Gadfly of the Arts

Published December 31, 2012

National Review

She’s a fast-talking gadfly-hipster, an iconoclastic critic of the cultural world, amusing, perceptive, and (occasionally) infuriating; sometimes glib, but seldom dull. Despite her dogmatic pronouncements, she’s a sort of intellectual shapeshifter, traditional, postmodern, conservative, liberal, and, sometimes, none of the above.

Although Camille Paglia often opines on the visual arts, Glittering Images is her first book devoted solely to the subject. In it, she tries to “chart the history and styles of Western art,” in an “attempt to reach a general audience for whom art is not a daily presence.” The journey doesn’t quite reach its destination, but with Paglia at the wheel, it’s a fascinating if bumpy ride.

This handsome, well-illustrated volume opens with an essay filled with perceptive observations about the role of art in American life and the history of collecting, and some philosophical musing about the nature of art. It also includes a sensible plea for the “steady perception” and “stillness” that the contemplation of great art requires as an antidote to the blizzard of millions of flashing, ever-changing digital images that have invaded our lives.

There’s much to admire in these pyrotechnic pages, but occasionally the author’s hyperbole stumbles over common sense. For instance, when she declares that “the only road to freedom is self-education in art” or that art is “a voice of liberty” and something “without which creative intelligence will wither and die,” you’ve got to wonder how serious she is. After all, weren’t the Nazis, especially Hitler (an erstwhile artist) and his henchman Hermann Goering, devoted lovers and collectors of art, most of it looted? And what about the pharaohs, who didn’t exactly use unionized labor to build their pyramids, or influential Marxist artists and critics such as Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, who were more interested in the road to serfdom than the one to freedom? Undeniably, visual art is an important part of civilization, but to say that it’s the “only road to freedom” is to say something that is simply not true.

Paglia sees the role of art in contemporary society through a political lens, and part of her introduction rehashes the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s; neither Left nor Right escapes her contempt. She says that a liberal “monolithic orthodoxy has marooned artists in a ghetto of received opinion and cut them off from fresh ideas.” Paglia rightly deplores “the liberal dogma that shock value confers automatic importance on an artwork,” citing Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Chris Ofili’s dung-splattered The Holy Virgin Mary, both of which she correctly calls third-rate works.

But if liberals are bad, conservatives, whose momentum “has been principally powered from outside the Northeast in agrarian regions where evangelical Christianity thrives,” are worse. Glittering Images, Paglia says, was inspired by “populist” AM talk radio’s animosity toward art and artists. Conservative radio hosts and callers have a “ruling view” that the art world “is a sterile dead zone of elitist snobs and that artists are pretentious parasites and con men.” I’m not sure what Paglia is talking about. I listen to AM radio and hear nothing about art, except when callers and hosts–who are not Paglia’s toothless, knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping yahoos–denounce federally funded “art” offensive to anyone but the leftist cultural elite, “art” that she herself deplores for its sacrilegious nature (something a tad strange for an admirer of Madonna). Yet she still plumps for more federal dollars for art, something of dubious benefit to taxpayers, even as she insists that a “genuinely” avant-garde artist should never be seeking the government handout. (Of course, what constitutes “genuinely” avant-garde is impossible to define in the standardless world of contemporary art.)

When Paglia goes after the postmodern academic humanities establishment, she’s devastatingly on target. Today, many art historians and critics deem the close formal and contextual study of art and artists naïve. Instead, they x-ray art for what it really reveals about race, class, gender, colonialism, and other varieties of politically correct victimhood. Their micro-specialization, their rejection of any sort of canon or judgment of quality, and their jargon-strewn, theory-ridden prose are of interest only to the dwellers of their particular subspecialties. Writing for a lay audience can be damaging to their careers in the ivory tower, and few of them are inclined to do so.

It’s therefore not surprising that the most valuable general history of art in recent years is by Paul Johnson, a historian/journalist unencumbered by a Ph.D. His splendidly opinionated Art: A New History (2003) is the best book for a reader wanting an up-to-date, incisive, and engrossing introduction to the subject.

Admirably, Paglia, who is an academic, writes for this same reader, but her book, which attempts “to chart the history and styles of Western art,” is hobbled by a skewed selection of works; just 16 cover the millennia before 1900, very short shrift indeed, while an almost equal number were created in this and the last century. Architecture, the art form that we encounter most, gets shockingly neglected, with only three out of 29 chapters devoted to buildings. And, because the author uses just one art object to elucidate each stylistic period–Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Abstraction, and so forth–she cannot avoid distorting generalization and overstatement.

Most of the works are fine old chestnuts such as the Charioteer of Delphi, The Book of Kells, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, which have been analyzed nearly to death. This is unexpected from an author as audacious and original as Paglia, from whom we would have expected something a little less canonical and a lot more daring. The chapters on 20th-century art include some odd choices questionable in terms of both their quality and their importance, including a portrait by John Wesley Hardrick, and Eleanor Antin’s depressing black-and-white postcards of 100 boots, which Paglia credits with undeserved intellectual and visual heft.

The book’s last chapter is about a scene from the movie Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, directed by George Lucas. This is a strange choice given Paglia’s warning about the corrosive nature of the digital image and the need for “stillness” in the contemplation of art. Nevertheless, in her appreciation of Lucas, she’s at her best, and that can be very good indeed. She argues, not unconvincingly, that he may be the greatest artist in an age in which the digital technology of film has become more creative and dynamic than the traditional arts of painting and sculpture.

Paglia can also be a discerning, imaginative critic who writes with verve, as in the chapter on the Chair of Saint Peter in Saint Peter’s Basilica. This chair is a gigantic sculptural confection by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whom she calls “a staggeringly prolific executive producer.” She writes that “the billowing, gilded-stucco” clouds of carved marble surrounding Peter’s chair stream down “to boil beneath the throne,” and the light streaming from the yellow oval window “explodes through the basilica wall in a blinding sunburst” that “pulverizes” the chair’s marble cornice. Similarly, she evokes Jackson Pollock’s Green Silver as “a weather system and mental universe, a neurological map crisscrossed by image and impulse” and as “an ecstatic jabber of chance spills, bursts, and skidding phrases.” Everywhere she sees fabrics, colors, and surfaces with an artist’s gimlet eye.

But this has a downside: Too often her writing is heavy on description and light on insightful interpretation. We learn much about how an object looks, but not enough about how it ticks, about how a
ll its parts coalesce magically to form something extraordinary, something that’s capable of stirring our emotions and lodging itself in our memory.

And sometimes Paglia spins out of control, as when she suggests that Donatello’s emaciated Mary Magdalene might be a self-portrait or even a portrait of his mother; or that Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune is really about the sitter’s penis, and that the painter “reinforces the innuendo of an erection with the stiff trident shaft and tree-trunk mast, bound with cable”; or, when describing Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, she sees a dangling bow on a sash looking “mischievously like a scrotum and uncut penis.” Reviewing an earlier book by Paglia, John Updike said it felt like “less a survey than a curiously ornate harangue.” That’s true for much of Glittering Images.

It’s hard to know who will profit from this book. Certainly someone wanting a balanced and comprehensive introduction to Western art will find much of it too slim, overly polemical, and idiosyncratic. But for those interested in reading Paglia’s provocative, sometimes insightful, and often original musings on art and artists, Glittering Images will fit the bill.

Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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