Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review: Glittering Images by Camille Paglia










If you try to take Camille Paglia seriously, despite the occasional insight you might find along the way, in the end it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that you’ve made a category error.

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars by Camille Paglia. Pantheon, 224 pages, $30.

By Harvey Blume

It’s no fun to take Camille Paglia seriously. Not rewarding. It could be the effort is, as someone remarked similarly about Slavoj Zizek, a category error. But in thinking about the opening pages of Paglia’s new book, it occurs to me that there is a simple way of describing her. Her pronouncements about art, literature and assorted other topics over the course of her career (including, back in her heyday, when she regularly mounted a salon.com soapbox, strictures about how Madonna should sing and Hillary Clinton dress) have this in common: behind them there is a demagogue trying to get out.

Camille Paglia needs to rule. Only her dictates can save us from all that is eating away at civilization as she insists that we know it. Only she can defeat the feminists she despises (as opposed to one or two she spares); only she can rescue literature from literary theory (she pronounces “LacanFoucaultDerrida” as if it were one dirty word, the name of a Francophone tumor preying on the American mind).

In the new book she wants to rescue us from the “vertigo” of digital distraction and social media. She complains in her introduction that “the genre of painting has lost its primacy and authority.” For this she blames the “tragic complacency” of the curators and directors of major art institutions. She will cut through that exhausted curatoriat and help, indeed, force us, “to relearn how to see.”

It doesn’t give Paglia a second’s pause that perhaps painting, along with sculpture, has lost its traditional role not because the likes of Phillip Montebello, for example, ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum, was a slacker or a dolt — he presided, among other things, over the creation of a superb Greco-Roman gallery, though of course Paglia herself would have done better — but because other visual arts, from the beginning of the twentieth century on, have come into being. Photography, film, television and now an overflow of digital possibilities all lay claim to talent and attention.

Her response to complexity is simple: rave. Not to rave is not to care. So she raves about the turn from painting to other media — what the despised postmodernists of Paris might have helpfully called the decenteredness of painting. Had she read and absorbed Marshal Mcluhan she might be less shocked yes shocked that the electronic age has provided so much competition to the paintbrush and the pedestal.

Had she read and absorbed Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), she might appreciate that media transitions are not doomed to be zero sum. According to Benjamin, yes, something precious is lost when a painting is stripped, by reproduction, of what he called its “aura”, its one-of-a-kind, almost human presence in space and time. But something no less valuable is gained when, by dint of the same technological revolution, film reveals motion as never seen before. Benjamin compares the painter to a magician and the cameraman to a surgeon and does not feel compelled to choose between their arts. His thoughts on this subject remain enchanting and substantial. Both Mcluhan and Benjamin were moved to reflect deeply about new media, as, too, was Plato, when, in the Phaedrus, he wondered about the harm that would be caused to an oral tradition by the new medium of alphabetic text.

These thinkers left plenty to think about. They did not just rave.

***

I had the unpleasant experience of interviewing Camille Paglia in 1995. In preparation for an interview I try to immerse myself as fully as I can in the subject’s work. Most people like talking about their work with an informed, sympathetic, not necessarily uncritical interlocutor. Not Camille Paglia. I can’t help but chuckle, at this remove, when I think of her summarily saying: “Stop talking to me. It gives me a headache. Just ask questions. I give answers.”

I felt insulted, almost walked off and left her with her headache, but heeled. The results were instructive.

Paglia told me she had been inspired by psychedelics and psychedelic culture, and liked to call her style of writing “psychedelic criticism” since there was a lot of “reverb” in it, just like in “acid rock.” She affirmed that she herself had never had a psychedelic experience, had never, in brief, tripped. She nevertheless felt entitled to speak for psychedelic experience — that “revolutionary, hallucinatory, and mystic way of seeing” — better than those who had indulged, better, by far, she opined, than Grateful Dead fans parading around in their “tie-died tee-shirts”. For Paglia, a contact high — but not from Deadheads — was all the revelation she needed.

She confirmed, as well, that she had never participated in sadomasochistic sex. Still, to my mind, the best bit in her diffuse Sexual Personae was the chapter on Rousseau, in which she managed to correlate his sex life (as expressed in his Confessions) to his politics. As a boy Jean-Jacques was regularly draped over the lap of his lovely governess for spankings he came to relish. As an adult, he saw women as potential spankers and himself as an aspiring spankee. Rousseau is best known for writing: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. But in his sexual fantasies he kept some chains around. Paglia, to be sure, had no firsthand experience of this type to draw on. What she owes to Jean-Jacques is her eye-opening contact spank.

