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Reviews / November 15, 2012

Camille Paglia Shines Less Brightly in Glittering Images

In the introduction to his collection Looking at Pictures, Kenneth Clark identifies the four stages in which art-lovers might perform his titular act: impact, scrutiny, recollection and renewal. In other words, they’ll tend to approach works as if they are people. (One may fall in love, or perhaps just want to be friends; one might find a passing fancy, or a mortal enemy.) There is the preliminary, immediate effect: the impact. Then there’s examination and inquiry, a scrutiny that questions the validity of that first impression. Next, if one’s interest is maintained, comes the Clarkian “recollection”: facts are brought to bear on the second look—details of personal history, of mutual friends, of upbringing, etc. Last, and most special, is renewal. The best people and pictures change our lives forever. Every encounter offers something new. We want to be around, and to come back, to them.

The fantastic title of American critic Camille Paglia’s latest collection of essays, Glittering Images, suggests an alliance with Clark, in which artworks from, to quote her subtitle, “Egypt to Star Wars,” maintain a primacy of impact that transcends their historical contexts. The alliance is confirmed in Paglia’s introductory mention of him; in her book’s structure, where each chapter deals with a separate artwork; and even in the glossy pages and unusual, seven-by-nine-and-a-half inch format that exactly mirror Looking at Pictures.

Unsurprisingly, for those familiar with Paglia, Glittering Images deliberately recalls a time before post-structuralism and postmodernism, when art history, within the particular scope of the canon, and in the hands of populists like Clark, E.H. Gombrich and H.W. Janson, was titanic. It was something to be in awe of and, then, to learn from. Paglia’s aim is accessibility and edification: bring visual-arts education back to foundational curricula, even at the primary-school level. Teach students how to look at pictures again—really to look at them, not just to feel out vague personal impressions; or to explain what or whom the picture leaves out; or to see them as steps toward a contemporary aesthetics that are better simply by virtue of being contemporary.

These are fine, noble aims, and ones, of course, anathema to the current art world, with its dizzying pluralities, its arrogant trendiness, its distaste for impartial, thoroughgoing criticism and its view of art history that is either unapologetically ignorant or limited to the carefully paced trajectory of the 20th-century avant-garde. And Paglia is uniquely suited to meet her own aims. Best known as the author of Sexual Personae, a sprawling study of “art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,” Paglia is that rare thing, an American public intellectual who is liberal but not left-pandering, feminist but intolerant of victimology, atheist but reverential of religion, pop-oriented but not enslaved to inanity or ephemera. In recent years, she has emphasized her role as teacher and purveyor of cultural history. She seems set on reminding us that, in an age when delete buttons are never far from reach, some things persist, and for good reason. As she says in the call-to-arms introduction of Glittering Images, “The important question about art is: what lasts, and why?”

Paglia’s previous book was Break, Blow, Burn, a riveting study of “forty-three of the world’s best poems” in English. It drew on her strengths as a lifelong student of literature. (Harold Bloom was her mentor at Yale, where her PhD thesis, years in the making, formed the basis for Sexual Personae.) Central to Break, Blow, Burn is close reading, a high-modernist tactic in which the text’s diction, structure and devices are considered in relation to theme. Close reading is well known to English majors (it basically invented university English departments) and a variant of it can be seen in Clark’s method of picture-looking. Like Clark, Paglia embraces personal bias, psychoanalysis, history and pop culture, but never lets these things outshine direct engagement with the text.

This bodes well for Glittering Images. But there is something amiss in the new volume that is unfortunate and strange. In Sexual Personae, Paglia showed her ability to engage with objects of antiquity. She is, for all intents and purposes, an Egyptologist, one impressively versed in many other ancient civilizations. Paglia has worked hard at Glittering Images: more than five years in the making, it is carefully edited and researched. Its reproductions are impeccable. At a recent talk at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, Paglia gave an entrancing slide lecture on the many works she decided to leave out of the book in order to keep it slim and readable, and in some cases to avoid overlap with what she had already tackled in Sexual Personae.

But Paglia’s ultimate choices make strange bedfellows. This is where a critique of Glittering Images must start: the chapters, in sequence, paint a skewed chronology of Western art. Foremost, the book seems over-thought. Marginalia is balanced by obligatory inclusions. There is an absence of works Paglia might really have sunk her teeth into. (This gustatory metaphor was made manifest at the AGO lecture: for whatever reason, Cézanne did not make the Glittering Images cut, and as Paglia ran out of time at her talk, she arrived at a slide of his peaches and quickly clicked past it. So much uneaten fruit!)

Paglia’s zest for research and knowledge has, moreover, overwhelmed many of the works that made it into the book. Art history and aesthetics have always wrestled each other: Can one understand a work of art without knowing its biographical, sociological and political details? Clark, on his part (and, it must be admitted, with varying degrees of commitment), puts these things third, in his “recollection” stage. They enrich knowledge of an artwork but do not tend to define its impact. One would assume Paglia agrees, with her shamelessly unfashionable views on the eternal and universal in art, yet so many chapters in Glittering Images are overfull with trivia and void of her visceral approach. One senses both strain—did Paglia’s research compensate for a discomfort with her subject matter?—and (one hates to say it, for it is her bête noire) pedantry.

