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The ArtsATL Q&A: Camille Paglia on the value of art history and the genius of George Lucas

The always outspoken Pagila will be at SCAD Tuesday evening.
Outspoken author Camille Paglia will speak at SCAD on Tuesday evening.

Not many writers can parlay publication of a 700-page tome on art history into worldwide celebrity, but in the 1990s, Camille Paglia did just that with her book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The book, which was based on Paglia’s graduate thesis tracing the interplay between male and female impulses in Western art, became a surprise international best seller when it was published in 1990.

But even as the book became an unprecedented success, it was actually Paglia herself who commanded the most attention. Fierce, voluble, funny and outrageously contrarian, she managed to carve out a space for herself as a cultural critic in an era that had previously seemed ready to dispense with public intellectuals altogether, maintaining her prominence with provocative opinion pieces, TV appearances, essay collections and books such as Vamps and Tramps (1994) and Break, Blow, Burn (2005). Now she’s back with a new book, her first in six years, returning again to the grand sweep of art history, but this time in a slim and pretty volume called Glittering Images.

We caught up with Paglia in advance of her Atlanta appearance at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta this Tuesday, October 30. (Editor’s note: Paglia’s talk has been postponed due to travel difficulties as Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast. Paglia hopes to reschedule in 2013.)

ArtsATL: What do you have planned for your Atlanta visit? Will you read from the book?

Camille Paglia: I will be talking about my motivation and goals in writing Glittering Images, my sixth book, which took five long years. I have many stinging things to say about the current condition of American culture, including the art world. Then I will take questions on any subject from the audience. I adore live Q and A’s! It’s where my inner Joan Rivers erupts. No, I never read aloud from my books. I consider that a highly boring ritual that for some bizarre reason has become standard practice. Can’t authors just loosen up and talk to the audience?

ArtsATL: Although they’re both surveys of art history, Sexual Personae and Glittering Images are very different books. Is the change in format due to changes you’ve perceived in the reading public?

Paglia: Sexual Personae was my 1974 doctoral dissertation, which I then expanded to the 700-page book published by Yale University Press in 1990. By the way, the manuscript had been rejected by seven publishers and five agents. So my checkered career should be an inspiration to all struggling writers who have been accumulating rejection slips for years.

Sexual Personae was intended to be a magnum opus of the kind that women have rarely attempted. There have been long and complex novels by women — George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, immediately springs to mind — but few ambitious works of nonfiction. I modeled Sexual Personae on Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It seems to me that one magnum opus per lifetime is quite enough! One should not compete with oneself.

In Glittering Images, I purposely sought to produce a very slim handbook about the history of art that would be inviting and user-friendly for the general reader. With its 29 concise chapters crossing 3,000 years, it is a protest against the massive, pretentious, unwieldy coffee-table art books that people use as décor and rarely read. Despite its slimness, however, Glittering Images is surprisingly heavy, because Knopf-Doubleday has brilliantly produced it with gorgeous glossy paper and fine printing. The design itself is a work of art — for which I am very grateful to my publisher in this age of Kindle.

While the introduction is highly polemical in its attack on prevailing orthodoxies, I am otherwise invisible in the book — except for scattered passages where a veteran reader of my work will hear my little barbs (as, for example, aimed at Frieda Kahlo, the masochistic patron saint of grisly victim feminism). The chapters all follow the same format, beginning with history, biography and style analysis and ending with a sometimes poetic evocation of the work’s meaning. Yes, I believe in meaning — an important term that was outrageously junked during the 30-year tyranny of poststructuralism and postmodernism.

ArtsATL: Even though the public primarily knows you as a writer and cultural critic, you always keep boots on the ground as a teacher. [Paglia has been a professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984.] What proficiencies and deficiencies are you noticing in the next generation of thinkers? Is the new book a response to what you’ve seen as a teacher?

Paglia: There can be no doubt that my 40-year career as a classroom teacher is a primary factor in my continuing relevance as a social observer. I have watched the culture change year by year and decade by decade. Professors in the elite ghetto of the Ivy League get the same kind of student over and over: bright and shiny overachievers with sharp academic skills and a laser-like focus on the high-status, high-wage professions. But my students — gifted dancers, musicians, actors and visual artists — have a wide range of academic backgrounds and preparation, from excellent to marginal. So my course grades cover the gamut from A to D in a way that would be unthinkable in the elite schools, where even a B-plus can produce angry phone calls from aggrieved, overinvolved parents.

I have been well positioned, therefore, to assess the educational system in the United States, from private and suburban to inner-city or rural schools. And my conclusions are alarming.

Above all, there has been a collapse in the sense of history. Students are simply not being introduced in a systematic way to the whole of world history, particularly antiquity. Even geography has withered. In most of my courses, I begin by drawing a simple time line on the blackboard — a very useful strategy that has been mostly discarded in education. Poststructuralists and postmodernists deny that there is any order or connectedness in history. How such an ignorant, callow and destructive methodology ever took root is beyond me. But it has made a hash of education and defrauded two generations of undergraduates adorned with obscenely expensive and evidently useless degrees.

