From time to time, this column dialogues with a reader who offers a thought on art that warrants discussion. The reader, Kestrel (Kessie) Sanocki, age 19, shared an Essay on photographer Diane Arbus written last year as a student at Bryn Mawr College that asked if Arbus' camera work is art.

She began by noting Arbus' early work on fashion shoots that idealized beauty, which later changed to portrayals of people who don't fit the accepted aesthetic mold. The essay also countered the opinions of celebrated culture critic Susan Sontag who faulted Arbus' lens work as exploitative "to elicit a disgusted response." Kessie made a good case that Sontag was wrong, saying that Arbus' imagery "may not be the idealized image of humanity, but that doesn't make it any less real."

The naked truth

One of Arbus' photographs cited in the essay is "Retired Man and his Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp," 1963, describing a middle-aged man and woman sitting in their living room and looking into the camera.

Except for their state of undress, they are a typical looking couple past their prime – far from pinups.

This is a good place to expand on Kessie's argument and attempt to say what art is. The quick answer is that it's about everything you can think of. It's what you bring to it. In this image I see uncertainty. The man sits with hands that grip the arms of his chair, the way you would if you felt threatened. The woman sits forward as if ready to spring into action. There's also a framed picture hanging on the wall behind them of a sultry female. Why did the couple hang something so far from what they look like? The answer is up to you. The art experience is not passive.

Look who's calling who 'shocking' and 'disgusting'

Normally, this column agrees with Sontag, but her take on Arbus puts her squarely in line with Third Reich. The Fuhrer even spoke of "the right kind of art," uncontaminated by real life. Art, he said, "must be cleansed of all manifestations of our rotting world." Shades of Sontag calling Arbus' work "grotesque, shocking, disgusting." Her view has the ring of the fascist aesthetic.

Where was her shock and disgust at all art that fetishizes women? I'm thinking of photographer Bill Brand's depictions of women made to look defenseless, like the one tied to a chair with a hood over her head (guillotine-style). Reduced to a mere torso, she gives the impression of incapacity. He even pushed the point and pictured a frontally nude female with her arms cut off.

Passivity incarnate. But wait, isn't the Venus de Milo, long worshipped as the ideal beauty, armless? Compared to all the fetishizing of females in art, Arbus photographs are downright venerating.

Note: In the interest of transparency, Kessie is my granddaughter, now beginning studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.