With the passing of Christopher Hitchens, Camille Paglia may be the most biting and erudite critic of American culture writing today. Her work in Salon magazine and elsewhere is consistently evenhanded, fresh and provocative, without the mulish tunnel vision so frequently employed by partisans.
Of financial settlements in divorces, they say the best ones leave both parties mad. This is also true of critics, and Paglia is an equal-opportunity provocateur, enraging those on both sides of the ideological line with dispassion. Some writers capture readers with wit, then use it to distract from insufficient knowledge of the subject at hand. Paglia rarely amuses but commands attention in an entertainment-driven society with startling range and clarity. Her massive talents as a thinker and communicator combine in Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, an important new book that can revolutionize your intellectual life, or at least solve all your Christmas gift-giving problems.
Glittering Images is an art book, born of Paglia’s frustration with America’s stubborn ignorance of the history and worth of great art. A career academic, she’s an unlikely devotee of talk radio, but she listens to it regularly and champions it as the one place in American public life where working-class voices can be heard regularly. But talk radio troubles her with its rote vociferous attacks on art and artists. On the AM dial, she writes, “the ruling view among both hosts and callers is that the art world is a sterile dead zone of elitist snobs and that artists are pretentious parasites and con men.”
The accelerating irrelevance of art in modern American life is aggravated by the public schools, where art consists of glue, googly eyes and Popsicle sticks, focusing on puerile creation while ignoring millennia of art history. Colleges, Paglia says, do no better, since art history courses are offered, but rarely required. “With rare exception, colleges have abandoned any notion of a core body of learning,” says the longtime professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. This book then, is a one-woman charge to restore art literacy to a deprived and indifferent population.
The most important question we can ask about art, Paglia says, is, “What lasts, and why?” Glittering Images is her answer, a college-level art appreciation course in 190 pages. It’s possibly the best education that $30 can buy, a challenging yet engrossing survey of the highlights of art from the tombs of Egypt to The Revenge of the Sith.
Yes, those Sith. Paglia believes that filmmaker George Lucas is the greatest artist of our time and that the molten landscape in which Anakin Skywalker battles Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Mustafarian masterpiece of art. If you, like many, would like to forget all the Star Wars prequels, you might be inclined to ignore this book just based on that. But hear her out. Lucas, she convincingly argues, is an artist of the highest order, a digital visionary whose work is on par with the masters. If this remains troubling, just skip the last chapter and read the rest.
Paglia’s breadth of knowledge is staggering as she leads the reader through a glossy museum of images: among them, the tomb of Queen Nefertari, the mysterious Cycladic idols, the maimed sculpture of the Delphi charioteer, Donatello’s Mary Magdalene, Bernini’s Chair of St. Peter, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, Claude Monet’s Irises and George Grosz’s Life Makes You Happy!
She covers household names like Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and gives equal treatment to lesser-known artists like the African-American painter John Wesley Hardrick, whose paintings, she fears, rest in many attics and closets across the Midwest because of both his prodigious output and relative obscurity.
The time travel of this book is vast, but not disconcertingly so. Each chapter is a lecture, flavorful and succinct, and the reader emerges with a history of the artist, a sense of the world he or she lived in, and the fundamentals of the style to which the work belongs. At the conclusion of this book, we’re not employable as docents, but we are able to hold forth much more competently when the subject of art comes up at a dinner party.
Paglia is the rare academic operating at full mental thrust without disdain for those not similarly engaged. Glittering Images may not revolutionize the way America sees art, because it’s a necessarily a book made of dead trees in an age freshly dominated by e-readers. But it’s capable of changing hearts and minds, and should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t know an Expressionist from an Impressionist. At minimum, it will look terrific on your coffee table. A+ —Jennifer Graham