All that glitters is not gold

Dec 06, 2012

New York Times Book Review
November 30, 2012
Paglia on Art

A Journey Through Art From Egypt to “Star Wars”
By Camille Paglia
Illustrated. 202 pp. Pantheon Books. $30.
Camille Paglia’s new personalized “journey” through Western art history was born of her deep-­seated concern that Americans today are so overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of visual images that we are in danger of losing altogether our capacity for contemplation. “Culture,” she writes in the introduction to Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars
“is now largely defined by all-pervasive mass media and slavishly monitored personal electronic devices.” The digital revolution has heated up our social interaction to the point where it has severely damaged our ability for sustained analytical thought, making the aesthetic encounter fraught with jarring interruptions and the chatter of competing visual and aural stimuli. Looking at art, then, is a discipline Paglia believes will help us retrieve the necessary stillness that can “realign our senses and produce a magical tranquillity.” Hence “Glittering Images,” a primer of sorts that takes its reader on a tour of 29 of Paglia’s favorite artworks, a list that includes the “Laocoön”; Donatello’s “Mary Magdalene”; paintings by Jacques-Louis David, Monet and Picasso; as well as examples of more recent trends like Pop, Conceptual, Land and Performance Art.

Anyone who has been following the body count of the culture wars over the past decades knows Paglia for her scrappy public persona, her pungent opinion pieces and boisterous TV interviews. She is nonetheless first and foremost an educator, having taught for the better part of 30 years at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and thus it’s not surprising that “Glittering Images” has the feel and tone of a course overview.

Written with the proverbial common reader in mind, “Glittering Images” comprises a historical sequence from the ancient Egyptian funerary images of Queen Nefertari to George Lucas’s “Revenge of the Sith” episode of “Star Wars.” Each work is located in its historical and stylistic context and then subjected to Paglia’s “reading.” This format follows the plan of her 2005 collection of commentaries on English-language poems, “Break, Blow, Burn,” which spans several centuries from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell.

Any book that encourages us to read more closely and to look more imaginatively has to be a good thing, but “Glittering Images” is so agenda-driven and so riddled with polemical asides that its potential to persuade is forever being compromised. The book’s premise is to chart the history of Western art in “an attempt to reach a general audience for whom art is not a daily presence.” There is humility and sincerity in such a goal, and one is reminded of the work of Carl Sagan, or Bertrand Russell’s layman’s introduction to relativity, or Aaron Copland’s “What to Listen for in Music,” books intended to demystify important subjects in science and art for those who might otherwise be too intimidated to engage with them. But Paglia’s choice of examples, coupled with her frequent broadsides on everything from New York gallery pricing to feminist politics to “the in-group of hip cognoscenti” and those wickedly subversive post-structuralists, damages her argument and leaves one wondering exactly to whom she is talking.

Choosing 29 examples to sum up several thousand years of artistic activity is a hopeless task for any critic, and such an arbitrary sampling can work only if it is framed as a confession, as an act of love — “These are the artworks that I cannot imagine living without, and I want to tell you why.” Paglia communicates such intensity at times in “Break, Blow, Burn,” when she writes about the poetry of Dickinson or Donne or Wallace Stevens. But aside from its polemical heat, “Glittering Images” feels chilly and too caught up in the parsing of styles and historical epochs to generate the kind of enthusiasm to which it aspires. Occasionally she can get on a good roll, as when discussing female Egyptian figures, Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” or Andy Warhol. But too often she just appears to be going down a checklist of stylistic categories. The result is that some of the deepest and most profoundly human artists of all, painters and sculptors like Giotto, Michelangelo, El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer and van Gogh, are pretty much ignored, while others like Agnolo Bronzino, René Magritte and Renée Cox receive full chapters, presumably because each represents some unique stylistic advance.

Thus Bronzino’s chapter checks off the Mannerism box, while the Parisian Hôtel de Soubise embodies Rococo and Eleanor Antin’s “100 Boots” installation piece illustrates Conceptual Art. These are not uninteresting works, but their inclusion is unlikely to kindle the kind of flame that would turn an uninitiated reader into a zealot.

Why “Glittering Images” would confine itself almost exclusively to Europe and North America is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. How can any serious survey published in 2012 slight the testament of the human condition as expressed in artworks from the world’s other civilizations? Such cultural tunnel vision is only made worse by her passing over two millenniums of European art without including a single representation of Christ. Paglia seems distinctly uncomfortable with this most archetypal of all images in Western art, and her stubborn omission is exacerbated by her preferring to empower second-tier artists (or worse) like Magritte, John Wesley Hardrick and the Art Deco celebrity portraitist Tamara de Lempicka. She praises Lempicka for being “one of the most strong-willed and fanatically industrious women artists in history,” most of whose paintings are privately owned, often by movie stars, a fact that, in Paglia’s judgment, “has compromised her reputation among art critics.”

