Glittering Images

By Camille Paglia

Say what you will about Camille Paglia, you can’t accuse her of an excess of modesty. In the Acknowledgements for Glittering Images, she tells us that “No research assistants were used for this or any other of my books.” In general, I approve of not using assistants – scholars in the humanities should do their own spadework – but Paglia is puffing herself up here just a bit.

Where a critic’s ego gets them in trouble, however, is when they start making breezy, categorical declarations that don’t hold up. To begin with the most obvious of these: in Paglia’s opinion filmmaker George Lucas “is the world’s greatest living artist.” For Paglia, “Nothing I saw in the visual arts of the past thirty years was as daring, beautiful, and emotionally compelling as the spectacular volcano-planet climax of Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith.”

You could take this as just another example of a publicity-mad pundit deliberately saying the stupidest thing she can think of in the hope of getting a bit of attention. In that case it worked: the lie was much quoted. On the other hand, you could also interpret it as saying that Paglia hasn’t seen anything in the visual arts of the past thirty years that struck her as particularly daring, beautiful, or emotionally compelling, and so Lucas’s movie stood out above a vast plain of mediocrity. But I don’t think that’s what she means. I think she means that Lucas’s hugely expensive CGI-live action Gesamtkunstwerk really blew her away. I was not blown away, and even at the time didn’t think the sequence that remarkable. This left me not just questioning her taste, but wondering how many of these computer-generated movies where art direction has become an end in itself Paglia has actually seen.

But more to the point, it immediately brought to mind this:

As digital photography has supplanted film over the past two decades . . . the general public has gradually lost contact with the refinements of old-fashioned film developing. . . . Digital images are sharp and clean but lack the atmospheric shading that cues our sense of contour and depth. Digital color is supersaturated and garish, even cartoonlike, with the subtleties and fine gradations of blended color, used in oil painting since the Renaissance. Digital photographs can seem like unnerving glimpses into the pretty but frozen world of a dollhouse. Digital TVs, set at splashy wide-screen option, spread and stretch the image, imposing distortion on viewers as standard practice. Animated graphics in video games, electronic billboards, and sports telecasting create dizzily swooping compressions and tunnel-like warpings of space. The eye is assaulted, coerced, desensitized.

The author? Camille Paglia, in the introduction to Glittering Images (indeed, the passage comes only a page after crowning Lucas as the greatest artist of his generation).

An inconsistency? Not necessarily, though I couldn’t see where Paglia made the case that Lucas was somehow doing something different with his digital effects than any of the legion of other comic-book or fantasy filmmakers out there who assault, coerce, and desensitize the eye.

Here’s another disjunction to consider, again from the introduction:

no genuinely avant-garde artist should be asking the government for support. There is no constitutional right to a government grant or to exhibition space in publicly funded institutions. Only one famous artist that I am aware of – the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – had the perspicacity and courage to exhort the arts community to renounce its infantilizing dependence on the government dole.

Yes, but (only a few pages later) . . .

The only road to freedom is self-education in art. Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die. Even in economically troubled times, support for the arts should be a national imperative. Dance, for example, requires funding not only to secure safe, roomy rehearsal space but to preserve the indispensable continuity of the teacher-student link.

Let me know when you figure it out.

This incoherence also infects the appreciations of individual works of art. Talking about a Cycladic figurine Paglia first tells us that we may be mistaken in assuming an upright pose. Such idols “may have been originally intended to recline like sleepers or the dead laid out for immolation of burial.” A fair enough point to speculate on, though I still think they were meant to be stood upright. But on the next page the figures are said categorically to be “in their rightful positions on their backs.” How does she know?

The next work looked at is a bronze sculpture of a charioteer found near Delphi. The charioteer “is shown riding the victory lap, as his team of horses is led at a slow walk around the track past the cheering crowd.” This seems a likely scenario, as the figure doesn’t seem very physically engaged. Later in the same paragraph, however, Paglia says he

has his “game face” on, impassive and distanced. He is “in the zone,” described by athletes as a meditative state that blocks out distractions and inexplicably slows down time. Chariot racing, an expensive sport that required rich patrons, was notoriously difficult and dangerous: both drivers and horses could be killed, particularly in the turns, where chariots spilled or collided. Hence the Charioteer’s steady stare might also be registering shock and awe at a near-death experience.

Which is it? Is the charioteer on a casual victory lap, when the “mad motion on the track may be forgotten for an hour,” or is he “in the zone,” fighting to keep himself above distractions?

As far as the chronological “journey through art from Egypt to Star Wars” goes, two things in particular struck me. In the first place, despite the range of several thousand years of art history promised, most of the discussion centers around twentieth-century works. There are more of them, and Paglia writes a lot more about them. Secondly, the actual works studied have been selected just because Paglia likes them rather than for historical significance or artistic merit. For the most part she tries to pick pieces that are representative of a particular movement, style or school, which gives her more to talk about than the individual works.

But while I approve of a critic talking about what they like rather than a canon of “greatest hits,” I was disappointed by Paglia’s choices. As with her championing of George Lucas, I found myself too often shaking my head at her taste and not being persuaded by her arguments. What, I wondered, makes Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune a good painting? Paglia has fun with Neptune’s concealed cock as being a present absence, but aside from that doesn’t have much interesting to say. And I found myself completely baffled as to what Renée Cox’s Chillin’ With Liberty was doing in here. Obviously Paglia is a fan of Cox’s superhero shtick, but again I came away asking myself what there was about such a photograph that made it worth looking at.

Strong critics have strong opinions, but they also know how to make a case for their critical judgments and explain their taste. Too often Paglia seems to be only talking, in a rambling, unconvincing way, to herself.

Review first published online September 9, 2013.

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