Sunday, December 30, 2012

Glittering Images

by Drew Martin
Last night I finished reading Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. I was disappointed with it as the book I thought I was going to read, when I first sat down with it a couple days ago, but many parts are insightful and worth reading.

Unfortunately, Paglia misses her mark from the very beginning. In the introduction, she writes “This book is an attempt to reach a general audience for whom art is not a daily presence.” But she precedes this with a discussion on post-structuralism, the Frankfurt school, and Marxism. Is the introduction for a different audience? It reads partly as an apologetic disclaimer.

There are many things that Paglia writes that just seem off, such as the overly protective, “children above all deserve rescue from the torrential stream of flickering images,” to the demotion “Artists are craftsmen, closer to carpenters and welders than they are to intellectuals…”

Paglia mentions her doctorate from Yale University in English Literature and then in the same breath makes a wincing grammatical error: “My thinking about art was impacted by an early attraction to archaeology.”

I get that she set out to write a book for a general audience but there are comments that make me wonder if she thinks these readers have been stuck in a cave for the past two decades. She makes an effort to explain that, IKEA is a Swedish firm, and that Photoshop is the image-processing software first marketed by Adobe Systems in 1990. The most awkward comes half of a paragraph later…."In African-American slang, “chillin” means relaxing.”

There are cultural fumbles that someone from her generation and literary background should not make. She refers to On the Road as “Kerouac’s hitchhiking book.”

There are also some misleading entries. She writes that the performance artist Stelarc “had a human ear surgically attached to the inside of his left arm.” The addition was a prosthetic designed to look like an ear, which was cultivated from human cells. It was not a grafted human ear.

Midway through the book I was wondering if my discomfort with many things was just me or if others were having trouble following Paglia. I read John Adams’ December 2 review of Glittering Images for The New York Times. He was not kind.

Any book that encourages us to read more closely and to look more imaginatively has to be a good thing, but "Glittering Images" is so agenda-driven and so riddled with polemical asides that its potential to persuade is forever being compromised.

Why "Glittering Images" would confine itself almost exclusively to Europe and North America is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. How can any serious survey published in 2012 slight the testament of the human condition as expressed in artworks from the world's other civilizations?

The book is full of similar noisy art-historical proclamations that are better suited to the blogosphere than to a cogent historical survey that hopes to expose its readers, and particularly young readers, to the immensity and subtlety of artistic creation.

He basically tears Paglia apart. Click here to read the entire review.

I agree with almost all of Adams' criticism but in fairness to Paglia, I am not sure how thoroughly Adams read Glittering Images. Most of his comments come from what appear to have been a skimming of the book, pausing briefly on the images. He complains:

Such cultural tunnel vision is only made worse by her passing over two millenniums of European art without including a single representation of Christ. Paglia seems distinctly uncomfortable with this most archetypal of all images in Western art…

I was actually worried there would be too much of a Catholic angle because Paglia explains in her introduction, "I have tried to chart the history and styles of Western art as succinctly and accessibly as possible. The format of the book is based on Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints." She writes about “art-laden Roman Catholicism” vs. the Protestant history of iconoclasm. And she is quick to bring up issues with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary.

The first few chapters focus on art's ties to Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods, as well as Cycladic idols, but these are followed by a full chapter on the ninth century mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom in the Hagia Sophia “the name refers to Christ as God’s “holy wisdom.

Then there is an entire chapter on The Book of Kells. Paglia writes, "The most splendid page of the Book of Kells is the Chi-Rho (shown in the beginning of that section). These two Greek letters (XP) attached to the Latin text are a conventional abbreviation of Christ’s name, here appearing at the start of the Christmas story in the Gospel of Saint Matthew."

This is followed by a chapter on Donatello’s Mary Magadelene. She even shows a picture of the Vatican for Christ’s sake in another chapter on Bernini’s Chair of Saint Peter, in which she writes, “…Bernini’s chair celebrates the power of the Roman church triumphant.”

Paglia is smart to not show the obvious images that Adams misses because she uses this as a way to speak about artists and works that are important to her, such as Renée Cox and her Yo Mama’s Last Supper, “a recasting of Leonardo da Vinci’s Lass Supper with black apostles (except for a white Judas) and Cox herself presiding as a nude, female Jesus.”

