Thinking and Feeling: Sontag on Bresson


22 May 2011

I’ve been thinking about art that makes you “feel” and art that makes you “think” and the intersection/layering thereof.  Your comments please (specific examples especially welcome) on the following, from Susan Sontag‘s 1964 essay on French filmmaker Robert Bresson (a master, in Sontag’s opinion, of “reflective art”):

Some art aims directly arousing the feelings; some art appeals to the feelings through the route of intelligence.  There is art that involves, that creates empathy.  There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.

Great reflective art is not frigid.  It can exalt the spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make him weep.  But its emotional power is mediated.  The pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality.  Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser degree, postponed.  […]

In reflective art, the form of the work of art is present in an emphatic way.

The effect of the spectator’s being aware of the form is to elongate or to retard the emotions.  For, to the extent that we are conscious of form in a work of art, we become somewhat detached; our emotions do not respond in the same way as they do in real life.  Awareness of form does two things simultaneously: it gives a sensuous pleasure independent of the “content,” and it invites the use of intelligence.


2 Responses to “Thinking and Feeling: Sontag on Bresson”

  1. Lisa Peet Says:

    Well, if you’re going to set up a dichotomy between the two you probably can’t do better than Bresson, who was such a master at that flat, restrained kind of film. But her point falls apart to various degrees once you get out of that box. Some of my favorite art experiences are those where I find myself toggling back and forth between feeling and thinking without any idea which generates which. And while it’s not my across-the-board favorite genre by a longshot, when minimalist art is done well I think it gets right to the heart of that, because you’re not getting caught up in the middleman of media (if that makes any sense at all). It’s form and emotion in a wonderful one-two punch that keeps delivering.

    Fred Sandback comes to mind, just because we saw his work recently at DIA Beacon and it provoked an instantaneous reaction — we both looked at each other and cracked up laughing (I doubt the photos do the pieces justice — you probably have to see them in situ). And we kept going back to look at them and marvel at how he managed to get such a gut response out of a few strands of strung yarn. It involved without empathy; provoked reflection without detachment. And that’s just a f’rinstance… there’s enough good art out there to disprove anyone’s thesis. Fortunately.

    I don’t even know if that answers your question! But that’s what it made me think about.

    • sonyachung Says:

      It’s a great example, I’d cite Rothko in that vein. But then, as far as literature goes… we don’t have the visual element to instantaneously seize the mind and heart in one punch, right? It’s a slower process that can arguably be dissected in the way that Sontag does. Bresson “reads” more like literature in some ways.

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