Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Glittering Images by Camille Paglia

History shows that, for both individuals and nations, political power is transient.  America's true legacy is its ideal of liberty, which has inspired insurgencies around the world.  Politicians and partisans of both the Right and the Left must recognize that art too is a voice of liberty, requiring nurture without intrusion.  Art unites the spiritual and material realms.  In an age of alluring, magical machines, a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.

Camille Paglia's art book Glittering Images is remarkably unremarkable.  I don't mean that as a judgement on the book's quality, but a question about its purpose.  What, exactly, is this book meant to do and for whom?  It is easy enough to tell from flipping through its pages that there is no real guiding theme to the double-handful of artworks Paglia chooses to discuss, and if you were to assume that the only real criterion for inclusion is that Paglia really likes each one, you'd be about half right.  Paglia likes to position herself as an outsider to the critical establishment, but it's a special class of people who can publish things merely because they like them.

What Paglia wants to do is reintroduce art to a culture that is drifting away from it, and thus drifting away from itself.  Art, Paglia says, has been caught in a "political cross-fire" between Leftists who rush to defend mediocre shock art like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," which ignited a firestorm of in the 1990's, and Rightists who believe that "the art world is a sterile dead zone of elitist snobs and that artists are pretentious parasites and con men."  But Glittering Images is too slim to present itself as a primer for the art novice, who probably wouldn't look to someone like Paglia for such an artifact in the first place.  Yet, insofar as it manages to be accessible and readable yet still serious and thoughtful about art, it marks a step in the right direction.

Each work is representative of a period or style Paglia deems significant, and the format "is based on Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints."  In this sense form follows function, since one of Paglia's central (and strongest) points is that a diminishing religious tradition is one of the culprits of art's endangerment.  Some of the works are quite well known, but most are not, and in one case, Paglia reproduces a little known portrait by African-American artist John Wesley Hardrick:

Always attuned to the rich palette of black skin, Hardrick appreciatively streaks Xenia's shapely, bare arms and shoulders with tawny, caramel tints--fashionable "high yellow."  The aura around her head, achieved with confident, choppy strokes, captures her aspirations and creative hunches, a scintillating burst of gingery gold.  This is a woman who knows the world and feels at home in it.

Glittering Images would be a worthwhile effort if all it did was bring that little known but wonderful painting a larger audience.  (A Google search for it before the book's publication probably would have been useless!)  Similarly, I find Paglia's commentary most fascinating when it champions the forgotten, such as the maligned Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka or Eleanor Antin's "100 Boots":

As a work of Conceptual art, 100 Boots consisted of temporary on-site sculptural installations documented by photographs (taken by Philip Steinmetz), which were sent uninvited to a distant, dispersed audience.  The formal, squadron-like patterns assumed by the boots parody the frigid geometries then being made my Minimalist sculptors... Antin strategically varied the look of the cards so that "seductively beautiful" images were not he rule.  Most of them have the bleak desolation reminiscent of existential European art films.

The random mailing of the photographs is what elevates "100 Boots" beyond a mere gimmick.  What must those who received these pictures in the mail have thought?  It must have been as if you had received a postcard from old friends, but old friends you can't remember and don't recognize; in fact, you don't recognize them because they don't seem to have any appearance at all.  And when that incorporeality is juxtaposed with their martial dress and arrangement, isn't there something menacing about it, now that you think about it?

I think Paglia is less successful when she treads common ground.  Her pieces on David's "Death of Marat" and Mondrian's "Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow" made me look at those works in new ways, but I got very little out of her explications of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Jackson Pollock.  Too much of the book is taken up by rote history and social context, but every now and then thoughts burst through that expose the bloodlessness of most academic criticism:

...Mondrian's floating, weightless images vibrate with an internal drama.  Do his black lines define and limit his colors?  Or is color, like a divine spark, an autonomous form pushing its way toward life?

Paglia ends with a chapter on the man she believes to be the greatest living artist: George Lucas.  Her evidence for this is, even stranger, the volcano planet fight scene from The Lord of the Sith.  I knew she believed this before I picked up the book; it's half the reason that I wanted to read it.  But Paglia's connective, impassioned way of thinking and writing does not lend itself to persuasion and I found myself disappointed in the argument it presents.  Although, any book that compares the volcano planet of Mustafar to "J. M. W. Turner's eyewitness painting of the catastrophic burning of the British Houses of Parliament in 1834" earns points for sheer chutzpah.

Is this part of Paglia's attempt to convince us that great artists are still among us?  Or does the idea of George Lucas as the world's greatest living artist meant to bolster the argument that art is in dire straits?

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