She prefers Lempicka, “a liberated new woman with her own agenda,” to Frida Kahlo, whose self-created “symbolic martyrdom” clearly annoys her. Kahlo’s current popularity among liberals and feminists only confirms Paglia’s suspicion that political orthodoxy has succeeded in distorting the valuation of certain artists, punishing them because they do not conform to accepted left-wing anti-­establishment behavior standards. Lempicka has thus been ignored because she belongs to a class of artists that “does not support the ruling paradigm of art as leftist resistance.”

Nearly half of “Glittering Images” is devoted to the 20th century, and as the book approaches the present it becomes increasingly agitated and punctuated by conversation-enders: “Painting has never recovered from the birth of Pop.” “Pop Art projects an innocent child’s view of the world.” “No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas.” Describing the decades bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, she writes that the fine arts “steadily shrank in visibility and importance,” leaving only Lucas as the major voice of pioneering boldness. The book is full of similar noisy art-historical proclamations that are better suited to the blogosphere than to a cogent historical survey that hopes to expose its readers, and particularly young readers, to the immensity and subtlety of artistic creation.

But the greatest burden that the reader of “Glittering Images” must carry is knowing from the start that the history of Western art will reach its apparent apogee with “Star Wars,” about which Paglia writes, “Nothing I saw in the visual arts of the past 30 years was as daring, beautiful and emotionally compelling as the spectacular volcano-planet climax of Lucas’s ‘Revenge of the Sith.’ ” Lucas’s importance lies in his ability to turn “dazzling new technology into an expressive personal genre.”

There is something deeply depressing about having to argue over the cultural dominance of an immensely successful and beloved filmmaker like George Lucas in the context of art history. In anointing Lucas, Paglia has signed on to a currently popular thesis that blames serious artists who, because of their arrogance, have lost touch with the general public and brought about their own marginalization. This argument claims that the conventional fine arts have diminished in significance, leaving only those innovators who have “embraced technology” as worthy of our attention. This is a thin thread on which to hang the appraisal of a living artist. A “technology” is no more than a way of doing something, a means to an end, and throughout history artists have been stimulated by new technological and conceptual ideas. There is nothing shockingly modern about the dynamic between artistic creation and technological innovation, be it an intellectual discovery like perspective or a new piece of hardware like the movie camera or the electric guitar. Art and technology have always moved hand in hand from one epoch to the next. The staggering advances in engineering that enabled the building of the medieval cathedrals and the introduction of the hammered piano, which allowed Beethoven to conceive a music of immense physical and emotional force, were both the result of technological advances. What matters is not the technology itself (and your 9-year-old will tell you that the original “Star Wars” films look fairly clunky by today’s standards). What speaks to us in a work of art and makes it resistant to the passage of time is the depth of the humanity it expresses. There is entertainment, and then there is something infinitely richer: what we call “the sublime,” the true rec­ord of our spiritual condition that we get from serious and complex artworks. The films of William Kentridge, the serene Land Art of Andy Goldsworthy, the paintings of Anselm Kiefer, “Einstein on the Beach” — all these are sublime. “Star Wars” is not.

Earlier in her book Paglia states that art “expresses our soul.” If her claim for Lucas’s importance is valid, we might well ask what kind of soul we Americans now have that is expressed not by Oedipus, or by Krishna, Lear, Faust, Tristan or Leopold Bloom, but rather by Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Have we reached a point in time where the very best we have to offer is “Star Wars,” a creation that, for all the enjoyment it may have afforded us in our youth, has all the soul and emotional resonance of a video game and ponders the mystery of our existence at the level of a toddler?

The achievement of Lucas, like that of Disney, is indisputably a defining element of American culture. But no amount of apotheosis and breathless encomium will elevate it to be other than exactly what it is — entertainment. To see George Lucas as the “greatest living artist” is to repeat an error especially common among Americans, which is to measure an artwork’s importance by its reach rather than its depth. Paglia, who knows her Emily Dickinson and her Kafka (both artists with zero “fan base” in their lifetimes), has journeyed to the wrong continent, and what she has found glittering there is fool’s gold.

John Adams is the author of “Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life.”

Comments (8)

Chris from Santa Rosa
December 7, 2012

Just for additional context, Paglia once described how Sarah Palin "uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist". Really? To me, that's weapons-grade crazy.

December 7, 2012

As much as I admire this composer's music, and even his off-music cultural observations like this, I'm left here with the impression that he proceeded into the review simply in solidarity with the institutions that Paglia (so refreshingly) attacks. Paglia is resonating with a silent majority, toward the Right, who are finally fed up with systems of praise for anything socially marginalized. (Literally, it's an operative "handicap" score for anything that evokes being oppressed.) Meanwhile, it's instructive to consider that the original spirit of Minimalism in visual art and music (that so influenced John Adams among many others) is a match for Paglia's crusade.

