Rat-a-tat-tat … rat-a-tat-tat.
That's the sound of a machine gun in action. (Or so the comic books would have us believe.) It's also what comes to mind when Camille Paglia, self-described "warrior," starts firing away – not with bullets, blessedly, but words. While there's nothing new about the rapidity of her verbosity – it's been a Paglia trademark since the "bizarre" (her adjective) international success of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson 22 years ago – to actually be on the receiving end of that air-shredding spew, as I was recently, is an unforgettable experience.
Start with a question – mine was: "Do you think painting is done for – or do you believe it can recover the 'primacy and authority' you say it once had?" – and 15 minutes later she's still answering it. That, or she's already answered it ("One has no idea if painting will ever revive. Sometimes you can have modes and styles disappearing and coming back. But sometimes forms just die completely") – but her unstoppable mind has taken her to twists and turns of observation, opinion, assertion and argument far beyond the original query.
And yet, hard as it may be to believe, Paglia appears to have mellowed. During her visit to Toronto – to promote her latest and sixth book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars – one actually could get a word in edge-wise and nudge her arias and arabesques this way and that. The hands still gesticulate, the neck jerks, the body swivels, the brown eyes continue to blaze, the eyelids going into trance-like flutters – but during our time together at least one never sensed she was about to launch herself across the table or pile on the vitriol or storm from the room in exasperation, calling you, as she once did of a British writer, "the worst popinjay of a reporter I've ever met." No, she was forceful more than ferocious, friendly, fragile even. Maybe this is what happens when you're 65, secure in your celebrity, eligible for Medicare and the active co-parent of a 10-year-old son (as Paglia is with the birth mother, her former co-vivant, artist/curator Alison Maddex).
Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984, started writing and assembling Glittering Images five years ago. Irked by the cultural philistinism of American conservatives, the insularity and jargon-heavy cynicism of the art establishment and the lack of art education in schools, she felt the time was ripe for an art survey targeted to the general reader. Art for Paglia is no luxury, it's a necessity: Indeed, "the only road to freedom is self-education in art." As she saw it, Glittering Images would be structured from past to present, in short chapters focused on a specific art style or period and would highlight a single artist and a representative work, reproduced in full colour. Format-wise, the book would be an homage to the "Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints" that were a staple of Paglia's childhood.
Paglia admits she grew anxious as she proceeded, wondering if she was "completely out of synch with the times, trying to write an art book in the age of Kindle. Was I out of my mind?" Her publisher, Pantheon, eventually allayed her fears by deciding Glittering Images would be an objet d'art in its own right, "serene and contemplative," printed in hardcover on glossy paper. Priced at $34, it's hardly the inexpensive survey she envisaged being read on the subway. Still, she's happy with what she calls its "intent to seduce" and content to think that its paperback version, likely due next fall, "will fulfill the original vision."
To date reviews of Glittering Images, with its predictably Paglian mix of the expected (Donatello, Picasso, Monet, Titian, David) and the idiosyncratic (art deco star/Madonna favourite Tamara de Lempicka, African-American portraitist John W. Hardrick, conceptualist Eleanor Antin), have been largely positive. But fans and foes alike have raised eyebrows at the book's final chapter, an 11-page celebration of George Lucas as "the greatest artist of our time" and the conclusion of his Revenge of the Sith (2005) as something to rival "the power of a Puccini opera" and "the spectacle" of J.M.W. Turner's The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835).
Paglia insists this choice wasn't an act of impish perversity. "I had no intention whatever of using a movie or anything from popular culture [to conclude the book]; I intended to find some strong example of contemporary art. After all, there is good contemporary art. But," she says, "there was nothing, nothing I could find that had the power of the work that preceded it." Indeed, "in the last 30 years, I can't find anything as powerful as that half-hour finale." Lucas's ascent arose organically: "I kept on seeing these Star Wars films on TV while writing the book and coming into them, by chance, in the middle of my story-line, allows you to suddenly notice visual elements that would not be that apparent if you're just watching the movie . . . Slowly but steadily I fell under the spell of this grand finale of Revenge of the Sith."
Paglia knows her championing of Lucas has provoked jeers and sneers ("I don't like Jar-Jar Binks either," she admits) but she doesn't care. Calling Lucas a "purveyor of children's entertainment" is no put-down to her because "this is what will give ambition in the arts; this will make young children aspire to make a big statement, not what's marketed today and overpraised in the contemporary art market."
"What I'm going to make fashionable again is enthusiasm . . . to be able to express passion for art," she declares. "As an Italian-American, the fact I'm a warrior, I can do this."