Representation of Christ was of little interest to me in this book and was not something I took note of before reading Adam’s attack, but to set the record straight, Paglia is continuously in touch with what he says she is divorced from. On the chapters on Jacques-Louis David and The Death of Marat, she concludes, "David’s beatific treatment of Marat’s body recalls Italian paintings of the dead Christ being laid in his tomb."

Adams also must have flown by the chapter on Georg Grosz. The full-page image Life Makes You Happy! includes a crucifix, of which she writes, "But the crucifix is awry: Jesus looks like a prisoner, roped arms dangling like broken wings. His message of compassion and ministry to the poor has been forgotten."

As for Adams’ complaint that her “stubborn omission is exacerbated by her preferring to empower second-tier artists (or worse) like Magritte, John Wesley Hardrick and the Art Deco celebrity portraitist Tamara de Lempicka,” Paglia explains her choices. Of René Magritte, she writes,

“Thus Magritte, even if he lacks name recognition, is probably the modern artist most known to and embraced by the general public. His painting The False Mirror showing blue sky through the pupil (iris, actually) of a large eye became the logo of the CBS television network.”

This is the kind of connection I was expecting (and hoping) to be made throughout Glittering Images. There are more:

Fluxus made its debut with satiric “concerts” featuring the destruction of a piano or violin, an iconoclasm inspired by Gustav Metzger’s 1959 manifesto, “Auto-Destructive Art,” which attacked the artwork as precious object. This sedition was absorbed into rock music by Peter Townshend, whose smashing of guitars with The Who was inspired by seeing Metzger lecture at a London art school in 1962.

(Caspar David) Friedrich has come to be recognized as a prophet of modernism, with its themes of loneliness and desolation. Rescued from near-total obscurity in the early twentieth century, he would have far-reaching impact – on the Surrealist painter René Magritte, for example, and the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who declared the staging of Waiting for Godot was inspired by Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon, with its blasted tree on a dim mountain crag…Though The Sea of Ice may have looked like a dull mess to Friedrich’s contemporaries, 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.

(Claude Monet’s) sequences of a single subject – grain stacks, poplars, the façade of the Rouen Cathedral – at different seasons and times of day…anticipated serial repetition by modern artists such as Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol…Monet’s mural-sized water-lily canvases (up to forty-two feet long) prefigure Jackson Pollock’s “all-over” paintings. Furthermore, the circular housing designed by Monet for his water-lily pictures – wraparound galleries in the windowless basement of the Orangerie in Paris – looked forward to installation and environment art of the 1960s.

Thus Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon densely embodies a procession of styles in Western art, read from left to right: antiquity through the Renaissance to modernity, which Picasso shows transformed by the abrupt arrival of non-Western cultures, represented by scarified tribal masks from Africa and Oceania.

I also liked many of her asides, which shared information that I had not read before. Regarding Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon she explains, “Picasso did not coin it, and he disliked it. He simply called the painting “mon bordel” (my brothel)."

I also did not know too much about Piet Mondrian. “The artist is asexual,” he wrote, a “spiritual hermaphrodite”: “The man-artist is female and male at the same time; therefore he does not need a woman.” I especially appreciated her insight that "…he achieved one of the great breakthroughs of modern art – balanced asymmetry, which he identified with freedom."

I think Paglia had a nice sub-theme about fashion, which could even direct the flow of this kind personal approach to art. Three examples include:

The Charioteer’s tunic…is pleated chiton in the Ionian style….and the skirt falls in fluted grooves like an Ionic column.

His (Anthony Van Dyck) minute attentiveness to clothing can be traced to his childhood: both his father and grandfather had been prosperous Flemish fabric merchants, while his mother was renowned for her fine embroidery.

Fashion for him (Édouard Manet) was not superficial ornamentation but a sensitive barometer of cultural change.

Although the inclusion of Tamara de Lempicka and John Wesley Hardrick do seem out of place, I am really glad Paglia included them, along with Renée Cox. Returning to the shelved books of art history and inserting overlooked/too often dismissed female and African American artists is necessary. But I am with John Adams regarding her final chapter. Paglia’s considering George Lucas as the greatest artist of our time is almost laughable. I do appreciate her comment about his taking film from the world of photography into a world of painting but there is not much in his work beyond the entertainment industry.

Pictured here, Porch of the Maidens, Anthony van Dyck, Jacques-Louis David, George Grosz, Piet Mondrian.