Long an incisive cultural critic, a dedicated teacher and a nimble-minded writer, Camille Paglia is known for her polarizing opinions on everything from politics (she’s voting Green Party this year) to pop culture (she recently confessed her love for Real Housewives of New Jersey, which she says is a more accurate depiction of the state’s residents than The Sopranos, which she hated).
Paglia continues to walk down her own unique path with her latest book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, a fascinating, uncommonly accessible look at the history of images in Western art. CityBeat recently touched base with the 65-year-old provocateur via email to ask why unconventional thought is important and why she would proclaim George Lucas the “greatest artist of our time.”
CityBeat: Glittering Images covers a lot of historical ground in a relatively compact package. How did you decide what to include in the book and what to leave out?
Camille Paglia: My entire goal in writing this book, which took five years, was to produce as concise a handbook as possible to the gorgeous procession of styles in Western art, from antiquity to the present. The problem with most books that have attempted this kind of vast historical range — like H.W. Janson’s History of Art, which was published in 1962 — is that they end up huge, heavy and unwieldy. Janson’s book, for example, weighs 7 1/2 pounds!
Glittering Images is also a protest against the pretentious coffee table art book, which people look at once and then use as décor. It was very difficult to cut down my long list of candidates for the book to these 29 chapters. On my book tour, there are a few stops — such as the Cincinnati stop on Nov. 12 — where I will be showing over 30 images of works that I considered for the book but then cut for a variety of reasons. These range from High Gothic rose windows to modern fashion photography. The ultimate reason was always space — it was crucial that this book remain slim and inviting for the general reader. I am trying to reach an audience that doesn’t normally buy or look at art books.
CB: You shed new light on even the most well known of the images you’ve chosen to discuss. Can you talk about the importance of iconoclastic thought, especially in relation to topics that would seem to have long since been solidified in conventional wisdom?
CP: The introduction to Glittering Images is a manifesto declaring that the age of the avant-garde is dead. Shock or iconoclastic art belongs to the great oppositional period of Romanticism, which began in the late 18th century but has now lost its purpose and fervor. Too many of today’s artists and critics are parasitically living off the great achievements of the true radicals of the past. Subversive or transgressive art and thought were always costly, resulting in ostracism or poverty. Now it gets you celebrated by The New York Times and wins you a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts or a lucrative gig at Berkeley.
Shock gestures have become tired and empty. Artists and academics need to wake up and reconnect with the real world and the vast mainstream audience out there whom they are always snidely defaming and stereotyping. In my view the last authentic avant-garde art was made in the 1970s by Robert Mapplethorpe, whose luminous photographs documented the gay sadomasochistic underground. Everything else since then that pretends to be avant-garde is mainly cheap gimmickry.
CB: How has teaching impacted your writing?
CP: Thank you for this excellent question! The entire basis of my work as well as my powers of observation as a social critic comes from my practical grounding in the classroom over the past 40 years.
As a teacher, I have always been on the front lines, observing cultural change from semester to semester. I don’t read prepared lectures to my classes — I’m always in essence doing improv, constantly monitoring what they know or don’t know. While there is a list of set subjects I cover every term, I have always rejected the day-by-day, week-by-week syllabus, which I regard as too rigid. A teacher should have more flexibility to respond to the moment, because each group of students is different.
Also, professors at the elite universities get the same kind of student all the time — academically proficient and headed toward high-status, high-income careers. The students at the small arts schools where I have taught come from a wide variety of preparations — from suburban to inner-city or rural schools. So my grades range from A to D or F — and the students know the grading is fair. Giving even a B plus at Princeton, for example, can incite angry phone calls from parents!
It is precisely because of my long experience in teaching such a range of students that I am able to communicate in accessible language to the general audience. I have often said that Susan Sontag (with whom I had a colorful feud in the early 1990s) made a serious error when she left graduate school and made her living simply as a pampered celebrity lecturer. She never had a real job, with all its frustrations and limitations. I believe that Sontag’s thinking and writing would have been much stronger had she stayed on track and become a teacher.
