Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to “Star Wars” by Camille Paglia. New York: Pantheon Books. Illustrated, 202 pages. $30
One would hope that the introduction to a book that offers the reader a “journey through art” would first provide some roadmap of what route the author aims to take, some methodology for her wayfinding through the art landscape’s vast expanse. But in her newest book, Glittering Images, professor Camille Paglia (author of the well-received Sexual Personae, Break, Blow, Burn) uses the introduction not to hone in on a thesis but rather to make freewheeling, provocative proclamations on the state of several facets of civilization. Art: “Nothing is more hackneyed than the liberal dogma that shock value confers automatic importance on an artwork.” Politics: “Despite their trumpet call for a return of education to the western canon, [conservatives] have behaved like provincial philistines when it comes to the visual arts.” Religion: “While evil has sometimes been done in its name, religion has been an enormously civilizing force in world history.” And near the end comes perhaps the boldest assertion of them all: that the “world’s greatest living artist” is none other than Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas. The reader stumbles out of the introduction stimulated and slightly stunned, but still generally confused.
But for all the enjoyable bluster of the opening section, what is presented here is far from recondite. Paglia has assembled, with an emphasis on accessibility, something resembling an art history survey course (a former collegiate staple the demise of which she laments) that highlights pieces that she thinks are particularly interesting or emblematic of a specific idea, in order to show man’s changing relationship with art over time. There is not much else in terms of a unifying force other than that general concept, and so she is free to show the reader around with an enthusiasm bordering on aimlessness, like a passionate curator giving an after-hours tour of her museum to friends. This may seem like a recipe for sloppiness, but actually works to the book’s credit, as the lack of constraint allows Paglia the freedom to cross genres, mediums and analytical modes with ease, fully displaying her considerable intellect and wit.
The book contains twenty-nine chapters, each highlighting a different art-object, be it a painting, sculpture, structure, illuminated manuscript, cartoon or avant-garde installation. She begins in the ancient world, with Egyptian tomb paintings of Queen Nefertari, the mysterious figurine idols found in the Cyclades Islands and the stern bronze Charioteer of Delphi, among others. After a brief medieval interlude and a chapter on the Book of Kells, she hits the Renaissance in stride, discussing works by Donatello, Titian, Bronzino and Bernini.
Once she reaches Jacques-Louis David’s 1792 The Death of Marat, though, things really take off. It is around this point in history that the artistic and the political began to interact and influence each other in a way that more closely resembles the by-turns contentious and symbiotic manner that we are familiar with today. Paglia’s is a political mind; it is clear that she believes in the power of art to motivate and to effect change in the world. Although her standard artistic analysis and evaluation of each piece is astute, she saves much more relish for the stripping of a piece down to its political causal mover. What was the artist actually trying to do with this piece, her criticism asks. What idea were they employing their virtuosity in the service of ?
This is the lens through which she views her art survey course as it moves into the bloodletting and Depression in Europe. She says about George Grosz’s stark ink drawing Life Makes You Happy!: “The barred basement, its iron rods parodying the cross, shows there is no social mobility, no access to the ladder of success.” She hops across the pond in time to catch the explosion of the prestige of American art beginning with Jackson Pollock, through Andy Warhol and installation artists Eleanor Antin (100 Boots) and Walter De Maria (The Lightning Field). Much like her mind, her prose is most comfortable, and electrifying, in a modernist idiom. She writes about Pollock: “His drip paintings have panoramic reach. They are a heaving primal landscape into which humans have not been born, and yet they project the infinite vistas of warpspeed time travel, the new frontier of the space age.” Here, then, is a good metaphor for the project of the book: simultaneously looking back into the primal and forward into the astral, all tied together with art wrought by human hands.
And then, finally nearing the end of history, we come to the final chapter, the one that will expound on how George Lucas is the greatest artist alive today. The claim is so audacious that it is slightly unclear just how serious the reader is meant to take it. Could a lauded professor of art possibly be so down on contemporary artists working in traditional mediums? But she makes a good-faith argument, and so deserves a good faith response. The way that the spacefighters twirl and dance during the eight-minute set-piece battle that opens 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, for instance, is described with the full weight of her artistic sensibility: “The battle… cuts optical pathways that are as graceful and abstract as the weightless skeins in a drip painting by Jackson Pollock…and must be regarded as significant works of modern kinetic art whose ancestry is in Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Alexander Calder’s Mobiles.”
Perhaps we can factor out the obvious issue presented by the collaborative nature of filmmaking; to praise George Lucas is really to praise a massive team of designers, effects specialists and other artists. But since it is Lucas’s vision and he has final say, let us suppose that it is not inappropriate to laud him alone, in the interest of time and simplicity. But the bigger problem here is that, despite all of his ability to impress visually, surely we must rate filmmakers on the artistic feeling that their film imparts, taking into account plot, character and the human resonance that makes art art, rather than merely the virtuosity of the image on screen. On this count, the Star Wars films can be quite lacking, the three prequels especially. Lucas, after all, has shown near hostility to anything that is not a special effect. Paglia herself quotes him on the matter of plot and dialogue: “I’m not really interested in plots,” and “To me, the script is just a sketchbook, just a list of notes.” Surely, the greatest living artist should take under consideration all the aspects of his art.
Better for an art book to take a bold stand, though, than to reheat staid analysis that could be found elsewhere. Glittering Images is good fun throughout, offering a wealth of information to enrich the reader’s knowledge of art history, and enough argumentation to give him a good rhetorical workout. Paglia knows what the art world needs and is ready to provide it in spades: enthusiasm.