Camille Paglia is nothing if not provocative.
Since she burst on the national scene in 1990 with her magnum opus, “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,” she has defended the Western canon from the left, post-structuralists and second-wave feminists, while also defending the decadent and avant-garde from attacks by the political and cultural right.
One of her virtues — from my perspective — is she needles (mostly) the right people and makes (mostly) the right enemies.
(There are exceptions.)
Her other virtues perhaps have more widespread appeal: She is passionate about the arts and about ideas, writes with limitless energy and isn’t afraid to stake out a position in the face of ridicule.
All of those virtues — including the first — are on display in Paglia’s book “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars” (Pantheon, $30, hardcover).
What she did for poetry in her literary survey “Break, Blow, Burn,” Paglia now attempts for the visual arts, starting, as in “Sexual Personae,” with Egypt during the late Bronze Age and working her way to present day.
It’s a long journey, represented by just 29 works, some well known and some, in Paglia’s view, deserving a wider audience. The book is a freshman-level art history course, Paglia’s attempt to make up for the dismal state of arts education in the U.S., and it is difficult to fault her appraisal.
Arts funding is attacked by conservatives who see the arts as either impractical or a haven for their political enemies. Meanwhile, the left degrades artistic standards by defending anything that offends the sensibilities of the hicks in the sticks. “Nothing is more hackneyed,” Paglia writes in her introduction, “than the liberal dogma that shock value confers automatic importance on an artwork.” Not that Paglia shies away from the shocking, but there must be more to it than that. To cite two names from the 1990s culture wars, she defends Robert Mapplethorpe while deriding as “third rate” the works of Andres Serrano. Not all that is transgressive is created equal.
The book’s throat-clearing political broadsides are nothing new from Paglia, although her pox-on-both-houses attitude may prove instructive for novice readers trained to see the world in red and blue. But we’re paying admission for what Paglia has to say about her 29 chosen works, and here she rarely disappoints. Her subjects include undisputed masterpieces like the statue “Laocoön and His Sons” from the first century B.C. It was Laocoön who, in myth, warned the Trojans against Greeks bearing gifts and was killed for his trouble, along with his sons, by the vengeful goddess Minerva, a Greek partisan. For Paglia this is representative of the question facing every religion: “Are the gods’ codes and demands fair or arbitrary?” If you have an answer, a fellow named Job would like to know.
Yet Paglia is at her best when discussing works that have become fashionable to dismiss, for example anything Art Deco, which, despite a recent revival is “still underrepresented in museums and minimized or ignored by many art historians.” Here, she turns to the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, a woman arguably more interesting than her works, known for their heroic poses and bold outlines. (Paglia misses an opportunity by not mentioning the stunning Art Deco “Superman” cartoons of animators Max and David Fleischer, possibly the pinnacle of Art Deco design.)
That brings us to Paglia’s boldest claim, the one hinted at in the book’s subtitle, that “Star Wars” creator George Lucas is the “greatest artist of our time.” She is right on one count: “No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas.” But in terms of pure images, has Lucas even the influence of Marvel Comics auteur Jack Kirby? And is Lucas’ most indelible image really, as Paglia says, the volcano planet of “Revenge of the Sith”? Surely it’s the image of the star destroyer filling the screen in the opening shot of “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.”
“Glittering Images” is a marvelous work, but not all that glitters is gold.
Franklin Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column is published Thursdays in the TimesDaily.