CB: You tout George Lucas as the “greatest artist of our time.” That is a pretty bold assertion, as many have blamed him for the abundance of vacuous, effects-driven blockbusters that populate the movie slate today. I don’t necessarily find him responsible for filmmakers who have a lesser grasp of the medium than he does, or for studios that see the genre as one of the few remaining dependable sources of box office. But I do have to say that the Star Wars prequels went far too far into the digital realm — specifically the action sequences featuring flying ships and the like — thus falling prey to what you warn against in your introduction: “Amid so much jittery visual clatter, it is crucial to find focus.” I felt like I was stuck in a clunky video game instead of a plausible alternate universe wherein I could suspend my disbelief. I also find Lucas’ latter-day tinkering with the artistic integrity of the older Star Wars films as blasphemous — in fact, the technical limitations of that era (one of the ships was made from a shoe!) actually gave those films a humanity the more recent trilogy lacks. That’s a long way to ask: Is technology stunting our creativity (I’ll leave humanity out of this for the moment), essentially dulling our senses/imaginations into submission?
CP: It was never my original intention to include George Lucas in Glittering Images. However, when I tried to find strong examples of contemporary art to end the book with, I was very frustrated. Everything seemed derivative to me. Nothing could hold up to the masterpieces from antiquity to modernism that I had included. I kept stumbling on the Star Wars films being shown back to back on Spike TV, and I slowly became obsessed with the long finale of Revenge of the Sith — the duel on the volcano planet of Mustafar, followed by the tortured fabrication of Darth Vader and the birth of the twins Luke and Leia.
After being immersed in that finale for so long — and also researching how it was made — I honestly believe it is the most emotionally compelling and significant work of art in any genre in the past 30 years. It is a combination of grand opera and apocalyptic nature painting. It stuns the senses. People have got to sweep away their past prejudices about Lucas and really look at the Sith finale with fresh eyes. Lucas is a figure of vast global achievement and impact. No other living artist — including in literature — has left such an amazing body of original work. He and his creations have become so familiar to us that he is too much taken for granted and underestimated.
CB: What would you say to those who deem Steve Jobs the greatest artist of our time?
CP: It is absurd to call Steve Jobs an artist. There is not a scintilla of spiritual meaning in anything he has done. He is an industrial designer — and a very great one. This is exactly why I say in the introduction to Glittering Images that industrial design has become the dominant artistic form of the past century, beginning with the minimalist aesthetic of De Stijl and the Bauhaus. My argument is that young people’s primary aesthetic responses these days is coming from their appreciation of the latest beautifully engineered hand-held device. But Western culture is going to decline fast if the fine arts are truly at such a dead end. This is exactly why I have written this book — to lure young people into exploring art, which has a spiritual dimension.
CB: In this contentious election year, I’m curious about your opinion of contemporary U.S. politics.
CP: I follow politics closely and am deeply disturbed by what I feel to be simplistic, polarized thinking and rampant clichés on both sides. The mutual lack of respect and the default style of shrill defamation are very troubling. While I am a registered Democrat who voted for and contributed to Barack Obama in 2008, I am voting for the Green Party’s Jill Stein for president this year — primarily because of this administration’s policy of endless war, including the foolish incursion into Libya. There is a huge need for a strong third-party movement in this country.
CB: Finally, given the complete disregard for the arts among many conservatives, what role do artists and those who want to support them have in America today?
CP: I am trying to reach conservatives with Glittering Images. One of my target audiences, in fact, is church-going, home-schooling moms. A primary motivation for the book was the mocking disrespect for art and artists that I have heard from hosts and callers on talk radio over the past 20 years. Artists — and especially abstract painters — are viewed as snobs, hucksters and con men. But I blame the art world for this deplorable situation. It was the art world’s automatic defense of third- and fourth-rate works of rote sacrilege like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” that created its present debased public image.
I am calling for vastly increased government support of the arts, but I am also saying that no genuinely avant-garde artist should be on the government dole. Glittering Images, which demonstrates the spirituality of art from Egyptian tombs to the great drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, is part of my crusade of outreach to conservatives. I am saying that it is hypocritical of conservatives to claim to support the Western cultural tradition and yet to remain so indifferent to and ignorant of art. My introduction gives a reason for that: The American conservative movement has been mainly powered from Southern evangelical Protestantism, which descends from the iconoclasm of radical reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who destroyed medieval Catholic statues and stained-glass windows as idolatrous. For the welfare and cultivation of their children, conservatives need to make an effort to educate themselves about art. That is the only way that the culture wars in this country will be healed.
CAMILLE PAGLIA discusses Glittering Images at 7 p.m. Monday at Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center.