David Brighton
December 7, 2012

Clearly Paul (previous comment) has never met Charles Wuorinen.
"Systems of Praise"- if thats not a christian computer music band, it should be.

Nice post, Mr. Adams. We in the socially marginalized elitist Ivory towers eagerly await your next premiere.

Tom Steenland
December 8, 2012

Despite Paglia's hyper-praise for George Lucas, it's curious that the list she submitted to Sight and Sound for the "10 greatest films of all time" does not include a single movie from this depth-challenged director.

December 11, 2012

Its really kind of a waste when someone like Ms Paglia choses the path of ' Talking Down ' as well as one that is Agenda rather than Factually based in order to make a point that in fact is so absolutely relevant in this ' Sound Byte ' flashing images Zeitgeist we're living in who's main objective seems to be the very destruction of any and all things cultural .

So much potential resided within this book . With so much disappointment coming out of its pages in the end .

An excellent and very accurate review of the book by Mr Adams I might add

B.P. Bach
December 11, 2012

Thank you, Mr. Adams, for contributing your valuable perspectives to this debate.

I’m certainly glad Ms. Paglia took on the subject at hand, if only to stimulate a discussion that actually goes somewhere. You have taken it to a very welcome level. Persons in public life and the media are always talking about ‘having a discussion’, and well, here’s one in action.

You are possibly the only voice I’ve ever heard that states such well-grounded and truthful perceptions on what I term the ‘Lucasfilm culture’. I agree with your thoughts, and in the face of overwhelmingly tiresome popular opinion, I am refreshed by them.

I know John Williams is a pleasant gentleman and can score pictures in a decent, marketable manner, but his ‘Star Wars’ franchise only makes Erich Wolfgang Korngold look all the better.

Personally, I’m one of the few believers that the Lucas/Spielberg effect, so to speak, ruined American filmmaking long ago, though it hasn’t quite extinguished it.

As an admirer of your music, I have to tell you that I was absolutely galvanized hearing ‘Nixon In China’ for the first time via a BBC Proms online broadcast not long ago. ‘Sublime’ is indeed an applicable word to use for it, and without hesitation.

I was wondering if, either before or after your composition of the opera, you ever saw ‘Dongfang Hong’ (‘The East Is Red’), that most remarkable musical extravaganza, filmed in 1965, with the Cultural Revolution looming. Great stuff, with a score that might’ve come from a master such as Alfred Newman.


Brian Paul Bach

Author: ‘The Grand Trunk Road From The Front Seat’ and ‘Calcutta’s Edifice: The Buildings of a Great City’

January 7, 2013

THANK YOU! I really hated this book and have always tended to gag on both Paglia and Sontag. You've identified so many spot-on points, but essentially "reach vs depth" nails it. Whether Paglia tends and tills a nearness of soul that allows her to move beyond opinion and her own busy outer life (i.e. agenda,) is a question. Authentic art operates as such precisely because it remains 'out of touch' (which is to say outside or beyond,) that part of daily life which binds and restricts. Instead, it operates on and influences, opening us to the larger life experience. Personally, I'd prefer to be informed from this place rather than be entertained by arguing with Paglia in my head. True art informs. It is where we (the general public,) should get our directives from. It is why Plato and others thought it essential to human development. True art is linked to the deepest experience of humanity and is where one can trust the information because it's authentic, not posited in opinion. The rest, as they say, is commentary.

Mr.Adams, you've saved my sanity more than once. I've followed you since 1977 while working at the old Tower Records on Durant and Shaker Loops came out on Nonesuch. Had occasion to meet you at the Conservatory while taking classes, but was just a youngster and too shy to speak. The 1981 performance at Davies energized me enough to be able to congratulate you heartily (no one was around and you were a clear shot,) our paths crossed at a coffeehouse out in the Richmond where we agreed that if stranded on a desert island, the Brahms d minor piano concerto would be the single recording salvaged, and low and behold one day you walked into my bookstore in SF. That's a long trajectory and music took a backseat in my life for a long, long while. Now, I teach piano and can't thank you enough for a body of work that nourishes me daily and has buoyed me along for years. Your music adds meaning to my life...truly.

January 7, 2013

To reduce Paglia's error in judgment to a simple dialectic is that she confuses exchange value for use value. While the artist or reader might profit from her pronouncements in a momentary game of sophistication, they are almost useless to his or her labor, other than as a polemic distraction, sometimes entertaining and at other times infuriating. She is certainly a philosopher. So was Ayn Rand and if we are to work in favor of depth we must remain critical of both.

Thank you for your post.

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