One of the weakest chapters in Glittering Images is on Manet’s At the Café. The topic alone raises eyebrows. Why has Paglia chosen a minor Manet over Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia or A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which, in the chapter, she calls one of the artist’s greatest paintings? Perhaps she wanted to provide her own unique insights. What results is an object lesson regarding photography’s influence on Impressionism—fair enough, but surely something she might have done with almost any Manet. Paglia stresses that At the Café has a “you-are-there quality.” Before this, she describes at great length the social codings of its figures’ clothing, actions and setting. But then she notes the irony of the painting having been posed and executed in Manet’s studio. And then she moves on, glibly passing over one of the central facets of Manet: the theatrical and allegorical elements of realism, ones his literary analogue, Émile Zola, lent to his novels. Isn’t Paglia, too, entranced by the mythic pageantry of modern life? Why is this elided?

The further one reads Glittering Images, the more unsatisfying it becomes. The flaws in its structure grow emphatic: ever the teacher, Paglia uses her chosen works as prototypes for styles and movements, creating a plodding, obligatory tone. A more personal approach would have better suited her fiery, flamboyant character—as it has in previous works like The Birds, an intensive, obsessive study of Hitchcock’s film that puts critic and work in heady, mesmerizing tango with one another. This writer thinks of Maggie Smith’s fabulous art-history lectures in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “Can anyone tell me who is the greatest Italian painter? […] The answer is Giotto. He is my favourite.”  Hardly offensive, then, is Paglia’s contentious statement about George Lucas being “the greatest artist of our time,” which concludes Glittering Images, and has shocked so many of its reviewers and readers. Get over it: the chapter is entertaining to read and heartily argued, with apt reference to J.M.W. Turner (but none to John Martin, unfortunately).

More troublesome indeed is her insistence on writing about post-1960s art with authority, despite her apparent apathy toward most of it. Never mind the relative silence in Glittering Images on, say, Olafur Eliasson, Marina Abramović or David Altmejd, artists in tune with her noted ideas on nature’s sublimity—its tumult of sex and violence. Paglia calls Pop art the death knell of the avant-garde, while including subsequent chapters on Minimalism and Performance art. Surely, as these chapters attest, it is not Pop art but 1970s Conceptualism, now firmly branded and entrenched in academia, that signalled the avant-garde’s last gasp. Bafflingly, Paglia speaks of Pop art’s aggressive commercialization of itself, but then allies Warhol, one of the few postmodernists she loudly extols, with working-class values. (“The Factory embodied Warhol’s proletarian philosophy of art as impersonal mass production.”) After a long, somnolent cruise through his career, she concludes, flatly and almost sophomorically, that the proliferated star in his Marilyn Diptych “seems as artificial as spun sugar and as creamy as cheesecake. She is a shimmering projection of other people’s dreams and desires.” Further chapters on Eleanor Antin (who, she wildly claims, “more than any other American or European artist fulfilled Fluxus’s ambition of bursting the barriers between artistic genres”), Walter De Maria and Renée Cox, a photographer whom Paglia positions within the sphere of Performance art, would benefit from a more direct treatment, instead of from unwieldy preambles about their respective places in a given movement.

Whenever Glittering Images locks into the nuances of a work, however, it inevitably shines. Outstanding and alone worth the price of the book is Paglia’s essay on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which immediately lets its initial explanation of the Cubist genre highlight the raw power of the image. Paglia describes the brothel scene as a “tableau vivant,” carefully cataloguing each figure’s position, including a description of the far-left prostitute’s right leg as “a slab of well-marbled beef.” In the next chapter, on George Grosz’s Weimar-era illustration Life Makes You Happy!, Paglia draws our attention to another prostitute. She doesn’t say much about her—“she is faceless because that is how she is perceived by her clients”—but a viewer might have overlooked her shadowy, angular figure, and knowing she’s there heightens the eerie impact of Grosz’s work, in which the modern street makes architecture of its own walkers.

This is as it should be. After hearing or reading a great critical analysis of an image, one should not be able to look at it in quite the same way again. There is a personal investment. Paglia, peerless among American formalist critics, knows this; in the introduction for Glittering Images, she extols the “reverential” and “ecstatic” attitudes toward art taken by pioneering critics like Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier. That we get this at all in Glittering Images—and, despite its flaws, we get quite a bit of it, especially in the early chapters—is, in our time, enough. As Clark too understood, art, past and present, is chiefly about the encounter. Images lie in waiting, wanting to touch us and remind us of who we are. “In an age of alluring, magical machines,” Paglia convincingly writes at the end of the book’s introduction, “a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.”

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.