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.