Susan Sontag: A Cool Cultural Icon Visits Antioch
In the spring of 1965, Antioch College presented a lecture series on “The Shape of Things to Come in America.” Civil rights, avant-garde music, and computers were just a few of the topics.
Writer and social critic Susan Sontag was one of the speakers. In the decades after this lecture, her books and essays would come to influence how we think about photographic images, pop culture, and illness.
Sontag was 32 when she came to Yellow Springs in April of 1965, but she’d already made a name for herself in literary circles. She’d just taken a leave from teaching, and was on the campus lecture circuit, speaking at schools like Princeton, Yale, Brown, and Antioch.
In the WYSO Archives, we have tape of Susan Sontag’s speech in Antioch’s Kelly Hall Auditorium. As she lights a cigarette and reads her prepared talk, we can’t help but hear the cool sophistication in her voice. She spoke of the seeming divisions between art and science, and of bringing the same level of intellectual engagement to popular culture as to so-called high culture. She even compares a song by The Supremes, or Dionne Warwick to Beethoven quartets or Giacometti sculpture, stating that all could be enjoyed equally.
Nick Muska, Antioch class of 1965, remembers Sontag’s address. It’s been 51 years, but the thing he remembers most, which you can’t hear on the recording, is her dress. He recalls she was wearing a long, satin evening dress, strapless, with matching red satin opera gloves. He also remembers her smoking through the entire lecture. “I think I visualize a cigarette holder but I really can’t remember.”
It was midday on a Tuesday, and she was dressed like one of the pop singers referenced in her talk. She was an intellectual diva, the embodiment of wit and glamour, and the students were gaga over her.
Because it was Antioch, Nick didn’t think the students were stunned by her dress at that time, but he does remember her as quite a strikingly beautiful woman, and that everybody was mooning over her. But as to the content of her writing at the time? “I have no idea,” he said. “I was probably in a trance, looking at her in that red gown.”
Dan McInnis, a photographer who’s taught at Wittenberg University, also listened to the WYSO Archives’ recording. He uses one of Susan Sontag’s most influential books in his courses. On Photography was published in 1977. According to Dan, pretty much every undergraduate worth their salt needs to read the book, and definitely graduate students. He has a copy that looks ragged and is filled with notes; it’s just one of those books he’s gone through again and again.
Dan even has a cat named Sontag. When he listened to the archival tape, he was blown away by the timeliness of her topics and their relevance to today. “Between 1965 and now,” said Dan, “we have seen an explosion of art, not just photography, but many different mediums, that approach or are completely a mix of science and technology, whether it’s more specific areas like biology, physics, astrophysics and art.”
Susan Sontag was a 1990 Macarthur Fellow, whose controversial trips to ravaged cities like Hanoi and Sarajevo would yield indictments against war and suffering. She battled cancer as well as detractors who found her brash personal style and brand of cultural criticism provocative. Which she was, red dress and all. Sontag died in 2004; she was 71.
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