benign personality. It still holds a "disdain for the meanings established by bourgeois rationalist culture, indeed for culture itself." An example is Cage. But the "soft" version of an aesthetics of silence can only redeem itself or remain viable by deploying "a considerable, near systematic irony." What does this irony imply?

All spiritual projects consume themselves and must be rediscovered and renewed in successive generations. Such projects constitute an unraveling of thought and invariably cannot sustain themselves over time, calling for the experience of a new set of pursuants. Art, too, is such a project. As Sontag states, modern art

has moved increasingly toward the most excruciating inflections of consciousness. Conceivably, irony is the only feasible counterweight to this grave use of art, as the arena for the ordeal of consciousness. The present prospect is that artists will go on abolishing art, only to resurrect it in a more retracted version. As long as art bears up under the pressure of chronic interrogation, it would seem a good thing that some of the questions have a certain playful quality.

But this prospect depends, perhaps, on the viability of irony itself.

Irony is always useful to the individual. For the individual, irony is "a complex, serious method of seeking and holding one's truth, ... a method of saving one's sanity." But in a collective or social setting irony may not be of use, for in these settings, direct communication is needed. Nietzsche argued that widespread irony represented the death-knell of a culture. Sontag suggests that the connection between culture and thought is already broken because art is today largely "thought" not "art" in the classical sense. Thus irony is in a sense not possible and therefore not widespread. Nevertheless, she wonders

how far the resources of irony can be stretched. It seems unlikely that the possibilities of continually undermining one's assumptions can go on unfolding indefinitely into the future, without being eventually checked by despair or by a laugh that leaves one without any breath at all.


Sontag's article is a useful perspective on the abuses of the concept of silence. The article presupposes an understanding and appreciation of silence in religious and spiritual traditions and in turn the premises of modern culture, psychology, and thought. Awareness of how alternative ideas about silence infiltrate aspects of modern cultural expression is important to a perspective about silence. As a post-modern critic, Sontag does not negotiate the transitions to a new synthesis or even suggest that one is possible. Instead, the article offer tools for an understanding of what we need to know.