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December 2, 2012

Camille Paglia Tackles “Glittering Images” in Her Latest Book

Get a snap-shot tour of Western Art with rock star critic Camille Paglia as your personal guide

By Nancy Staab

Cultural critic and provocateur Camille Paglia made her name with encyclopedic works spanning all of Western culture,--most notably, her seminal 1990 book Sexual Personae. It weighed in at nearly 700 pages and traversed Western literature and culture from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, tackling themes like art vs. nature, man vs. woman and the Dionysian vs. Apollonian impulses in art. But the erudite book read like a rollicking page-turner under Paglia’s deft execution. Next she tackled pop culture with reverence and an academe’s wisdom in her 1992 collection of essays Sex, Art and American Culture, which covered Madonna to Robert Mapplethorpe. With Break, Blow, Burn (2006), Paglia swerved from pop culture to one of the most esoteric and “uncool” mediums by today’s standards—poetry-- offering fierce, close readings of famous verse.

On Nov. 29, Paglia paid a visit to SCAD-Atlanta to promote her most recent book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars [Pantheon Books]. In it, Paglia offers a layman’s look at key pieces of Western art. The motivation behind this primer? Paglia’s fear that art history is under-taught and that art is under-valued in today’s world.In her new bookPaglia offers up an eloquent defense of the value of art education as a whole: “The only road to freedom is self-education in art. Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and dies… a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.”

On the other hand, Paglia contends that plugged-in modern sensibilities are bombarded with visual trivia on a daily basis and require some visual re-education to evaluate images and place them in historical context. In the introduction she writes, “Modern life is a sea of images. Our eyes are flooded by bright pictures and clusters of text flashing at us from every direction. The brain, over-stimulated must rapidly adapt to process this swirling barrage of disconnected data. Culture in this developed world is now largely defined by all pervasive mass media and slavishly monitored personal electronic devices…How to survive this age of vertigo? We must relearn how to see.”

At SCAD the black leather jacket-clad Paglia spoke extemporaneously and passionately about the value of art and humanities and threw out Molotov Cocktail provocations right and left (literally)—equally attacking both ends of the political spectrum. If you haven’t gathered already, Paglia is a bit of a contrarian. She relishes slaying academe’s sacred cows like political correctness, French post-structuralist theory, Marxism and the ghettoized elitism of much of university life from the inside out. Though Yale-educated and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Paglia disparages academia’s insular culture and smugness. Though an avowed liberal, she often calls out liberals for their fallacies. And though an aetheist, she fervently upholds the value of religion in culture, art and society. As for those on the right, she accuses them of a close-minded, Protestant suspicion of images that has contributed to today’s devaluation of art in our society.

To correct this problem, Paglia offers forth her slim little volume Glittering Images (stunning in its brevity at under 200 pages, given her prolific tendencies), geared not to an elite audience but to the general public. Glittering Images is an attempt by Paglia to introduce novices to the trajectory of Western Art through the prism of about two dozen, idiosyncratically chosen works ranging from “The Charioteer of Delphi” bronze circa 475 BC Greece and Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror” to a French Rococo interior, Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Sea of Ice,” Manet’s “At the Café” and Jackson Pollock’s “Green Sliver.” There are some head scratchers here like Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, performance artist Renee Cox and the random inclusion of filmmaker George Lucas at the conclusion, but then again, this is not a grand survey of art but Paglia’s own personal picks. The tome is designed so that readers can read it front to back, or dip in and out by selecting random chapters of interest.

To Paglia’s hard-core fans, this book may come as a bit of a disappointment. She does not pull out all her big words and erudition here. This is like the Cliff Notes version of Paglia, rather than Paglia fully loaded, but that was precisely her intent. With Glittering Images she is filling in some gaps for a mass audience that has perhaps never taken an art history course. In this book she gives a very brief, 3-6 page, objective overview of each art work-- melding various approaches to art history such as historical/cultural context, artist biography, and material and formal approaches. Paglia’s personal opinions about the works can only be detected in a few veiled barbs. For example: she labels the overrated Frida Kahlo as the patron saint of feminist art historians. However, for the full force of Paglia’s own voice, don’t miss her intro to the book, which is full of her trademark zingers. [See a sampling of these below.]

In the introduction Paglia explains that she modeled Glitteirng Images on “the tradition of Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints.” The reader is invited to contemplate a given work of art, “to see it as a whole, and then to scrutinize its fine details.”  

In the process of championing iconic artwork, Paglia has also become iconic.


Quotes from Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images Introduction:


“No galvanizing new [art] style has emerged since Pop Art, which killed the avant-garde by embracing commercial culture.”


“Those who subordinate art to a contemporary political agenda are as guilty of rigid liberalism and propaganda as any Victorian preacher or Stalinist bureaucrat.”


“Nothing is more hackneyed than the liberal dogma that shock value confers automatic importance on an artwork.”


“One reason for the marginalization of the fine arts today is that artists are too often addressing other artists and the in-group of hip cognoscenti. They have lost touch with the general public, whose taste and values they caricature and scorn."


“But conservatives are equally guilty of sins against culture. Despite their trumpet call for a return of education to the Western canon, they have behaved liked provincial philistines when it comes to the visual arts… American Puritanism lingers in conservative suspicions about the sorcery of beauty.”


“The creative energy of our era is flowing away from the fine arts and into new technology. Over the past century, industrial design, from streamlined automobiles and sleek home appliances to today’s intricately customized personal gadgets, has supplied aesthetic satisfaction once mainly derived from painting and sculpture….”