A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars
Pantheon: 202 pp., $30
In the 1990s Camille Paglia established herself as a cultural critic to be reckoned with. Her daring "Sexual Personae" enraged feminists, even as it presented a view of culture, sexuality and control that offered little comfort to conservatives hoping to convert even more Americans to the cult of conventionality. Chaos, Paglia emphasized, might be contained for a while, but it would always find its way back into our lives. And that wasn't something to be lamented.
Paglia was a radical libertarian eager to puncture sanctimony wherever she found it — either in the progressive pieties of political correctness or in the hypocrisy of fundamentalist hucksters hacking away at other people's pleasures.
She enjoyed a fight, or at least she recognized that fights made good copy and pumped up sales. She liked to throw around the word "Stalinist" and was herself compared to both a Nazi and to Phyllis Schlafly by prominent feminist authors. Paglia particularly enjoyed polemics against pretentious academics, reserving some of her nastiest and most amusing tirades for the followers of highfalutin French theory. This too was a guaranteed audience pleaser.
In the last decade we have seen a kinder and gentler Camille Paglia as she has moved from critical polemic to cultural appreciation. In "Break, Blow, Burn" she turned her attention to what she considered great poetry in English — from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell. Taking a page (and perhaps a business plan) from her mentor Harold Bloom, Paglia wrote in that book that in "this time of foreboding about the future of Western culture, it is crucial to identify and preserve our finest artifacts." She collected 43 mostly canonical poems and wrote a little about each in the hope the inspiration she found in them would be contagious.
"Glittering Images" continues this project — this time with brief discussions of 29 works of visual art. Whereas "Break, Blow, Burn" sought to help us hear again the strongest poetic voices, this volume wants to help readers "find focus" amid the "torrential stream of flickering images."
Paglia's goal is straightforward: By offering images of great artworks and helping us to give them sustained attention, she hopes that readers will "relearn how to see" with sustained pleasure and insight. Protesting against the intense animosity toward the arts she sees in American popular culture, Paglia wants her readers to recognize the deep feeling, craft and originality that went into the works she has chosen.
The range of art discussed is enormous, though there are few surprises in the Paglia canon. She begins with Nefertari's tomb and offers a few pages on religion and politics in ancient Egypt and on Egyptology since Napoleon. The anonymous artisans who built the tomb "were faithful messengers of the cultural code," linking profound cultural truths to elegant visual representation. Paglia's sympathy for the intersection of religion and art serves her well in the early chapters of the book, as she discusses objects that were venerated for more than their aesthetic power.
Given her penchant for polemic, it was odd to discover that "Glittering Images" has no argument. Her brief discussions of the objects have the flavor of the textbook or Wikipedia, with occasional anachronistic comments linking them to present concerns. It's probably a good thing that Paglia makes no attempt to sustain a narrative about art over the ages; instead she offers reflections on why she finds, say, Donatello's Mary Magdalene so powerfully enigmatic, or why Bronzino's mannerism has "a polished theatricality but an unsettling stasis."
It would be silly to complain about the particular works that Paglia has chosen. They all repay vision and reflection, and that, after all, is her point. The critic sometimes seems to believe, with George Grosz, that "great art must be discernible to everyone," and I suppose that's why she concludes her survey with the limited imagination but visual virtuosity of George Lucas.
In her final chapter she writes as if popularity is a key sign of artistic greatness, though she knows that many of the artists she most admires were not at all part of the popular culture of their times. They often struggled to be seen, but that doesn't mean that fame was their ultimate artistic goal.
I'm not sure why Paglia worries so that the fine arts today have lost touch with the masses, that they "are shrinking and receding everywhere in the world." Sure, her favorite AM talk radio shows often make fun of artists. But people have been making fun of artists for a very long time. Meanwhile, contemporary photographers, painters, sculptors and videographers pursue their practice with intensity and patience, with craft and concept.
Toward the end of "Glittering Images," Paglia writes with appropriate and infectious admiration about Eleanor Antin's mail art project 100 Boots. Paglia notes that the "boots, like their creator, are outsiders, eternal migrants questing for knowledge and experience."
Artists, questing outsiders, are still with us, still finding their way, making their way. Perhaps some of them will be inspired by the glittering images Camille Paglia offers here.
Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of "Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past."