Camille Paglia, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars

Book review by Daniel Brown

Camille Paglia is herself a cultural necessity, an icon of exceptional brilliance, a no-nonsense analyst of Western culture and ideas of the first rank. She trucks no theoretical hijinks, refuses labels, isn’t associated with any particular school of thought or “ism” or academic elitism or snobbery, and was a post-feminist thinker just when feminism devloved from an art historical intervention into identity politics and academic political correctness.  Paglia’s Yale Ph.D. thesis became the surprising best-seller Sexual Personae, which remains the single most original and brilliant analysis of western art and culture possibly ever written. Paglia is both an art and a cultural critic; the combined creativity and brilliance of her thinking could make a computer manual seem fascinating.

Her newest book, a series of essays entitled Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, is both paradoxical and problematic. The book’s introduction is the best critique of the marginalization of art–contemporary visual culture in particular–written in one article anywhere; it’s refreshing and original and dead to rights. Paglia understands and explicates the varied reasons why art has become so peripheral to our lives; she’s astute on how the “art market”–art as investment-started with Pop Art and how money and celebrity culture have dominated and wrecked contemporary art, in conjunction with an educational system which devalues art and the humanities and art’s role in an entirely materialist culture. This book is her attempt to help redress these imbalances, and she claims that it’s written for the non-art specialist or lover, an amorphous “general public” which, alas, is unlikely to read it–or even to know that the book exists. Unfortunately, Paglia’s book cannot really address or redress the issues she so compellingly raises in her introduction. It reads too much as a series of chapters in an adumbrated art history textbook.

Paglia selects one image/work of art from every major era of Western art/art history to explicate that image’s central visual importance both to its historical era and to our sense of who we are and where we come from as the inheritors of these images and culture. She writes crisply and intelligently, as always, although less inspiredly than is usual for her. The idea of the book, alas, is better than its execution.

Of course, no one is expected or should read this book in just a few sittings. I read three or four essays at a time, and resumed as time permitted. I didn’t find some of Paglia’s choices of one work of art per era always terribly compelling–or, to use Paglia’s titular word, very “glittering” (or, thus, enlightening):  those fertility goddesses from various ancient cultures can still make one’s eyes roll around with an admixture of boredom and restlessness, and Paglia goes on too long about the architectural elements of the Parthenon, particularly the karyatids. Many of her choices seem off: I would certainly have selected Watteau’s great painting”Embarkation for Cytherea” over a Rococo architectural interior to represent that odd moment in French culture called Rococo, and regretted that Paglia skipped the American Ash Can School of painting entirely, and/or the painter Edward Hopper to represent the thirties in favor of a little known Art Deco painter: if one is going to select Art Deco as an important cultural expression, surely its architecture is superior to the painting by Tamara de Lempicka Paglia selects. I choose such examples because so many American cities have beautiful Art Deco buildings and interiors which are easily accessible, and, since Paglia’s goal includes reaching out to new audiences for art, why not select certain works of art which are accessible to her estranged public? And, unfortunately, some of Paglia’s descriptive language is tough sledding: she’s great on Manet, but her writing on Monet is so ethereal that her text is difficult to follow. I believe that she also overemphasizes Surrealism’s importance, and, in choosing a Mondrian painting as one of the greats of cultural history, she’s likelier to loose more visitors to art than gain them.

Alas, Paglia’s essays on contemporary art itself are her weakest. They are all considerably longer than the others, representing the first, say, seven thousand years of Western art. Paglia walks right into the trap from which she seeks to extricate us : her writings on Eleanor Antin, Walter de Maria, Renee Cox are close to dull, and certainly too long and too effusively praised. I found her analysis of Warhol’s “Marilyn” off the mark, even wrong. And her last essay, on George Lucas’ “Revenge of the Sith”, is nearly unreadable in its excessive detail. When Paglia flips to a movie rather than remaining within the purview of the fine arts (photography is almost never mentioned), she’s changing the rules on us, and the lengthy descriptions of this movie’s plot and special effects–it;s partly a paean to digitlization–is part gushy fan-zine stuff, partly overly techie, and mostly balderdash to this reader, I fear, as cultural anaylsis.

Glittering Images is Paglia’s first less than successful work as an art and cultural critic. The book is unlikely to persuade many that art can or should be central to our lives, and, in spite of occasional brilliant passages and insights, on artists like Friederich; Picasso; Bernini and Greek sculpture, Glittering Images tarnishes easily and quickly, and disappoints even more because of the brilliance of its author, from whom we have learned to expect and hope for more.

—–Daniel Brown

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