Something of the same approach — a curious bifurcation hovering between disingenuousness and hypocrisy — marks Glittering Images. “The arts are fighting a rearguard action,” she writes, “their very survival at stake.” The minds of children are especially at risk, and demand “rescue from the torrential stream of flickering images, which addict them to seductive distractions.”

How peculiar then — how typically Paglia — that this book, which is meant to be a sort of primer on art history, and to serve as an example for grade school curricula, concludes with a prolonged gush of enthusiasm for George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith (2005). Paglia has no end of praise for this, the sixth and most digital entry in the Star Wars saga, in which, as she sees it, George Lucas “closed the gap between art and technology”

It somehow doesn’t bother her that the movie is embedded completely, as she notes, in “the gargantuan cosmos of Star Wars cartoons, video games, novels, handbooks, action figures, plastic kits, and Web sites.” Nor that it makes a substantial contribution to the “torrential stream of flickering images” that can disturb and derange young minds.

The tale is told that Alec Guinness, aka Obi-Wan Kenobi, once agreed to give an autograph to a young fan only on condition that the child gave up watching Star Wars. Obsessive viewing was the hypnotic dark side of the force. Other things — books, paintings, films — deserved attention.

Paglia herself was apparently never visited by Obi-Wan in his shimmering ghostly form to caution her against ending a book on the history of art with Star Wars. Would she have listened? Probably not. For her, art history, which began millennia ago, as per Glittering Images, in Pharaonic Egypt, ends in our time with the $135 million Revenge of the Sith.

If you try to take Camille Paglia seriously, despite the occasional insight you might find along the way, in the end it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that you’ve made a category error.

***

“This book,” she says about Glittering Images, “was motivated by my dismay at the open animosity toward art and artists that I have heard on American AM talk radio over the past two decades.” Longtime Paglia readers can confirm that she is an avid listener to AM talk radio. A 1999 column she wrote for salon.com hinged on the following: “Within 24 hours of the opening of the present show, local radio talk shows in New York and Philadelphia were seething with allegations about the Jewish presence on the Brooklyn Museum’s board and administration.”

The show in question to was the second at the Brooklyn Museum to arouse furor, including threats by then Mayor Rudolf Giuliani to defund the borough's popular museum. The piece most offensive to Paglia, the Mayor and AM talk radio callers, was “The Holy Virgin Mary”, by Nigerian/British painter Chris Ofili.

This was a dark-skinned Madonna, on a canvas that included floating images of female genitalia. Some people seethed to find the Virgin in dark-toned, Nubian featured, non-virginal contexts. This can’t but bring to mind how often Muslims seethe when they detect what they take to be off-color representations of Muhammad. One reason not to push this analogy too far, though, is that Ofili, unlike the hacks behind the current, stupidly offensive, anti-Muslim video, is, in fact a talented artist, who was not out to insult Mary, though that would be well within his rights, so much as to Africanize and sexualize her. Ofili used cakes of varnished elephant dung as stands for the canvas. Elephant dung can have positive connotations in African contexts. But try explaining that on New York/Philadelphia AM Talk Radio.

Did Paglia try? Can you imagine her calling in to reason with the seething? No, when she turned on the radio she enjoyed a contact seethe, and wrote a column that debuted under the inflammatory title: “Why are a Jewish collector and a Jewish museum director promoting anti-Catholic art?” This was Paglia’s inner demagogue unleashed at its most vulgar — and unforgiveable.

As for the extinction event Paglia feels is threatening art, and that Glittering Images was written to forestall, it’s worth noting that as of this writing MoMA is proposing to stay open seven days a week instead of six in order to accommodate a crush of visitors whose number has doubled in the last eight years. We have multiple choices, then. There are museums and galleries which seem, contra Paglia, to be thriving. Or you can go along with the flow of AM talk radio, never daring to contradict. Or you can download Revenge of the Sith, ignore Alec Guinness’s admonition, and follow along yet again as Anakin Skywalker completes his journey to the dark side.

You can even do all three.


** from Karen Bridson
I have so ached for someone to write something thoughtful and compelling that is critical of Camille Paglia. This is because a good ten percent of what she says and writes I find so over-the-top that I don’t want to believe her. Yet I feel compelled to accept what she says because, like the other 90 percent of what she says, makes so much bloody sense. She is a Herculean academic whose ideas seem to finally stitch the world together for me. But I want someone with chops as great as hers to try to knock her down so that I don’t just full stop take what she says as fact. But this ‘review’ seems like romper room compared to the level of polemic Paglia engages in. The philosophic connections you draw make no sense and it seems as though you simply took this chance to grind your axe with her. Disappointing.