Glittering Images, like Sexual Personae and my last book, Break, Blow, Burn, follows strict chronology. I want to give readers a feeling for the sweep of history and for, yes, the narrative of Western culture. Pipsqueak academics may natter on about how all narratives are “subjective,” but that supercilious trick works only for literary studies, which are by definition language-based. The visual arts and architecture, in contrast, consist of concrete objects composed of physical materials that may or may not be preserved over time. Glittering Images insists that there is indeed a story in Western art that descends from ancient Egypt and Greece and that remains magical today.

ArtsATL: One of the things I admire about the book is its prose style. Even if a reader doesn’t agree with every assessment, I think he’d always be able to enjoy the strong voice and the sense of style. Could you talk a bit about developing individual style and why it’s important in writing about art?

Paglia: I have been fascinated by style in writing ever since my adolescence in Syracuse in upstate New York. Oscar Wilde was my first tutor. I stumbled on a book in a secondhand bookstore that became my style bible: The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde. It was a British collection of excerpts from his essays, plays, stories and conversation, all organized around topics like “Art,” “Life,” “Love,” “Sin” — even “Smoking!” (The book is still in print, but the American publisher unfortunately renamed it The Wit and Humor of Oscar Wilde, presumably on the assumption that Americans wouldn’t know what “epigram” means.) What I loved about Wilde’s scathing witticisms was the way they projected his personality to us so vividly. They were always pithily substantive, a condensation of real ideas and also his weapon in the era’s culture wars.

Wilde inspired me to view every sentence as its own arena. If someone were to ask me what the secret of my writing is, I would say, first I write sentences, then I write paragraphs. I view nonfiction as an art form, which too many U.S. authors treat carelessly. My books take a very long time to write precisely because of my concern with the clarity and flow of my prose. I do an enormous amount of preparation for each chapter in any of my books — voluminous notes, followed by notes upon those notes and so on. Construction of the argument takes forever, but once it is in place, that’s it. In my entire career, I have probably changed a paragraph position not more than three or four times. Once a chapter is written, I go over and over it again innumerable times, tweaking the wording and adding color and momentum.

Arts and literary criticism has certainly been negatively affected by the contorted, jargon-ridden locutions of French poststructuralism, which has been assimilated by most American academics via bad English translations. What a blight upon the land! That stupid and pointless stuff, imposed as required college reading, has disabled untold numbers of smart and promising students. One of my aims in Glittering Images is to show how pleasurable and evocative a simple, natural style can be in writing about the arts.

ArtsATL: Did you revisit the objects you wrote about in the book as part of the process of research — e.g., literally traveling back to the Acropolis and St. Peter’s to write about them?

Paglia: The premise of Glittering Images is that the general reader can deeply engage with great artworks through illustrations in a well-produced book. You do not have to travel to see the works themselves, which many people cannot afford to do. I believe in the evangelical power of books. Hence my writing about my chosen works was directed to the images as they would be seen by the reader.

The only visit I made was to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” — the most important painting of the 20th century — at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had to do it because my own interpretation of the painting verged so strikingly from what I was finding in the enormous body of scholarship on it. For two decades in my classes, for example, I had been pointing out details, such as a prostitute’s slab of raw meat for a leg, that I found surprisingly unmentioned by the critics. So I made my pilgrimage to the painting, and not only was I confirmed in my original impressions, but I found even other details that seem to have gone unnoticed, such as a floating X-ray of a spine. But let me tell you, it was damned hard to stand in front of that painting. I kept being shoved aside by hordes of aggressive European tourists flashing their cameras at it. Major museums have turned into circuses where contemplativeness is rare indeed.

ArtsATL: In the introduction to the book, you characterize contemporary fine art as being “shallow” and “derivative” and “with no big ideas left.” You end the book by writing about George Lucas, suggesting that the real energy and ideas are now in mass media and pop culture rather than fine art. But surely you must encounter some young artists working within the realm of fine art whom you perceive as being more exciting, energetic and original than Lucas?

Paglia: One cannot compare young artists to a veteran like Lucas, who belongs to my aging and fast-vanishing baby-boom generation. Lucas’ contributions to world culture are enormous, but his reputation has been impeded by his staggering commercial success. He is too often regarded as a purveyor of children’s entertainment and toys. I hope Glittering Images will help rectify this. I regard the long, operatic finale of “Revenge of the Sith” as the most powerful and significant work of art in the past 30 years — in any genre, including literature. Those who reject my claim out of hand have simply not studied that finale with the attention it deserves.

Glittering Images also asserts that there is very little in the contemporary fine arts that is new or original and that will have lasting significance. We are in a depressing trough or holding pattern. Creativity and energy have migrated from the fine arts into industrial design, animation and large-scale commercial architecture. The crafts are also flourishing, but because of the fragility or expense of their materials, it is difficult to make monumental statements in those fields. On this book tour, I want to avoid attacking contemporary artists by name, except in cases, such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, where high-concept hucksters have enriched themselves through bad or factitious art.

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