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Glittering Images

Camille Paglia's willingness to go out on a limb with her artistic opinions makes 'Glittering Images' a lively read.

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These arguments will be familiar to readers of her previous work. There isn't an adult reader alive who wishes there were more to read about Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" exhibition. But it is Paglia's sincere hope to reach younger readers or readers who are largely ignorant of the state of the art world. The earlier one gains a healthy skepticism of bad art, or an immunity to faux-sophistication and critical gibberish, the better. In any case, Paglia does not stop at deriding vacuous shock art; she also mocks prudish conservatives who let themselves be baited by it and who have been "equally guilty of sins against culture," from old-world Protestant iconoclasm to contemporary Evangelical squeamishness about the nude.
 
Will young people actually pick up "Glittering Images"? Paglia has improved the odds by getting "Egypt" and "Star Wars" on the cover, but it is her prose, jargon-free, muscular, and fearlessly opinionated, that ought to grab readers of any age. Once pulled into the Grand Foyer for her tour through the centuries, the reader is in complete thrall to the masterpieces on view. Paglia opens with an essay about the murals of Nefertari's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Queens, and right out of the gate – make that grave – her interdisciplinary command of history, archaeology, and even cinema is evident. The legacy of the Greeks is represented not only by their most lifelike bronze and stone statuary – "The Charioteer of Delphi, Laocoön and His Sons," and the caryatids of the Erechtheion -- but also by the more stylized and mysterious Cycladic figurines.

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Art history buffs may well sigh that many of Paglia's selections are predictable, but there is nothing in "Glittering Images" as iconic or commercially abused as, say, "The Scream" or "The Starry Night." David's "Death of Marat," the pick closest to belonging in that category, gets a treatment pleasingly situated between college textbook and Grand Guignol: "Because of his 'leprous' skin condition (probably arthritic psoriasis)," Paglia writes, "Marat worked and wrote while bathing his emaciated body in suflur salts, a vinegar-steeped rag (to sooth the fiery itching) wrapping his head." Monet's "Irises" becomes an occasion to teach the reader about impasto -- and thus the importance of seeing a work of art in person and not as a reproduction under Plexiglass in someone's bathroom.

"Glittering Images" is a chronological tour, but for the reader with a little background there is no compelling reason to proceed through the rooms in order. One may wish to head straight for the surprises, the unknown quantities – like the African-American painter John Wesley Hardrick, who worked in Midwestern isolation and whose "Xenia Goodloe" is an expressive portrait, glowing with personality, of "a woman who knows the world and feels at home in it." Paglia, who writes movingly of the "Book of Kells," Donatello's "Mary Magdalene," and Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," seems just as comfortable with the challenge of justifying Mondrian, Pollock, and Walter De Maria to Middle America.

Best of all, Paglia goes too far. She concludes "Glittering Images" by calling George Lucas the greatest artist of our time. She makes this claim on the strength of a scene from "Revenge of the Sith," the final film of the Star Wars franchise, which The New Yorker's Anthony Lane memorably allowed was preferable to the previous two "in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion." All the same, anyone who thinks she's pulling a stunt, making a desperate bid for unconventionality, hasn't read her carefully enough. Paglia's willingness to go wildly wrong is proof of an honesty and enthusiasm that, when wedded to a profound intellect, one can't put a price on.

Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications.

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