** from Ryan
You are so completely off the mark with this review. I would suggest you stop trying to wrestle with Paglia’s ideas since it is obvious you don’t know what you’re talking about. Anti-Semitism?! Paglia has written at length about her admiration of Jews and their influence on her intellectual development. Your accusation is insulting. And do you really think Paglia forgot to read McLuhan? Again, she has referenced McLuhan many times in her work. Like the above commenter said, you are woefully unprepared to mount any intellectual challenge to Paglia.

**

yes, she writes about jewish intellectual achievements. then she posts an inflammatory piece of garbage entitled: "why are a jewish collector and a jewish museum director promoting anti-catholic art?” on the one hand, oft-repeated reverence for harold bloom, and on the other, gutter antisemitism. sorry you can't see it. i called her bifurcated. and so, to put mildly, she is. (for a fuller treatment of her reviews of the sensation shows, neither of which, astoundingly, she actually bothered to attend, see the american prospect, http://prospect.org/article/oops-she-did-it-again).

same with mcluhan: sure she read him. but when it comes to thinking about why painting is not the center of visual art it's as if she never has. better to rage against museum directors and damn the art world in her inimitable soapbox style.

i said, in my response to karen bridson, what i once found valuable about paglia.

it's interesting that neither bridson, who professed to find paglia "herculean", nor you, have done as much. you prefer, after the manner of paglia herself, to rage and insult. perhaps it's just paglia's never less than enragée style that you find compelling about her.

** from ryan
In discussing the Sensation show and the Ofili painting, she was making a general observation of how it is considered “cool” and “hip” in the art world to poke fun at or denigrate Christian iconography. This may be one of the reasons, she thinks, that Christians have no respect for high art. They see it as blasphemous and childish. Like Serrano’s Piss Christ, the art world elevates these types of work, simply because they are shocking and.offensive, without explanation of what these works are doing, what they mean, etc. And she is highlighting the fact that any work that dared to do the same things to Jewish iconography would cause an uproar. As a Jew, how would you feel if the Torah was smeared with shit or the Star of David was pissed on? Again, she is only trying to explain why art has no prestige in America and why the art world is so keen on profaning religious imagery.

• 10/3/12


here's what serrano lately said about the work (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/nyregion/catholic-leader-turned-away-at-exhibit-he-deemed-offensive.html?ref=nyregion):

. . . he said, the work is about his personal love of Jesus, and Jesus’s bodily torment on the cross, during which, Mr. Serrano believes, not only blood, but all Jesus’s bodily fluids, including urine, spilled out.

 “The thing that offends me is that they characterize me as being an anti-Christian bigot,” he said, “and that’s far from the truth. They are barking up the wrong tree when they are saying I am not a Christian.”

i invited you to read my longer piece about paglia's take on the sensation shows. in it i said that catholicism expresses itself brilliantly and variously through (though not only through) visual media.

serrano was contending with his tradition, critiquing and personalizing it through visual media. i've seen other work of his. he works with catholicism — its beauty, hierarchy, distances, and power — visually. he does not, no matter the media furor— to which paglia ever ready with her penchant for demagoguery contributed — mean to abuse it. though, of course, he has every right to abuse and disown it. to piss right on it, if he wants, which he doesn't.

this is america. last i looked we hold the right to disavow religion, well, sacred.

as jews often do judaism.

have you ever read  phillip roth? do you have any idea of the hostility he engendered among jews for "portnoy’s complaint"? the hatred? the death threats?

to (over) simplify: catholics have the benefit of a rich visual tradition. jews (oversimplifying again) have worked more with text.

> As a Jew, how would you feel if the Torah was smeared with shit . . .

as i sd in the piece i've referred to about paglia and the sensation shows, the nazis did that. it didn't stop with torah scrolls. so sorry, it's a ticklish subject. . .

nor am i talking about jews — or anybody else — walking into a church and defiling religious imagery.

i thought we were talking about art.

karen bridson said she found a "good ten percent" of what paglia writes "over-the-top", as opposed to the rest, which, to her, "makes so much bloody sense." i'd reverse that ratio. i'd say 10 percent of what paglia wrote was timely, necessary, and brilliant. the other ninety percent is boilerplate or foaming at the mouth. or silly, as in concluding glittering images with "revenge of the sith."


• 10/15/12
JD says:
There have been other writers critical of Paglia… Molly Ivins wrote a witty review of Paglia’s first book back in 1990, in which Ivins pointed out Paglia continual tendency to overgeneralize… I admire Paglia as an interesting “character” who stimulates thought, even when one disagrees with her… not taking her too seriously is probably the best way to enjoy her…

**
i can live with that assessment. problem is she encourages all or nothing, turns too many readers into followers, disciples. she promotes genuflection and surrender. it's all: camille has spoken. . . yeah, you're right. if one must take her at all, it's best not too seriously.



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