Monday, July 22, 2013

Glittering Images by Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia writes that her new book, Glittering Images, was inspired by her "dismay at the open animosity toward art and artists that I have heard on American AM talk radio over the past two decades." Her introduction explains why we need art in today's society. Children, in particular, need the opportunity to focus the eye, to perceive deeply and become receptive to contemplation.

"Civilization is defined by law and art. Laws govern our external behaviour, while art expresses our soul." [...] "Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die."

From ancient Egypt to twenty-first century film, Paglia has chosen 29 works of art and writes about what makes them endure in our culture consciousness. The essay for each is only a few pages long and gives historical, social and political context, as well as examining details of the artwork itself. Later essays reference the artworks in earlier chapters, so it's a good idea to read them in order.

I especially appreciated Paglia's explanations about styles that tend to mystify me, such as Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, conceptual art, and performance art. I came away with greater understanding of difficult works, like Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: "There are no welcoming smiles in this cabal of urban nymphs. Their snakelike lidless eyes are fixed and blank or at mismatched angles or missing altogether. They are sleepless watchmen of the heaven-hell of sex, where the price of momentary ecstasy may be disease or obliteration of identity."

Paglia isn't shy about voicing her opinions. In the chapter on Eleanor Antin and conceptual art, she writes: "Antin's feminist pieces avoided doctrinaire victimology as well as the lugubrious excess often marring feminist productions of that period, such as Judy Chicago's Dinner Party (1974-79), with its florid vulval table settings." I don't agree with her assessment of Chicago's work, but it doesn't stop me from respecting Paglia's knowledge and views on art. Her writing is always interesting.

Paglia's thesis in the final chapter, that film director George Lucas is the worlds' greatest living artist, emerged during the five years she spent working on Glittering Images. "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 (2005)." "The exhilarating eight-minute battle over Coruscant that opens Revenge of the Sith, with its dense cloud of stately destroyers, swooping starfighters, and fiendish buzz droids, cuts optical pathways that are as graceful and abstract as the weightless skeins in a drip painting by Jackson Pollock."

I came away from Glittering Images determined to watch all of the Star Wars movies. I think I saw the first three when they came out in theatres, but not since then, and I've never seen the more recent films. Star Wars references pop up all the time in modern literature, like Friends with Boys (Faith Erin Hicks) and The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Tom Angleberger). Jeffrey Brown's cartoons about Darth Vader as a single father raising young twins contributed to my interest in re-watching the movies too.

Readalikes: A History of the World in 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor); and My Favorite Things (Sister Wendy Beckett).

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