Camille Paglia's willingness to go out on a limb with her artistic opinions makes 'Glittering Images' a lively read.
By Stefan Beck, for The Barnes and Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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In 1817, a Frenchman abroad in Italy found himself at Florence's Church of Santa Croce. There he made the acquaintance of a friar and, he later wrote, "begged him to unlock for me the chapel in the north-east corner of the church, where are preserved the frescoes of Volterrano. He introduced me to the place, then left me to my own devices." What happened next is recorded in the annals of both literature and psychiatric medicine. "Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I could perceive its very essence close at hand…. As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart…and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground."
Stendhal syndrome, named for the famous Frenchman who described it in his travelogue "Rome, Naples, et Florence," affects relatively few museum patrons (that it's even a genuine phenomenon is far from settled), but one can easily imagine Camille Paglia among their number. In the 29 brief essays of Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to "Star Wars," Paglia engages great works of art in a state of controlled, hyper-articulate ecstasy. The reader, following her to vertiginous heights of appreciation, feels at times like asking if she could use a paper bag to breathe into.
Paglia's fans will recognize "Glittering Images" as a companion volume to 2005's "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads 43 of the World's Best Poems." Both books seek to teach a general audience how to love the arts and to be intellectually and spiritually enlarged by them. "Modern life is a sea of images," she writes in the introduction to "Glittering Images," deploring such distractions as television, video games, and smartphones. "We must relearn how to see. Amid so much jittery visual clutter, it is crucial to find focus, the basis of stability, identity, and life direction." We must, she says, "present the eye with opportunities for steady perception."
Paglia is writing for students, who, she feels, have been cheated out of adequate exposure to art and art history. The reasons are legion, and some are woven into America's historical fabric. America's cultural patrimony is thinner, of course, than older nations'. Its isolation from avant-garde artistic movements in Europe not only slowed its artistic development but also left it contemptuous or dismissive when finally confronted by the 1913 Armory Show. As a consequence, the country has struggled with an impulse to look at art like the archetypal Hawaiian-shirted tourist: "My ... kid could do that."
As for the kids themselves, Paglia notes that "[f]rom preschool on, art is treated as therapeutic praxis … to unleash kids' hidden creativity." What she prescribes instead is, on the one hand, rigorous study of facts – the names of great artists, movements, styles, works – and, on the other hand, an energetic discussion of the most important question: "What lasts, and why?" She has no tolerance for reductive or anemic approaches to art history, taking aim at critical theory, Marxism, and multiculturalism. The reader is warned of the art world's mindless reliance on shock value and its reflexive hostility to religion. (It wouldn't be a Paglia book without a confession of atheism followed immediately by a robust defense of the splendors of world religion and its artistic heritage.)