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Glittering Images: An art tour that’s subtle, penetrating and even funny

Camille Paglia of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia

STR News/Reuters

Glittering Images
Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is a paid-up member of the school of writing we must call the Hysterical Declarative. She likes to lay down the law, especially if the matter is trivial or the overall claim patently ridiculous, in ringing, flat-footed sentences. Reading her, always an exhilarating experience, means being visited by a recurrent desire to scribble srsly? in the margin.

This style was amply in evidence when she made a flashy entrance to the world of letters with Sexual Personae, a 1990 bestseller that surveyed decadence in Western art, and it has governed her columns, collections and lectures ever since. None of the latter have approached the success of the debut, but her combination of combative feminism, arrogance and worship of popular culture (loves Madonna! hates Lady Gaga!) has made her an irritating, unignorable figure.

She also knows how to pick a fight. Earlier this year, the full version of a 1993 "fax war" she had with English journalist Julie Burchill, another purveyor of pop-feminist outrageousness, was published. Dubbed The Battle of the Bitches, this record of what happens when titans tangle is hilarious and scary.

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The trivial and the ridiculous are both emphatically pronounced in this new book, a sort of sequel to Sexual Personae. On the first, there's this, from the introduction: "I call for insurrection against the fast-moving Marxist academic trend to drop 'Renaissance' for the turgid term 'Early Modern,' based on economics rather than art." Insurrection, srsly? Meanwhile, try as I might, I can't see what is actually turgid about the phrase "Early Modern."

On the ridiculous side, there is the already notorious assertion that Revenge of the Sith (2005) is the most important work of art in recent memory. "During the decades bridging the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as the fine arts steadily shrank in visibility and importance," she says, only George Lucas "had the pioneering boldness and world impact that we associate with the early masters of avant-garde modernism."

The evidence entered in support of this claim ranges from the feeble – he uses technology to create wonder! – to the hilariously inapt. My two favourite examples of the latter are these: (1) "Lucas's spectacular aerial battles, which became increasingly complex with each film, must be regarded as significant works of modern kinetic art whose ancestry is in Marcel Duchamp's readymades and Alexander Calder's mobiles." Srsly? Well, I guess there has to be some value in those scenes, which are notable for their confusion and lack of plausible air-combat tactics.

And (2): The light-sabre battle between Anakin Skywalker (the stone-faced Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) "is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping." Srsly? McGregor may have been tearing up, but it wasn't from emotion; it was because he had to keep Force-jumping around the volcanic stream like a demented jack-in-the-box.

Just so I won't be accused of piling on, I say nothing, here, of Jar Jar Binks, who single-handedly ruined Episodes I through III for those of us reared on the original Luke-centric trilogy.

The real problem is that this sort of fancy-pants populism invites self-defeat. Paglia tells us in the introduction that the book was inspired by the experience of listening to right-wing talk radio and her resulting "dismay at the open animosity toward art and artists" she heard there. "Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization," she insists, after some scattershot denunciations of Philistines and Marxist academics. "[I]t is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die."

Absolutely! But believe me, you won't get Rush Limbaugh, or anybody else, into the art world by wittering on about George Lucas-meets-Alexander Calder. Nor, for that matter, will Paglia's penchant for seeing sex in everything play well in the Republican high country. If she is to be believed, pretty much every work of art since ancient Egypt has been about penises, vaginas and how ever the twain shall meet.

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I, for one, am prepared to believe it. But even if you aren't, the 28 short chapters between the rather tiresome introduction and the silly Lucas conclusion make for riveting reading. Individual works of sculpture, painting, architecture, performance and land-based art all get their due in warm, intelligent discussions. Beautiful coated-paper reproductions of the works anchor her close viewer's attention, which is subtle, penetrating and sometimes funny.

Yes, there are penises galore, some hidden, some very large and in plain view. Discussing Agnolo Bronzino's mannerist masterpiece, Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune (c. 1530), she argues that the artist manages to evade the art world's "nagging doubt about the dignity of the penis." How? By "treating Doria's entire body, from his planted thigh, veiny forearms, and brawny shoulders to his hard brow and pouched eyes, as a tumescent column of sheer willpower."

There is also revelatory comparison. Paglia acknowledges that Caspar David Friedrich's sublime Sea of Ice (1823) "may have looked like a dull mess to Friedrich's contemporaries," but "its bold lines and angular vectors seem familiar to our eyes because of modern architecture – the stainless-steel spires of art deco skyscrapers or the cantilevered concrete slabs of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater."

The choice of works offers a nice balance between the canonical (Titian, Monet, Manet, Picasso) and the somewhat unexpected (Tamara de Lempicka, George Grosz, Eleanor Antin). There is insight in every one of these miniature studies, along with an accurate, if somewhat pedantic, running history of art in the Western world.

I imagine this book will be scorned by academic art historians, Marxist or otherwise, for its many unquestioned assumptions about truth, spirituality and beauty – not to mention its glib narrative of influence, style and school. But so what? If it is not quite the "handy, manageable book" for general readers she hoped to produce, it is an idiosyncratic and oddly charming introduction to the experience of art.

"The format of this book is based on Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints," Paglia tells us in the introduction. Accept it, then, as what it is: a strange gift from a true believer, whose obvious love is almost enough to counter her twitchy fanaticism. Almost.

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Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto; his most recent book is the essay collection Unruly Voices.

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