“Arbus’s work is a good instance of a leading tendency of high art in capitalist countries: to suppress (or at least reduce) moral and sensory queasiness. 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 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 (moving and still) and in print has a stiff price. 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. What happens to people’s feelings on first exposure to today’s neighborhood pornographic film or to tonight’s televised atrocity is not so different from what happens when they first look at Arbus’s photographs.”
—Susan Sontag, from “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly”
In memory of P.J.S. on her fifty-eighth birthday.
“January 1991: War is bestowed like electroshock on the depressive nation: thousands of volts jolting the system, an artificial galvanizing, one effect of which is loss of memory. War comes at the end of the twentieth century as absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, their country, is a measure of that failure.”
— Adrienne Rich, from What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)